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Biden Addresses Graduates At Coast Guard Academy Commencement

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Andrew Harnik
/
AP Photo
President Joe Biden arrives to speak at the commencement for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

Last year COVID-19 forced the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to hold a virtual commencement. On Wednesday, however, this year’s class graduated in person.

And the ensigns received their commission -- and a handshake -- from President Joe Biden.

Biden acknowledged the pandemic’s impact on the cadets’ education and training, but he said the past year’s challenges leave no doubt the class is ready for what lies ahead in real-world service.

“It certainly looked and felt different, I’m sure,” Biden said, “but you found ways to keep many of the academy’s traditions alive, and maybe even formed a few new ones.”

Distinguished graduate cadet first class Sean Seyller spoke to his classmates about the “unconventional” close to their collegiate careers during his commencement address.

“We went from spending three months at home last March to returning for a 14-day quarantine in June, heading out to the fleet for summer assignments, returning for another quarantine in August, and who would have thought we would be gathered here today after two academic semesters sprinkled with highs, lows and COVID scares?” Seyller said.

Beyond COVID-19, Seyller credited his class of 240 cadets for confronting issues around mental health, social justice and sexual harassment.

“In response to issues in our service, the Cadets Against Sexual Assault and Harassment program, led by first class Etta Davis, began the difficult process of rethinking the culture at the academy to better combat sexual harassment and assault and even helped influence change at the service level,” Seyller said.

Membership in CASA has risen in recent years in response to issues within the Coast Guard.

In 2019, 45% of female Coast Guard cadets surveyed said they were sexually harassed the year prior. The Coast Guard has faced pressure from Congress about how it has investigated reports of bullying and harassment.

At one point, Biden spoke directly to the 82 women in the class to indicate his support for them.

“Every member of our armed forces should feel safe and respected in the ranks,” Biden said. “That’s why my administration is committed to taking on the scourge of sexual assault and harassment in the military.”

The academy responded to a request for comment with a written statement, saying it’s working to foster a climate where all personnel recognize sexual assault as a serious crime.

“The Coast Guard Academy is committed to creating a culture intolerant of sexual assault or behaviors that enable it,” a spokesperson wrote. “The Coast Guard has and continues to go to great lengths to prevent sexual assault.”

Cadets took in the commencement ceremony seated 6 feet apart from one another in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Attendees were screened and only allowed to come if they were vaccinated. No one was required to wear masks, marking the first day in 14 months that Connecticut had no mask mandate.

This address was Biden’s first in front of the graduating class of a military branch since he became president. He did speak to graduating Coast Guard ensigns in 2013 as vice president. He joked about that, bringing up how, as he was praising the Coast Guard’s ability to adapt so rapidly to changing conditions, he said, “This is not your father’s Coast Guard.”

Commandant Karl Schultz’s son Eric was in this year’s graduating class, so Biden followed that up with “I take that back. First class Eric Schultz, this is your father’s Coast Guard.”

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