NEW LONDON -- The Coast Guard's mission is as important and relevant as it's ever been, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Coast Guard Academy's Class of 2016.
The secretary gave the keynote address Wednesday to 181 U.S. cadets and five international cadets, who, after 200 weeks of hard work, graduated in a ceremony on Cadet Memorial Field.
"After today, some of you will go to flight school, will process migrants in the Caribbean, will oversee disaster response in the Gulf Coast, or will lead ships into the Arctic," Johnson said. "Your jobs will be difficult and will demand your sacrifice."
The Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, the third largest Cabinet department in the federal government.
Today's homeland security "picture," Johnson said, is "more diffuse and more complicated."
"We live with the prospect of terrorist-inspired attacks as well as terrorist-directed attacks. We live with the threat of homegrown violent extremism that could strike in a number of ways on a number of fronts. Cyberattacks and cyberattackers are becoming more sophisticated. Global warming presents challenges," he continued.
Johnson himself is a Coast Guard parent. His son Jeh Johnson Jr., an officer trainee, will report to the academy in a few days for Officer Candidate Indoctrination, a three-week program to prepare select students for Officer Candidate School, which the younger Johnson will attend a year from now.
Eighteen of the graduates received their commissions from a family member who was either a current or former Coast Guard officer, and in many cases, who also graduated from the academy.
Bill Moeller, retired from the Navy and grandfather of Andrew Moeller, a mechanical engineering major, said Andrew had followed in the footsteps of his father, William, who is also an academy graduate. Andrew's dad aided in the rescue of survivors from the "Perfect Storm" of 1991.
"It's hard to explain, I'm just busting with pride," the grandfather said.
Retired Coast Guard Capt. Craig Gilbert, who graduated from the academy in 1984, presented his son Dean Gilbert of Ledyard with his commission Wednesday.
Dean Gilbert wants to pursue a career in law enforcement in the Coast Guard. He'll get his start on the cutter Hamilton, based in Charleston, S.C., serving as a deck watch officer.
Hamilton was Gilbert's first choice because it "goes underway the most. It's primarily used for catching drugs and all that."
Gilbert was happy his time at the academy was over, but he noted that he met "a lot of good kids" and had "a lot of good experiences."
The cadets get 30 days of leave time before they have to report to their assignments. Gilbert was planning to "hang out and stay out of trouble."
In total, 13 of the graduates hail from Connecticut.
Baltic resident Hayley Smith is the first woman from a New London high school to graduate from the academy in more than 25 years.
Smith is a 2011 graduate of the New London Science and Technology Magnet High School, where she participated in the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Before her, president of the academy's alumni association Capt. Andrea Marcille, a 1985 graduate from New London High, graduated from the academy in 1989.
Smith recently received a proclamation from New London Mayor Michael Passero "for her outstanding academic, militarily and athletic accomplishments."
She is headed to the the cutter Decisive in Pascagoula, Miss.
Ensign Jacquelyn Kubicko, of Stratford, gave the cadet address as the distinguished graduate.
"Many college students will graduate in the coming weeks, but only 186 in the nation will be able to glance down at their jacket and see U.S. Coast Guard," Kubicko said. "That 2-gram nameplate -- yes, I put it on a scale in the physics lab in Smith (Hall) -- holds the weight of a class, the weight of an organization and the weight of a nation's expectation for us to go out and defend our waterways, protect the environment, confront climate change, tend buoys, interdict drugs, prevent cyberattacks, interdict migrants, and save lives."
Kubicko received a 2016-17 Fulbright U.S. Student Award to pursue a Master of Research degree at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. She will represent the U.S. and the academy as a cultural ambassador while pursuing her studies. Afterward, she will report to flight school.
It's a timely year for those with aviation assignments as 2016 is the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard aviation.
Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft said several times during his remarks that he could not get the cadets "out into the field soon enough."
"Prepare your minds. Prepare your hearts as you go out to your first units. Go out there refreshed. Go out there with confidence. Go out there to lead because I know you are ready," Zukunft said.
Ninety percent of the Class of 2016 will serve on cutters. In the years to come, the Coast Guard will have a new fleet of vessels.
"With the continued support of the president and Congress, we've built a new fleet of national security cutters. We're building you a new fleet of fast response cutters, and we're on track to build you a new fleet of offshore patrol cutters," Secretary Johnson said. "We're in the design phase to build you a new heavy icebreaker."
Bob Ellis came from Florida to see his granddaughter Kayla Ellis, a marine and environmental science graduate. Ellis will be aboard the soon-to-be-commissioned cutter Rollin Fritch in New Jersey, which means she'll be slightly closer to her New Jersey home.
"We've never had to do anything for her, these cadets are self-motivated," he said.
While the day was about the 186 graduates, it was also about the "parents, families, sponsor families, friends, all of you here who have done so much in the way of encouragement and support of these graduates," said Rear Adm. James Rendon, superintendent at the academy.
"You've helped motivate and sustain them these past four years," he said.
Bill McNulty of Waterford was there to support Aurimas Judoka, or A.J., who will be joining the Lithuanian Navy after graduation. McNulty and his wife have sponsored cadets who can't regularly return to their home for four years, and spent the time fishing and golfing with Judoka.
The five international cadets will return to their home countries of Sri Lanka, Lithuania, Rwanda and the Maldives to serve.