So THIS happened last week! That’s an actual picture taken at the United States Coast Guard Academy’s 142nd Commencement Exercise. My middle daughter was one of the young adults who marched onto the field with precision, in straight lines and with their “eyes in the boat.” They entered as cadets and left as Ensigns to join the United States Coast Guard fleet. My daughter was assigned to Miami, Florida to aide with migrant interdiction, drug trafficking and water rescue. She will pilot a cutter and be out at sea for weeks at a time. But first, this happened last week…
We attended a graduation party for four cadets that brought families together from across the country. We played backyard sports, ate, drank and celebrated the upcoming graduates. The host gave each sailor a special plaque to commemorate their time at the Academy.
We packed our cars with 4 years’ worth of uniforms, gym clothes, some civilian clothes, boots, boat shoes, hats and a very few personal items. I watched her walk back and forth, emptying her room and saying goodbye to the hallways where she was broken in as a swab, policed as an upper classmen and stood duty for long hours.
I watched her load her uniforms and sports equipment. She began playing at 5 years old and it was instant infatuation. She played soccer, basketball and softball, then later traded softball for lacrosse. School teams, rec teams and travel teams ensured I spent nearly every night and weekend on a sideline in our town – locally, regionally, and up and down the eastern seaboard. She earned the Top Performer Award and others for her time on the CGA Bears lacrosse team. I watched the majority of her games via livestream, and attended as many weekend ones as I could. It broke my heart to see her pack her stick away and say goodbye to a 17 year career of organized sports.
We went to dinner as a family the night before and joked and traded stories and pretended the next day wasn’t as big a deal as it was. We pretended we weren’t on the verge of a new era, of more change, of unknown and uncertain paths, and even danger. My daughters teased and joked as always, slipping back into their childhood patterns.
And then it happened. We took our place in the stands on a beautiful, warm, blue sky Wednesday. The speaker spoke of sacrifice, of the physical, mental and emotional demands the military placed upon these students, as they also studied hard and got a top notch education. My civil engineer was up most days at 5 to work out, then had drill or training, a full day of classes, her sport, more drill, weekly duty and hours of studying and homework at night…nearly all of that in uniform and with her hair pulled back in a bun. Not exactly the carefree, wild college experience of many! As the speech went on, the students, clad in white uniforms, shoes and hats, began their quiet march down the hill. And my tears began to flow. Four years had gone by…just like that! I dropped off a scared and naive swab and was now in the presence of a grown woman, ready to join the fleet as an officer.
I watched her accept her diploma and commission. I watched her friends, boyfriend and teammates collect theirs. Speeches were given, tears were shed, there was lots of saluting and my 2nd class cadet stood at attention by my side throughout the ceremony, dressed in her uniform and I’m sure thinking about taking to that field two years from now, following in her sister’s footsteps.
The speaker emphasized that this was not a graduation, simply a moving up and on, but rather a commencement, a beginning. And it surely is. These young people will be traveling across the country and around the world to take up posts and lead their enlisted crews to protect and serve our nation on the water. They will give the next five years of their lives, living in cramped quarters and spending a great deal of time at sea. Many will risk their lives to protect those of others. A beginning, indeed.
But also an ending. An end to school breaks. An end to two of my girls at college together, playing side by side on the field and helping each other through. An end to all three kids home at once for holidays.
To the graduating class of 2023, at the Coast Guard Academy and all over the world, I wish you well as you take your place in our global society and hope that you become citizens who put people first, who approach the world with curiosity, empathy, compassion, understanding, and hard work. I hope you share your gifts with us and improve on the generation before you. I hope you solve problems you didn’t create and are mindful of those who come after you. I wish you well!
Photos: New London, CT. 5.17.23 by Paul Duddy
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