Allegations don’t dampen Merchant Marine Academy graduation

The Island Now
Graduates of United States Merchant Marines Academy throw their hats into the air at the end of the commencement ceremony. (Photo by David Pollard)

By David Pollard

Thunderous applause came from the stadium stands as over 100 men and women mostly dressed in white came into view.

Pride was on the faces of thousands of people applauding as the members of the 2017 graduating class of United States Merchant Marine Academy entered the academy’s athletic field on Saturday in Kings Point.

It was the academy’s 81st commencement, where cadets receive a bachelor’s degree, a U.S. Coast Guard license and a reserve or active duty commission.

Upon graduation, graduates can immediately serve as merchant marine officers on sea vessels that transport cargo to various destinations around the world.

That’s something Mary Zehnder said she is looking forward to after graduation as she waited with her parents on campus before the ceremony. She said she is ready to see the world and the academy has prepared her.

“It was a lot of hard work,” she said. ”The academy is very demanding and I was on a sports team every semester so it was very demanding trying to get everything done.”

Nicholas Gioino was talking with fellow graduates before the ceremony and said that he looks forward to getting a job along with serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

“I’ve been given the opportunity here to show my leadership skills,” he said.

The importance of leadership was reinforced in the commencement speech, given by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.

“A good leader knows what is right and has the courage to do the right thing and bring others along the way,” Chao told the graduates. “At Kings Point and in life, character matters.”

When diplomas were handed out, there were congratulatory yells from the crowd and many graduates raised their hands to the sky in victory after walking across the stage.

However, several members of the men’s soccer team who are under federal investigation were allowed to walk but did not receive their diplomas.

The academy barred seven students from graduating, but a federal judge on Thursday ruled that six of them could walk but not receive diplomas amid an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct.

The seventh student filed a separate complaint on Friday and it was unclear if he walked with the class.

Court documents for five of the students, Conner Culiver, David Burkhardt, Michael Heckmuller, Gavin Yingling and Cory Maier, mention an alleged hazing situation involving a freshman in September while the team was on a trip to play the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Another student, Brennan Becker, filed a claim saying he was not on the bus.

A lawyer for the seventh student, Timothy Hughes, filed a suit on Friday.

According to the complaints, while the team was on the bus to their hotel, consistent with school tradition, “the upperclassmen teased the freshmen members of the team.”

A freshman allegedly threw a banana at an upperclassman and some of the upperclassmen allegedly threw water at the freshman. The freshman alleges the water was urine, according to the complaint.

Kim Strong, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Transportation who was at the commencement ceremony, would not comment on the recent allegations and referred to the statement issued by the academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James Helis.

“The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Transportation has informed me that upperclassmen on the Academy men’s soccer team are under investigation,” Helis said in the statement. “Accordingly, I am suspending the men’s soccer program pending resolution of the matters under investigation.”

The academy is overseen by the Department of Transportation.

Despite the allegations, the event was festive. Following tradition, the graduates threw their hats into the air after enthusiastically giving the “farewell cheer.”

For Hillary Bryant, graduation hasn’t set in yet, but she feels a sense of relief because it was a tough journey for her.

“It’s easier to get in [the academy] than to stay in,” she said.

Alex Keisch, who graduated from the academy in 1967 and was honored along with five other members of his class, commented on the impact the academy has made in his life as he spoke with Bryant after the graduation ceremony.

“They [commencements] get better each year,” he said. “We wish ours was as good as theirs. The voyage is just beginning for them.”

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