Graduation marks a step toward war

Commencement: The Naval Academy awards diplomas to 990 Mids, many of whom will be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

May 29, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Under menacing gray skies, Gen. Richard B. Myers told the graduating class of newly minted officers at the U.S. Naval Academy yesterday that they will be part of a "long-term struggle" in which "the stakes simply couldn't be higher."

"You have a key role to play in a crucial moment of our nation's history," Myers, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the class of 990 midshipmen - many of whom are bound for wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. "I can say with certainty you will have a role in fighting this war on terrorism. You'll go in harm's way. Sacrifice, as you've learned by now, is part of the job description."

In a grave speech peppered with just a few light moments, Myers - the nation's highest ranking military officer and an Air Force command pilot -said the graduating Mids are part of the "next greatest generation," and recalled the U.S. forces who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, nearly 60 years ago.

Myers drew a link to those veterans, who NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw called the "greatest generation" on the eve of the National World War II Memorial's dedication in Washington.

"The invasion succeeded because of leadership - plain and simple," Myers said, adding that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represent "the complex environment where your leadership is needed."

Stark reality

The academy graduated 190 Marines yesterday - the largest number since the Vietnam War. These Marines wore blue uniforms to the ceremony, breaking an age-old tradition of graduating Mids forming a sea of white in the center of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

The Marine Corps-bound midshipmen will likely be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within a year, a stark reality that some said cast a pall over the celebrations.

On the eve of graduation, midshipman Drew Barker said he and several classmates gathered in the academy's chapel to pay tribute to U.S. forces and "hang out for the last time."

"It was kind of somber," said Barker, 22, who will complete a graduate program in engineering before serving in the Navy. "I thought about the fact that it won't be too long before some of my friends go" to war.

Other graduates expressed anxiety and anticipation.

"It's a bittersweet time because I'm leaving all my friends, and they're telling most of us nine months to a year [before deployment to a war zone]," said Jon Landers, 22, who is headed for the Marine Corps. "But someone has to do it, so I just try not to really think about it."

Myers did his part to rally the Mids around the war in Iraq, sharing the content of a letter a Marine wrote to his family. In it, the Marine recounted his experience offering medical aid to residents of a town who cheered him and his comrades. Myers said the young man wrote: "We are making a difference here."

Absent from Myers' address, which his spokesman said he tinkered with until his helicopter landed in Annapolis yesterday morning, was any direct reference to the grim news out of Iraq in recent weeks.

As casualties mount, Myers, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and top military commanders are working toward the June 30 transfer of power to Iraqis. Complicating matters has been the prisoner abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib complex.

On May 7, Myers and Rumsfeld faced intense questioning about the reported abuses from members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Instead, Myers focused yesterday on the larger battle that he said the country faces.

"Terrorists want to destroy our confidence, and with it our way of life," he said. "So there's never been a more important time to serve."

A range of emotions

Because of the overcast skies, the Blue Angels canceled their annual flyby, much to the disappointment of the 20,000 family members and friends of graduates who filled the stadium stands. Many also confessed to experiencing a range of emotions.

Wiping tears from her eyes, Marilyn Light, mother of midshipman James Joshua Light, said she had experienced several bouts of weeping over the past few days.

"I lost it twice while shopping in Giant," said Light, whose son will soon begin training as a naval aviator. "I'm not worried, just incredibly proud. In peacetime or wartime, it's their decision."

"If I could go for him, I would," David Farber said of his son, Adam, who will be a naval aviator. Farber said that after four years at the academy, his son grew from a boy inspired by the film Top Gun to a naval officer with confidence.

When his son accepted his diploma, Farber leapt from his seat to photograph the moment.

"I see a man in him now," a teary-eyed Farber said. "One who is ready to go out and do what has to be done."

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