President Barack Obama told Naval Academy graduates Friday that declining faith in government and other institutions makes it more important than ever that they retain their moral center as they embark on military careers.
As a cold rain fell on the 1,047 graduating midshipmen, the president spoke of the sexual assaults that have plagued the military and made reference to political scandals that have roiled the early months of his second term.
"As we've seen again in recent days, it only takes the misconduct of a few to further erode the people's trust in their government," the president said. "As you go forward in your careers, we need you to carry forth the values that you've learned at this institution because our nation needs them now more than ever."
Obama used a significant portion of his 22-minute address to discuss reports of widespread sexual assault in the military. Congress and the White House have been particularly focused on the issue since the Pentagon estimated this month that up to 26,000 service members were assaulted last year — often with little or no consequences.
"Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong," Obama said, as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus looked on. "That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth."
Gov. Martin O'Malley joined Obama for the academy's 163rd commencement ceremony, which took place with its characteristic military precision at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium despite rainy, windy weather.
Midshipmen marched onto the field in their white and blue dress uniforms as an estimated 36,000 family members and friends took their seats in the stands. Many wore yellow ponchos emblazoned with the words "Go Navy."
The nation's first black commander in chief noted that the graduates represented the most diverse class in academy history, including 206 women, 138 Hispanics, 65 African-Americans and 74 of mixed race or ethnicity.
Seven hundred and sixty-four were commissioned as ensigns in the Navy; 264 were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Marine Corps and three were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Air Force.
Newly minted Ensign Justin Cruz said graduating was "definitely the biggest accomplishment in my life."
"It means a lot now but it's going to mean so much more in the future," said Cruz, a 22-year-old Orlando native who will now head back to Florida for flight training. "People jump on the opportunity to hire a Naval Academy graduate because they know the service that we put in and our time at the academy is not easy."
Obama, who was making his second commencement address at the academy, urged the class to "project power across the oceans" — but acknowledged how significantly the U.S. military's role in the world had changed since his previous address, in 2009.
The president noted that combat operations in Iraq ended in 2010, that a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, and that the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan is winding down.
He vowed to push to ensure that the Navy, the Marine Corps and the other military branches have the pay, weapons and resources they need to carry out their mission despite $42 billion in what he called "foolish" spending cuts the Pentagon is being forced to make under federal budget sequestration.
One of those cuts was particularly noticeable on Friday: The traditional Blue Angels flyover, a highlight of the commencement ceremony, had been canceled months before.
"Let me say as clearly as I can, the United States of America will always maintain our military superiority," Obama said. "I'm going to keep fighting to give the equipment and support required to meet the missions we ask of you."
Obama's speech in Annapolis came a day after he delivered a national security address that signaled a turning point in the war on terrorism — a recognition that, in his words, "this war, like all wars, must end."
The president used the address Thursday to reiterate calls to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba — a move that has been blocked by Congress — and to redefine the circumstances under which drones will be used for targeted killings.
Despite the weighty matters at hand, Obama got off a few lighthearted quips Friday. He joked about absolving "minor conduct offenses" that might have taken place in Annapolis bars.
And he had a crack about the annual climb up the Herndon Monument.
"Now that they've put the grease back on," he said, "no one will ever match your time."
Obama mentioned the controversy over the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups only obliquely, noting that the vast majority of "civil servants do their jobs with professionalism" and that "we've seen how the actions of a few can undermine the integrity of those institutions."
But he said that the military remains the most trusted institution in America.
"I cannot promise you a life of comfort and ease, for you have chosen an ancient path, the profession of arms, which carries all the perils of our modern world," he said.
"But I do know this: As you say farewell to Bancroft Hall, as you make your way down Stribling Walk one last time, you're becoming the newest link in a storied chain."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Class of 2013
Total graduates: 1,047
Navy Ensigns: 764
Marine Corps 2nd Lieutenants: 264
Air Force 2nd Lieutenants: 3
Foreign officers: 16
Hispanics: 36 percent
Blacks: 17 percent
Asians: 11 percent
Multiple races, ethnicities: 14 percent
Source: Naval AcademyCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun