The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told graduating seniors at the Naval Academy yesterday that they must have the courage to stand up for what is right, even if that means questioning their superiors.
"Don't be afraid to question your seniors," Adm. Michael Mullen told 1,037 graduating midshipmen during a ceremony at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis. "Pose tough questions, especially when you don't think things are going well."
While Mullen made few references to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he told the seniors, "We live in a dangerous time in a very dangerous world."
On the stadium's sun-splashed field, the graduates swore an oath to the United States and jubilantly threw their white hats in the air. As commissioned officers in the Navy or Marine Corps, they will serve at least five years in the military in exchange for the $200,000 education they received at taxpayer expense.
The Class of 2008 entered the academy the year after the country went to war in Iraq, a conflict that, along with the war in Afghanistan, has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. service members. One speaker yesterday read a list of academy graduates who have died in the conflict.
In his introductory remarks for Mullen, Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter told the graduates they were embarking on a "great and worthy endeavor.""You have not chosen a protective shelter from the dangers of war," Winter said. "You serve at a time when terrorists make no secrets of their goals. We must remain strong, and we must fight back."
In interviews yesterday, graduates said they knew when they entered the academy in 2004 that they would likely serve during wartime.
"That's all I want to do," said William C. Spears, a 26-year-old Louisiana native who spent time in the Navy before entering the academy. "Now I finally get to go back."
The graduating class comprised 823 men and 214 women. A fifth were minorities, including 93 Hispanics, 51 African-Americans, 49 Asian-Americans and 17 Native Americans.
Almost all the graduates were commissioned as officers in the Navy and Marine Corps. Most of them - 785 - were commissioned as Navy ensigns, and 233 were commissioned as Marine Corps second lieutenants.
As the graduates sat in folding chairs under a nearly cloudless sky, thousands of family members and fans packed the stadium's stands, many shouting their names during breaks. One person booed when an earlier speaker mentioned Mullen, the only distraction in what was an otherwise festive ceremony.
By tradition, six jets from the Navy's Blue Angels demonstration squadron swooshed over the graduates, who responded by thrusting arms in the air and cheering wildly.
The graduates were celebrating not only a college degree and their commissions, but also the accomplishment of making it through the rigors of the academy, known for its strict rules and lack of freedom.
"It's more than an education. It's an experience," said Dave Parker, 24, of Erie, Pa., who is entering the Navy.
Spears, the Louisiana native, who was commissioned as a Navy ensign, said that during his time at the academy, he had many doubts about his ability to reach yesterday's milestone. "I just figured there were so many ways to slip up," he said, referring to the academy's rigorous academics as well as its strict rules. "I figured I'd fall into one of those holes."
Irvin Spencer, 23, of Cleveland became a Navy ensign and will soon board a ship in Norfolk, Va., to begin training in surface warfare. He said he was at peace with serving in wartime.
Mullen, a 1968 graduate of the academy, told the graduates they had an obligation to defend their country, but also to "defend the rights of others to live free."
He said they were entering the military at a different time from when he did.
"Americans didn't value their military in 1968," Mullen said. "They could not separate their feelings about a war from their feelings about those who served, and thus could not bring themselves to invest adequately in either," Mullen said.
He said the graduates must speak up when they feel the military is going in the wrong direction.
"Few things are more damaging to our democracy than an officer who doesn't have the moral courage to stand up for what is right," Mullen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.