There were more than 1,000 graduates in the United States Naval Academy Class of 2017. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
Promising that the Trump administration would rebuild the military, Vice President Mike Pence told the Naval Academy's graduating class Friday that they should feel confident the commander-in-chief will "have your back" as they set off on a career of service.
"President Donald Trump is the best friend the armed forces of the United States will ever have," Pence said to applause during his commencement address at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "The era of budget cuts of the armed forces of the United States is over."
In a speech focused more on his thoughts on leadership than on politics, the vice president pointed to funding legislation approved this month by Congress that included an increase in defense spending, as well as the administration's plan to boost military funding $54 billion next year.
Pence spoke on a warm, sunny morning for about 20 minutes to the 1,053 graduating midshipmen sitting on the field in their dress uniforms. Their commencement marks the end of four years of academic and military training at the elite school as the midshipmen receive their degrees and commissions as officers.
Absent from the address was the drama that has accompanied other commencement speeches delivered by members of the Trump administration in recent weeks. Some students walked out on Pence during his address at Notre Dame's graduation ceremony last weekend. Trump himself was criticized by some for railing against the news media during his speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut days earlier.
Pence kept his focus on the commitment and sacrifice the graduates were making for their country.
"No matter what path you take, know that your commander-in-chief is proud of you, and so am I, and every American is grateful for you standing tall and stepping forward to serve our nation and protect our people," Pence said.
Graduates enter an uncertain landscape as the U.S. continues operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in an effort to combat ISIS. Through his campaign last year, Trump repeatedly promised to defeat the group. The administration has also grown increasingly concerned about North Korea, where leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up that nation's use of missile tests.
The address Friday drew hearty applause as Pence — a former congressman and governor of Indiana — discussed his own thoughts on service. Those remarks prompted some snickers on social media, given the unusual and controversial first few months of Trump's presidency.
"I truly believe that among the most important qualities of leadership — whether it's in the armed forces or any other endeavor — are humility, orientation to authority, and self-control," Pence said. "Discipline is the foundation of leadership."
Pence's speech at the Naval Academy broke a recent trend in which the last two presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — addressed the class in their first year as president. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a 1958 Naval Academy graduate, spoke at the 1993 commencement during President Bill Clinton's first year in office.
Trump is on his first overseas trip and was meeting Friday in Italy with members of the G7. Those conversations are expected to center on trade and the U.S. commitment to dealing with climate change.
Pence described the budget proposal unveiled this week by the White House as the largest increase in military investment since the Cold War, saying that it "begins to rebuild our Navy" by including funding for eight new ships. That budget, though, has faced a high degree of skepticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill because of the cuts it proposes to nondefense programs.
Trump signed spending legislation to fund the government through the end of September that included a $21 billion increase in defense spending, less than the administration had requested. The proposal includes new money for munitions, Apache attack helicopters and other military equipment.
"The commander-in-chief is once again reaffirming America's role as leader of the free world," said Pence, whose son Michael is a lieutenant in the Marines.
The Class of 2017 includes 768 midshipmen who were commissioned as Navy ensigns and 259 as Marine second lieutenants. A few graduates don't receive commissions for medical reasons or because they are foreign nationals who are returning to their own militaries. Nearly a quarter of the graduating class are women.
The ceremony included the trademark pomp of the academy's commencement, including a thunderous flyover by the Blue Angels, a 19-gun salute and the cap toss.
"I felt like this day would never come," said Arjun Sharma, a 22-year-old ensign from Long Island who now will head to Charleston, S.C., to study nuclear power for six months. "I'm surrounded by great people I've spent time with for the last four years. It's amazing."
Several speakers, including Pence, recalled past graduating classes and the challenges they confronted. Vice Adm. Ted Carter, the Naval Academy superintendent, noted that a century ago, the 186-member Class of 1917 graduated early to serve in World War I. Fifty years later, many in the Class of 1967 would fight in Vietnam.
"Whether engaging in combat or sustaining peace, you are ready to lead, fight and win," Carter said. "The real work starts now."