Bush to Speak at CGA Graduation


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Jun 9, 2006

Changed State To Greet Bush

Protesters Expected At Coast Guard Event

Courant Staff Writer

May 22 2007

The last time George W. Bush spoke to a graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, America was two months into its war in Iraq, and the president had already proudly declared major combat operations at an end.

About 50 people gathered outside the academy gate that May 2003 to protest the president's domestic policies and the Iraq war. At the commencement, Bush reminded the graduates they would be joining a worldwide war against terrorism. "We will hunt the terrorists in every dark corner of the earth," Bush told them, "and we're making good progress."

He returns Wednesday to speak to graduates, and the protests outside promise to be larger and more intense.

An acronym jumble of anti-war groups has promised to gather outside the academy. There will be veterans, religious leaders, peace activists and families who have lost people to the war, all wanting to tell Bush he's been wrong.

This time, the protesters will be claiming they speak for a majority of Americans.

Emmett Jarrett, a veteran and a priest at St. Francis House in New London, was busy Monday erecting memorial crosses on Huntington Street in preparation for a peace rally and silent march organized by the Southeastern Connecticut Peace & Justice Network and Connecticut Opposes the War. After a 9 a.m. rally at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on State Street, across from the railroad station, participants will march to the academy grounds.

Jarrett hopes the activities will "continue to build consciousness that the war does not protect us from anything, but endangers people's lives more." He added, "We believe nonviolence works."

The national anti-war group ANSWER Coalition will already be protesting outside the academy. National organizer Bill Hackwell said buses will roll in from all across the Northeast. The group's message: "End the occupation of Iraq. Bring our troops home now," he said.

As preparations continued for those outside the academy's gates, the people organizing the graduation and the presidential visit worked at a similar brisk pace inside.

Cadet Memorial Field was readied with stage and bleachers by Monday. Chief Warrant Officer David French, an academy spokesman, said the campus was racing "to get the nuts and bolts of things put together."

When asked what the graduates might be thinking about the planned protests on their big day, French said, "I think they're more excited about what is going to happen after graduation. That's where their thoughts are right now - the culmination of four years of hard work."

But, he added, freedom of speech is one of the rights cadets joined the service to help protect: "That's why we serve."

Hackwell was clear that the protests are not about the 228 academy cadets who are becoming Coast Guard officers.

"It's about the policies of the Bush administration," he said. "Wherever he goes, there is a protest now against him."

Back in 2003, Bush's approval ratings had recently fallen below 70 percent. The rating has steadily declined, and is flirting with 30 percent. The president's chief issue - the fight against terrorists, mostly on his chosen stage of Iraq - no longer has wide public support, according to the polls. Though Connecticut is the state of his birth, the native son won't find a respite from criticism here.

Campus security will be tight Wednesday, French said. Nobody will enter campus without a graduation ticket or other credentials.

Those who are admitted will hear whatever transformations four years of war have had on Bush's graduation remarks.

In 2003, the Coast Guard had just entered service under the new Department of Homeland Security and was looking at an ever-expanding list of missions. Today, the nature of the Coast Guard's missions leaves the president open to talk about any number of subjects, from the war, to immigration, to international law to public service.

Since his last trip, the most domestic of the service branches has guarded ports, rescued New Orleans residents from rising waters and lost one of its own in a Persian Gulf bombing, the first Coast Guard combat death since Vietnam.

The newly minted graduates will include 77 women, the most since women were admitted into the academy 30 years ago, French said.

Last time, Bush stood in the rain to deliver his message. This time, when Air Force One lands at the airport in Groton and his motorcade arrives at the academy, the only storm he's expected to face is a tempest of protest.

Contact Jesse Hamilton at jhamilton@courant.com.
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