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Inspired by 'my wife, Gabby,' Kelly addresses Merchant Marine grads

With his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, watching and cheering nearby, retired astronaut Mark Kelly exhorted graduates at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy to a life of public service, encouraging them Monday to persevere when faced with unexpected challenges.

Kelly, a 1986 graduate of the academy who later flew combat missions for the Navy during the Persian Gulf War and then flew on four space shuttle flights, including as commander of the Endeavour's final mission in 2011, quoted from Winston Churchill, Ralph Waldo Emerson and several times from his wife during a 20-minute address to the 219 graduates.

Giffords, who was seated with other dignitaries near the side of the stage, didn't speak during the commencement but enthusiastically sang the national anthem and waved to her husband as the ceremony started. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood introduced the former congresswoman to the graduates, their parents, friends and faculty, eliciting a standing ovation for the lawmaker who was shot in the head during a January 2011 assassination attempt that left six people dead outside a Tucson shopping center.

Kelly also spoke of his wife's recovery and sought to use it as inspiration for the graduates.

"I have learned a thing or two about the power of the human spirit," he said. "It has been an incredible experience for me to watch my wife, Gabby, first fight so hard to survive and then fight so hard to come back. She has been an incredible inspiration to me. Each day as she heads off to therapy, she'll often tell me, 'Fight, fight, fight.'

"She reminds me each and every day to deny the acceptance of failure."

Kelly said that when he left Kings Point in 1986, he dreamed of being the first person to walk on Mars. He said that when he started pilot training, he wasn't the best of aviators and confessed that Tom Cruise -- the actor, not the character he played in the film "Top Gun" -- would have made a better pilot back then. But he said perseverance and hard work paid off in his career.

"I started out as a lousy pilot and ended up commanding a rocket ship. I never made it to Mars, but the journey was certainly worth the effort," he said, adding "It is vitally important that we all give something back. I encourage all of you to find some cause that you believe in, find yourself some role, either at a church, charity or service organization or maybe even seek elected office."