Military News

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gates Expresses Gratitude to Sailors, Workers During Shipyard Tour

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

May 23, 2009 - It wasn't the enormity of the sections of ship being welded together at Bath Iron Works here that impressed the defense secretary yesterday, but rather those stitching the hulking pieces together and the crews that would man the finished ships. "I'm just really impressed by the professionalism and the pride of the workers that I've seen here at Bath Iron Works," Robert M. Gates said from the fantail of the nearly finished USS Wayne E. Meyer, hull number DDG-108. "This is the first shipyard I've ever visited and you've set the bar pretty high for everybody else."

The military ships built at Bath Iron Works, a General Dynamics company, make a huge difference for the country, he added. Currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are more sailors on land than on ships.

"So the Navy is making a huge contribution to the fight both at sea and on land," Gates said. "I just want to thank you for all you do. Thank you for the quality of the workmanship. Thank you, both in and out of uniform, for your service and your dedication to this cause.

"For those of you who are the workers here at Bath, I know a number of you have served in the military and I want to thank you for that service as well," he added. "Thank you for having such pride in what you do."

The workers will be able to continue to exercise their pride far into the future, the secretary told reporters later. With money in the Fiscal 2010 defense budget, Bath Iron Works will build the third DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer. It's anticipated that after that, the shipyard will return to building DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

Though these ships, both classes, are designed to fight, they'll do much more than that in their lifetimes, including humanitarian work.

"They do a lot of training and helping of our partner countries to improve their own military capabilities. Because ... if they're good we won't have to send out troops if there's a problem," Gate said. "There's a lot of versatility to these ships and I think everybody from the very beginning of the republic has always believed a great Navy is critical to our national security and we have the best."

He said he's suspended decisions on adding to the amphibious fleet until the Quadrennial Defense Review is complete. The QDR analyzes strategic objectives and potential military threats and will provide some answers on how much amphibious capability is needed.

Earlier in the day, the secretary toured the USS Iwo Jima, docked in New York harbor for Fleet Week. Gates had been in the city to accept the 2009 Intrepid Freedom Award at a dinner aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

He then flew to Maine and visited with about 120 sailors who will soon deploy to the U.S. Central Command area of operations and Djibouti. He expressed his gratitude to the sailors for their efforts and posed for a photo with each of them before presenting them with his challenge coin.

Gates Urges West Point Graduates to Become Great Leaders

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

May 23, 2009 - Before 970 cadets took the commissioning oath or "covers" tossed high overhead, graduating West Point cadets heard some praise and sage advice from their future boss. "Consider that the future members of this class would have been filling out your academy applications in the fall of 2004, at about the same time of the second battle of Fallujah," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, during his commencement address to the Military Academy's graduating Class of 2009. "You made your decision to serve knowing not only that America was at war ... but that this war would be bloody, difficult, of indefinite length and uncertain outcome.

"In doing so, you showed courage, commitment, and patriotism of the highest order," he added. The Class of 2009 includes 144 women and 17 foreign cadets, the majority of whom were commissioned as second lieutenants. The foreign cadets, who will return to their nations for service, represent Afghanistan, Belize, Brunei, Bulgaria, Chad, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Maldives, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Tunisia.

Though wars today look little like wars of the past, the principles of soldiering have changed little, said the secretary, a former Air Force lieutenant and CIA officer.

Leadership is still a key component., Gates stressed.

"When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make," he said, offering the graduates the same wisdom he offers new generals. "It is about a leadership quality that is really basic and simple – but so basic and simple that too often it's forgotten – and that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect toward your subordinates.

"Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well – or poorly – he treats those who 'can't talk back,'" he added.

As an example, Gates told of George Washington stopping to help repair a fort after asking the soldier supervising why he wasn't helping.

The supervisor, without recognizing Washington, who was in civilian attire, had informed the general that he was a corporal. To which Washington replied: "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander in chief and I will come and help you again."

Conversely, Washington learned a thing or two about respecting his men as well, Gates said. When he came upon a soldier drinking wine and turned down an invitation to partake he declined, drawing an indignant retort. Washington reconsidered, had a drink with the man and consequently, earned his loyalty.

"Treating soldiers decently also extends to making sure that they, and their families, are properly taken care of – body, mind, and soul," Gate said. "It is the families who often bear the harshest brunt of a soldier's overseas combat tour, particularly when it's a second or even third or forth deployment."

Gates said a second fundamental quality of leadership is integrity, which consists of physical courage – doing the hard right over the easier, more popular wrong – and moral courage.

Moral courage is often harder to find.

"The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers," he said. "To stick out your neck after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into groupthink."

He called upon the example of former Army chief of staff George C. Marshall who had no qualms about telling the likes of Gen. John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing and Franklin Delano Roosevelt things they didn't particularly want to hear. Ultimately, Marshall's integrity and courage were rewarded, which is what should happen in a perfect world, Gates said, adding that sadly this is not always the case.

The moral principles of leadership, he went on, are timeless and apply to any military leader of any generation.

"So do a range of other choices you will face about the leader you aspire to become," he said. "I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, and mental skills – the intellectual attributes, if you will – that will be most needed to be successful as an Army leader."

The United States' military can't succeed in the face of the full-spectrum conflict it faces without military leaders who are just as full-spectrum in their thinking.

"We will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as one might find in a manual – but you should look for those experience and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions," Gates said. "To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider, and in fact embrace, opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end."

Such paths include further study, teaching, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign area specialist, or service in other parts of the government. All of these experiences will make for more successful military leaders in the 21st Century, he said.

As a final thought to the cadets Gates said he considers his own sons and daughters, he offered this: "I believe that only strength, eternal vigilance, and the continuing courage and commitment of warriors like you – and your willingness to serve at all costs – will keep the sacred light of American liberty shining; a beacon to all the world.
"You will shortly take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and we, the American people. The nation stands in awe of you and I salute you."

West Point Class of 2009 a Diverse, Impressive Group

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

May 23, 2009 - Under the grey skies of West Point today, the "Long Grey Line," made up of a diverse and impressive group of graduating cadets, said goodbye to academic studies and turned their sights toward the business of soldiering. Four years ago you dropped your son or daughter off on these grounds with no shortage of pride, as well as anxiety, about the famed rigors of the U.S. Military Academy, about the known dangers that come with the profession of arms at this time. said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who delivered the commencement address.

"That pride was well founded, the anxiety hopefully at least partially relieved," he added. "And I thank you for everything you have done to make them the outstanding young people they are," he added.

Outstanding may be an understatement.

The class includes eight Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars, a Gates Cambridge Scholar, a Rhodes Scholar and two East/West Center Fellows. In addition, 28 members of the graduating class earned recognition as Honor Graduates. The award reflects overall excellence in cadet performance, including academic, military and physical.

This year 50 Superintendent's Awards for Excellence were presented to the cadets in the top 5 percent of the class. Another 150 cadets were earned the Superintendent's Award for Achievement, and 172 received recognition for earning a GPA of 3.67.

The class itself is a picture of diversity.

Of the 970 cadets, 144 are women, 63 African Americans, 62 Asian/Pacific Islanders, 74 Hispanics and 15 Native Americans. The majority of the class, which also includes 17 foreign students, were commissioned second lieutenants.

The 17 students represent Afghanistan, Belize, Brunei, Bulgaria, Chad, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Maldives, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Tunisia, and will return to their nations for service.

These graduating cadets represent 78 percent of the cadets who entered West Point in the fall of 2004.

Gates, who lauded the cadets for their courage, commitment and "patriotism of the highest order," also realized the secondary mission of the day. No matter the caliber of the cadets, the after-commencement party is a key tradition. But there was one important piece of business to take care of first.

"To the graduating class of 2009, congratulations!" he said. "Let me dispense with the easy and fun part first, which is, on behalf of our commander in chief, to grant full amnesty for any minor conduct offenses.

"I will leave the definition of "minor" to the superintendent," he chuckled.

The new soldiers will now move on to their first assignments that will make them a part of every unit from infantry to aviation.

When the ceremony concluded Gates pinned second lieutenant's bars on more than a dozen newly minted Army junior officers.

Defense Secretary Gates' West Point Commencement Address

American Forces Press Service

May 23, 2009 - The full text of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., follows.

"Thank you General Hagenbeck.
"It's an honor to be here to deliver my first commencement at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Many of you might remember the last time I was here I gave a 45 minute evening lecture. Some of you may have even been awake at the end.

"A British nobleman, Lord Birkett, known for his long-windedness, once said: "I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain that they are still going."

"As someone who presided over some 40 commencements as a university president, and who has given a number of graduation speeches since assuming my current post, I am well aware that at this point I am just about the only thing standing between you and a great party.

"In contrast to when I spoke here last year, my remarks today are not about the great and challenging policy issues of the day. Today I want to talk about you, and your families – because when you signed up, you also signed up all those who love you most.

"To the parents: Four years ago you dropped your son or daughter off on these grounds with no shortage of pride, as well as anxiety – about the famed rigors of the U.S. Military Academy, about the known dangers that come with the profession of arms at this time. That pride was well founded, the anxiety hopefully at least partially relieved. And I thank you for everything you have done to make them the outstanding young people they are, and for supporting them on the honorable yet arduous path they have chosen.

"To the faculty: In addition to being scholars and teachers, many of you are also veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and shared those experiences with your students. They will be wiser and better prepared leaders as a result, and I thank you for that.

"To the graduating class of 2009: Congratulations! Let me dispense with the easy and fun part first – which is, on behalf of our commander-in-chief, to grant full amnesty for any minor conduct offenses. I will leave the definition of "minor" to the superintendent.

"Consider that the future members of this class would have been filling out your academy applications in the fall of 2004, at about the time of the second battle of Fallujah – when thousands of Marines and soldiers clawed their way through that city house by house and block by block.

"As the class of 2009, you made your decision to serve knowing not only that America was at war – as did every man or woman who joined the military after September 11th – but that this war would be bloody and difficult, of indefinite length and uncertain outcome. In doing so, you showed courage, commitment, and patriotism of the highest order.

"One of the reasons I look forward to coming back to this bend in the Hudson River is the history of this place – a corner of the continent George Washington once called "the key of America." Just down the road is Verplanck's [vir-PLANKS] Point, a Continental Army encampment at the end of the Revolutionary War.

"It was later recorded that a group of officers got together there and issued a creed. It read: "We believe that there is a Great First Cause by whose Almighty [will] we are formed, and that our business here is to obey the orders of our superiors. We believe that every soldier who does his duty will be happy here, and that every such one who dies in battle, will be happy hereafter. We believe that George Washington is the only fit man in the world to head the American Army ... We believe that Baron Steuben has made us soldiers, and that he is capable of forming the whole world into a solid column, and deploying it from the center ... We believe in General Knox and his artillery. And we believe in our bayonets. Amen."

"Though the tools and tactics have changed, the basic principles of soldiering and leadership have certainly not. Now, this former Air Force lieutenant and CIA officer cannot pretend to offer you advice on soldiering. However, as someone who is now working for his eighth president, I can say that leadership is something that I have observed and thought about for a good long time.

"I've come to believe that few people are born great leaders. When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make. And in the time remaining, I'd like to talk about some of those choices, and how those choices will be shaped by the realities of this dangerous new century.

"I would start with something I tell all the new generals and civilian executives that I meet with at the Pentagon. It is a leadership quality that is really basic and simple – but so basic and simple that too often it is forgotten: and that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect towards your subordinates. Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well – or poorly – he treats those who "can't talk back."

"In this country, going back to its earliest days, the American soldier has been drawn from the ranks of free citizens, which has implications for how those troops should be led and treated.

"Two anecdotes from our country's founding capture the independent thinking of the American soldier and the greatness of the Army officer who led them. During the Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a redoubt being repaired. The commander was shouting orders but not helping. When the rider asked why, the supervisor of the work detail retorted, "Sir, I am a corporal!"

"The stranger apologized, dismounted, and helped repair the redoubt. When he was done, he turned toward the supervisor and said, "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again." Too late, the corporal recognized George Washington. The power of example in leadership.

"On another occasion, Washington was making his rounds and came across a Private John Brantley drinking some stolen wine. Brantley invited Washington to have a drink with him. The general declined, saying, "My boy, you have no time for drinking wine." Brantley responded, "Damn your proud soul – you're above drinking with soldiers."

"Washington turned back, dismounted and said, "Come, I will drink with you." The jug was passed around, and as the general re-mounted, Brantley said, "Now, I'll be damned if I don't spend the last drop of my heart's blood for you." A lesson in the independence of the American soldier and his loyalty, when treated with respect.

"In a novel about ancient Greece, the warrior Alcibiades is asked how to lead free men, and he responds: "By being better and thus commanding their emulation." "How to lead free men? Only by this means: the summoning of each to his nobility."

"Treating soldiers decently also extends to making sure that they – and their families – are properly taken care of – body, mind, and soul. It is the families who often bear the harshest brunt of a soldier's overseas combat tour, particularly when it is a second or even third deployment. And as a small unit leader you must create a climate where those soldiers who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress or other mental illness are willing to step forward and get the help they need and deserve.

"A second fundamental quality of leadership is doing the right thing even when it is the hard thing – in other words, integrity. Too often we read about examples in business and government of leaders who start out with the best of intentions and somehow go astray.

"I've found that more often than not, what gets people in trouble is not the obvious case of malfeasance – taking the big bribe or cheating on the exam. Often it is the less direct, but no less damaging, temptation to look away or pretend something did not happen, or that certain things must be okay because other people are doing them; when deep down, if you look hard enough, you know that's not true. To take that stand – to do the hard right, over the easier, more convenient, or more popular wrong – requires courage.

"Courage comes in different forms. There is the physical courage of the battlefield, which this institution and this army possess beyond measure. Consider the story of Lieutenant Nicholas Eslinger, Class of 2007. He was leading his platoon through Samarra, Iraq, when an enemy fighter threw a grenade in their midst.

"Eslinger jumped on the grenade to shield his men. When the grenade didn't go off, the platoon leader threw it back over the wall. And then it exploded. At the time of this incident, then-Second Lieutenant Eslinger was only 16 months out of West Point. He would later receive the Silver Star.

"But, in addition to battlefield bravery, there is also moral courage, often harder to find. In business, in universities, in the military, in any big institution, there is a heavy emphasis on teamwork. And, in fact, the higher up you go, the stronger the pressure to smooth off the rough edges, paper over problems, close the proverbial ranks and stay on message.

"The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers. To stick your neck out after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into groupthink.

"One of my greatest heroes is George Marshall, whose portrait hangs over my desk at the Pentagon. As I said here last April, Marshall was probably the exemplar of combining unshakeable loyalty with having the courage and integrity to tell superiors things they didn't want to hear – from "Black Jack" Pershing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"As it turns out, Marshall's integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally. In a perfect world, that should always happen. Sadly, it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk. But that does not make taking that stand any less necessary for the sake of our Army and our country.

"The moral principles of leadership I've just discussed are timeless – they apply to any military leader in any generation. So do a range of other choices you will face about the leader you aspire to become. I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, and mental skills – the intellectual attributes, if you will – that will be most needed to be successful as an Army leader in the 21st century.

"It has always been one of the hallmarks of the U.S. military to push decision making down to the lowest possible level. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on our junior- and mid-level combat leaders to make judgments – tactical, strategic, cultural, ethical – of the kind that much more senior commanders would have made a generation ago.


"The Army has always needed agile and adaptive leaders with a broad perspective and range of skills. Now, in an era where we face a full spectrum of conflict – where high-intensity combat, stability, train-and-equip, humanitarian, and high-end conventional operations may be occurring in rapid sequence or simultaneously – we cannot succeed without military leaders who are just as full spectrum in their thinking.

"We will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as one might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.

"Maxwell Taylor – who was an Asia specialist in the 1930s before becoming the famed commander of the 101st Airborne Division and later Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs – once observed of his fellow academy grads that, "The 'goats' of my acquaintance who have leapfrogged their classmates are men who continue their intellectual growth after graduation."

"To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider, and in fact embrace, opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end. Those might include further study at graduate school, teaching at this or another first-rate educational institution, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign area specialist, or service in other parts of government – all being experiences that will make you a more successful military leader in the 21st century.

"In 1974, when I left the CIA mother ship to take a staff job at the National Security Council, I was told by my boss at Langley that there probably would not be a job there for me when I returned. My career as a CIA officer was considered over. So you never know when taking some risk in your career will pay significant future dividends.
It is important to remember that none of what I have talked about these past few minutes is alien to the best traditions of Army leadership – particularly at times of great peril for this country:

• Grant and Sherman were not exactly spit and polish soldiers – and in fact left the military for a stretch before they returned to lead the Union Army to victory.

• George Marshall spent 15 years as a lieutenant and never commanded a division; and

• Eisenhower spent years toiling in obscurity as what General MacArthur later called a "clerk" in the Philippines.

"Just over a half century ago, no less an Army institution than General Eisenhower said here at West Point: "Without the yeast of pioneers, the United States Army, or any other organization of men" – and today we would add women – "cannot escape degeneration into a ritualistic worship of the status quo." Keep Ike's admonition in mind in the years ahead – be a pioneer in the assignments you take, the learning you pursue, the assumptions you question.

"Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, reflecting on his service as a Union soldier during the Civil War, later said that "in our youth our hearts were touched with fire." I hope that as a result of coming to this place, in the instruction you have received, and in the friendships you have formed, that your hearts, minds, and spirits have been touched in a way that will prepare you for the trial by fire that may await you.

"In closing, as I said last April, know that I think of each of you as I would my own son or daughter. I feel a personal responsibility for each of you. I have committed myself and the department I lead to see that you have everything you need to accomplish your mission and to come home safely to your families and to the honor and gratitude you will have earned. Know, also, that your countrymen are grateful for your service, and will be praying for your safety and your success.

"A final thought. We all seek a world at peace. After each war, we always hope we have fought the last war, the war to end all wars. I believe that such hopes ignore all of human history. I believe that for so long as we seek to be free men and women, for so long as the bright light of liberty shines, there will be those whose sole ambition, whose sole obsession, will be to extinguish that light.

"I believe that only strength, eternal vigilance, and the continuing courage and commitment of warriors like you – and your willingness to serve at all costs – will keep the sacred light of American liberty shining: A beacon to all the world.

"You have taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and we, the American people. The nation stands in awe of you. And I salute you. Thank you."

Naval Academy Grads to Take Dreams, Sense of Service to Fleet, Corps

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

May 22, 2009 - Pageantry and tradition reined here today as 1,036 members of U.S. Naval Academy's Class of 2009 raised their right hands and swore to protect and defend the United States and its Constitution as the newest Navy ensigns and Marine Corps second lieutenants. The graduates gathered under a spectacular late-spring sky at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the day. President Barack Obama offered the keynote address, praising the midshipmen for their decision to serve at a time when he told them their country needs them more than ever.

A 21-gun salute heralded Obama's entry into the stadium. The Blue Angels roared overhead, their F/A-18 Hornets spewing white smoke in their wake. The Naval Academy Glee Club and Band boomed out patriotic renditions. Cheers and applause from a near-capacity crowd of family members and friends rang out throughout the ceremony.

But in the quiet moments before the midshipman lined up for their processional into the stadium, they paused to reflect on the forces that brought them to the academy and sustained them through four intellectually, physically and emotionally demanding academic years.

Here are some of their stories:

Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Anthony Arguelles

Anthony Arguelles always knew he wanted to serve in the military. The son of a Cuban immigrant, he said he learned at an early age not to take the freedoms Americans enjoy for granted.

"It gives you a sense of pride when you grow up knowing that not everyone has those same freedoms," he said. "I wanted to be a part of ensuring that."

After four years at the academy – juggling academics, physical fitness, military requirements and whatever personal life he managed to fit in – Arguelles said he's ready to take on new challenges as a Marine Corps officer. He's among 267 members of the Naval Academy's 2009 graduating class to be commissioned into the Marine Corps – the highest number in history.

From here, Arguelles will head the Marine Corps Basic Course at Quantico, Va., with hopes of becoming an infantry officer. He's accepting his gold bars with his eyes wide open to the probability that he'll end up deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq early during his career.

"General Conway told us last week that we can all expect to go over there at some point," he said, referring to a visit Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, paid to the future Marines.

"But I'm happy to go where the fight is, and where Americans are doing what Americans do," Arguelles said.

And when he arrives at the Corps, he said, he'll keep the welfare of the Marines under his charge first and foremost. "I'm going to take care of them the very best I can," he said. "That's my No. 1 priority."

Navy Ensign Will Arnest

Will Arnest grew up in Honolulu, knowing he wanted to go Navy. Both grandfathers served in the Navy, and his father worked at a ship fitter at Pearl Harbor.

"Seeing the Navy up close left an impression, and I was hooked from an early age," he said. "I really bought into the idea that 'It's not just a job, it's an adventure,'" he said, referring to the old Navy recruiting slogan. "Well, for me, it's still an adventure."

Although Arnest knew early on that he wanted to go to the Naval Academy, his path there wasn't as direct as he might have liked. He applied three times before he was accepted, and then only after he'd already finished two years of study at the University of Hawaii.

Academics – particularly electrical engineering and thermodynamics – challenged Arnest at the academy. He struggled to stay on top of his physical readiness requirements, too. But today, as he joined his fellow midshipmen gathering inside the fence line at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in preparation for their graduation and commissioning ceremony, Arnest said he hadn't quite accepted the fact that he was finally achieving his long-time dream.

"It hasn't really hit me yet," he said. "I think that is all going happen when I hold up my hand for the oath of induction, and when I toss my cap up in the air. When that happens, I think it is going to hit me like a ton of bricks."

Arnest said he'll miss the deep bonds he forged at the academy as he goes off to join the submarine force. But like his fellow graduates, he said he takes comfort knowing he'll encounter many of his former classmates again during what he hopes will be a long Navy career.

"I plan to stay in the Navy as long as they will keep me around," he said.

Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Stephanie LaLiberte

Stephanie LaLiberte, one of this year's distinguished graduates, said she was drawn to military service at a young age. "I've always been a very disciplined person, and I was drawn to the lifestyle," he said.

She joined a Navy Junior ROTC program at her Orlando, Fla., high school, where a Marine Corps instructor, Sgt. Maj. Luis Torres, left a deep and lasting impression on her. But it was during her freshman year of high school, as she watched images of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks replay over and over again, that locked in her plans. "Nine-11 solidified it for me," she said.

After today's graduation and commissioning ceremonies, she's headed to the Marine Corps Basic Officer Course, after which she hopes to become a combat engineer. LaLiberte said she'll take important lessons to the Corps she gained during her four years in Annapolis.

The most challenging, she said, was "trying to find my own leadership style," particularly when leading her own peers at the academy. She said she's a firm believer in "leadership by example," and that she hopes to bring a sense of balance to the mission and the people under her leadership who will carry it out.

"I'm focused and driven and kind of squared away," she said. "But I've also got a softer side – one that's caring. And that's the mix I want to bring with me."

Navy Ensign Katherine Adler and Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Clare McKenna

Katherine Adler and Clare McKenna grew up swimming together on the same teams on Long Island, N.Y.

Both were deeply affected by the 9/11 terror attacks. Adler had friends whose parents died in the attacks. McKenna, the daughter of a New York City police officer, and her uncle was driving to work at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 careened into the building.

"Nine-11 hit close to home," McKenna said. "That really solidified it for me. ...It made me want to go out there and give back to my country and protect the people I love."

"It wanted me to be part of protecting this country so another 9/11 never happens," echoed Adler.

Their shared sense of duty led both women to the Naval Academy. Now, after four years together in the Class of 2009, the best friends are now headed on separate paths: Adler to the Navy and McKenna to the Marine Corps. Both said they'll take valuable lessons from their Annapolis experience.

"I've learned to take care of your friends and your people, because you never know when you will need them to be there for you," said McKenna.

"Never quit at anything, ever," Adler chimed in. "And try to have fun always."

Navy Ensign Ben Zintak

Ben Zintak, one of the 2009 class's distinguished graduates, grew up in Chicago loving University of Notre Dame football. When he realized that the Fighting Irish played Navy every year, he began to wonder, "Who's Navy?"

The more Zintak started to learn about the Naval Academy, the more drawn he was to going there.

"I think service is important," he said. "And this is an opportunity to get an education and to serve."

Zintak is quick to credit the huge network of supporters he said helped him through the academy: instructors, fellow classmates and the family that provided never-ending support and care packages of granola bars. "I just can't say enough about the people here," he said.

Before filing onto the field for this year's graduating and commissioning ceremonies, Zintak was pinching himself so it would all sink in. "I don't even really believe this is happening," he said.

He's headed to flight school, following a dream that started when he got to take a jet ride during summer training. "There is really nothing like it in the world," he said. "It beats the heck out of sitting behind a desk."

As he goes to the fleet, Zintak said he hopes to "look for new ways to do old things better, faster and with more finesse."

But he said he's got a deeper, more personal commitment to the calling he's about to assume. "I just want to be someone my enlisted people trust with their lives and careers," he said.