WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama assured graduating midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy that he will invest not just in weapons but also in the people who keep the country safe.
Obama marked the start of the Memorial Day weekend with his final commencement speech of the season Friday at the naval academy in Annapolis, Md. The president thanked the graduates for their service and praised them for embracing character over celebrity and country over self.
"It's not the strength of our arms or the power of our technology that give the U.S. military its dominance," Obama said. "It's our people."
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The president also told the graduates that his administration will invest in military personnel to fight the unconventional threats facing the country.
It was Obama's first address to military graduates, who include John Sidney McCain IV, the son of presidential rival Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican was in the audience to watch a fourth generation of his storied family graduate from the academy. Had McCain defeated Obama, he could have been the speaker.
Obama told the graduates the nation needs them for a wide range of challenges, from short missions like the recent one against Somali pirates, to long-term campaigns against insurgents. But he also said the graduates must be prepared to help train their foreign counterparts and assist with humanitarian efforts.
"We will maintain the United States' military dominance and keep you the finest fighting force the world has ever seen," Obama vowed.
The President also pledged to increase military pay and provide better child care for families.
"If you've worn the uniform and taken care of America, America will take care of you," he said. "That is our covenant."
The speech was Obama's third such effort in the past nine days. He used the previous two commencement addresses to tackle issues that threatened to overshadow both events.
At the University of Notre Dame last Sunday, abortion opponents protested Obama's appearance because he supports abortion rights. He didn't avoid the debate, however, telling graduates of the country's leading Roman Catholic university that people on both sides of the abortion issue must stop demonizing one another.
The issue at Arizona State University, where the president spoke on May 13, was the school's decision not to award him an honorary degree on grounds that he hadn't accomplished enough. Obama said he agreed, saying no one's body of work is ever complete.
Presidents typically deliver a commencement address at one of the service academies each year.
Obama delivered a different kind of speech on Thursday, one in which he sought to regain control of the emotional debate over closing the detention center for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He denounced "fear-mongering" by political opponents and insisted that maximum-security prisons on the U.S. mainland can safely house the dangerous detainees he wants transferred out of Guantanamo.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a speech the same day denouncing some of Obama's actions since taking office as "unwise in the extreme" and repeating his contention that the new president is endangering the country by turning aside Bush-era policies.
Obama and his family were to spend the holiday weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, traveling there on Saturday and returning Monday.