NEW LONDON, Conn. – Vice President Mike Pence warned the new U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduates on Wednesday of the perils America faces from rogue regimes, criminal networks and terrorist groups, saying the new ensigns will be on the front lines of the threats from illegal drugs, terrorism, human trafficking and nuclear proliferation.
"The truth is, you assume your watch at a time when your leadership and your service is needed more than ever before," he said.
"At this very moment, the world's most dangerous terrorist and criminal organizations are working to gain a foothold across the Western Hemisphere, to threaten our people and our very way of life," he said.
Pence delivered the service academy's keynote address at an outdoor ceremony at the riverside campus in New London, Connecticut. He comes a year after President Donald Trump addressed the graduates.
Pence told the crowd he brought greetings from Trump, crediting him with making the financial investments needed by the Coast Guard and other military branches.
"Over the past 16 months, President Trump has already taken decisive action to rebuild our military, to restore the arsenal of democracy to give our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and our great Coast Guard the resources you need to accomplish your mission and come home safe," he said, adding how more than $12 billion is set aside to rebuild the Coast Guard's "aging fleet" and to "strengthen your vital assets."
He noted there will be 25 new off-shore patrol cutters, two new national security cutters and six more fast-response cutters to "support our border security efforts and our fight against terrorism across the world."
"We are going to give the best fighting force in the world the best equipment they've ever had," Pence said.
Pence said Venezuela is a "tragic case in point" of a place where political corruption, porous borders and economic instability are thriving, undermining the rule of law. As he arrived at the academy, Pence issued a tweet about Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's expulsion of the top American diplomat in the country. The vice president promised in the tweet that "this provocation will be met with a swift response."
Besides combatting terrorism and illegal drugs, Pence noted how many of the graduates will participate in much-needed search-and-rescue missions, like those that occurred during last year's string of devastating hurricanes, and to patrol the "increasingly contested polar waters in the years ahead to advance America's energy and national security interests across this vital region."
Madison Heist, of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, expects to be in the thick of things when she reports to St. Petersburg, Florida, next month as a deck watch officer on a Coast Guard cutter.
"I'm definitely anticipating having a lot of drug and migrant kind of interaction. I know, as well, since we're down on the Gulf Coast we do a lot of hurricane relief, so it will be really interesting," she said.
The president and vice present typically each address the graduating class at one of the federal service academies on a rotating basis.
About a dozen protesters held signs outside the academy gates that called for better protection of the poor and greater tolerance of the LGBT community. It was a far smaller showing than last year, when Trump made his first appearance at a service academy.
There are 209 members of the 2018 graduating class, who earned degrees in engineering, naval architecture, operations research, marine and environmental sciences, management and government. Sixty-one percent are men and 39 percent are female. Sixty-seven percent of the class is white. Eight of the graduates hail from Connecticut.