American Forces Press Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called on the U.S. Naval Academy’s class of 2012 at its graduation and commissioning ceremonies here to help restore America’s maritime presence and power with a particular focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
Panetta, speaking under a brilliant blue sky at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium,
noted that the 1,099 new officers are joining the fleet and Corps at a “strategic turning point after a decade of war.”
He cited key accomplishments: the return of U.S. forces from Iraq, NATO’s approval last week of a plan to transition full security responsibility in Afghanistan to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, and the successful NATO effort to free Libya of Muammar Gadhafi’s brutal regime, among them.
In addition, the secretary said, the U.S. “has successfully gone after the leadership of al-Qaida to send a clear message that no one -- no one -- attacks the United States and gets away with it,” drawing loud applause.
“And yet we still face challenges and risks,” the secretary said, from violent extremism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to the destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea, military modernization across the Asia-Pacific, turmoil in the Middle East, piracy and cyber-attacks.
“Our nation now looks to you, the next generation of military leaders, to confront these challenges, to protect our nation and to ensure that America always has the strongest military force in the world,” the secretary said. “That is the way it has always been. And that’s the way it always will be.”
Panetta recognized the Navy and Marine Corps’ legacies of leading the military and the nation and called on the graduating class to keep the tradition strong. “It is up to your generation to ensure that our fleet remains unrivaled by any other nation on earth,” he said.
Adaptation has always been one of the Navy’s hallmarks throughout its history, Panetta noted. It remains important, he said, as the Defense Department implements new strategic guidance to meet the challenges of the 21st century at a time of fiscal constraints at home.
The new strategy calls for agile, flexible, deployable and technologically advanced military forces and puts emphasis on the Asia-Pacific as well as the Middle East. It calls for strengthening key alliances and partnerships and protecting investments in new capabilities ranging from cyber to unmanned systems to space to special operations. It also ensures that the U.S. military “can confront aggression and defeat any opponent anytime, anywhere,” the secretary said.
“The Navy and Marine Corps are fundamental to every element of that strategy,” the secretary said. He called on the new officers and their generation to sustain and enhance American strength across the vast Asia-Pacific maritime region.
“America’s future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia,” he said. “That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific.”
“Your charge,” Panetta told the midshipmen, “is to help ensure the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific for the 21st century.”
“We need you to project America’s power and to reflect America’s character” as you operate throughout the region," he said, strengthening historic alliances and building robust new partnerships.
“We also need you to strengthen defense ties with China,” he told the class. “China’s military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge. But the key to peace in that region is to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our two countries -- one in which our militaries share security burdens to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.”
Panetta thanked the graduates for choosing to serve their country in wartime. “You have set yourselves apart in a profound and in an honorable way,” he said.
“No one can tell you what challenges you will face in the future,” Panetta added. “But one thing is sure. You must be prepared to respond to whatever threats we confront in the future -- with courage, with creativity, with leadership.”
The secretary also recognized the diversity of the class, the first to graduate and accept commissions since repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that banned gays from serving openly in the military.
“You are men and women from every state in the union and 12 foreign countries: rich and poor, secular and religious, black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian, straight and gay,” he said. Panetta called this diversity a tribute to retired Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown, the first African-American to graduate from the Naval Academy, who died last week at age 85.