“Yes, I was once one of you. Six decades ago – in the age of sail – I was an undistinguished member of the Class of 1958,” said McCain. “My superiors didn’t hold me in very high esteem in those days. Their disapproval was measured in the hundreds of miles of extra duty I marched in my time.”
Light-heartedly reflecting on his time as a midshipman, he also recognized that the lessons he learned at USNA were a source of inspiration that guided him during some of his greatest challenges.
“But the Academy taught other lessons, which I would find later when I needed them most, had somehow managed to stick,” said McCain. “Lessons about sacrificing for something more important than yourself. Lessons about courage and humility. About friendship. About the meaning and responsibilities of honor.”
After graduating from USNA in 1958, he was commissioned as a Navy Ensign and eventually became a naval aviator were he flew ground-attack aircraft from aircraft carriers. McCain was on a bombing mission over Hanoi in October 1967 where he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese.
McCain eventually spent five and a half years in various prison camps; three and a half of those in solitary confinement, and was repeatedly beaten and tortured before he was finally released in March 1973. McCain earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
McCain became emotional during the speech as he spoke about the sacrifices midshipmen will be asked to make for their country.
“You will protect the international order that American politics, with all its inefficiencies and human frailties, has done so much to create,” McCain said. “Many of you will risk everything for your country. You will make sacrifices for your fellow Americans, who won’t be asked to make sacrifices for you.”
“I grew up in eventful times and I’ve served in eventful times,” said McCain. “I’ve seen America become a more just and prosperous country, coming ever closer to the ideals set down by our Founders. I’ve seen America organize and lead an international order based on liberty, mutual security, free markets, and the rule of law that liberated millions upon millions from tyranny and poverty. But we need only look back upon my own lifetime to understand how hard-fought those victories were.”
In his closing remarks, he said America is still the best and strongest nation in the world.
“Never bet against the United States of America,” he said. “Do not do so.”
Before departing, Midshipman 1st Class Austin Harmel, brigade commander, presented McCain with a custom blue and gold bath robe on behalf of the brigade, complete with the rank he retired at, a Navy Captain, embroidered on the sleeve.