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Dempsey Imparts Life Lessons at His Old High School

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, March 16, 2015 — The nation’s top military officer paid a visit today to his old high school in New York to meet with students and share his experiences and life lessons.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a 1970 graduate of John S. Burke Catholic High School in Goshen, N.Y.

The schoolwide assembly was held in the same gym where Dempsey had played high school varsity basketball. He told the students that one lesson he took from Burke was what it meant to commit to a team. He spoke about how, in his senior year, the basketball team came together in ways they hadn’t in previous years, and the life lesson he received from that experience.

Keeping Doors Open

Dempsey told the students that life is about keeping doors open -- keeping opportunities alive. He told the students they should be excited about the future, not resigned to it.

“When I sat where you are, if someone had said to me, ‘You realize you’re going to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs someday,’ I would have been so dismissive of that possibility,” he said.

“I didn’t even aspire to go to West Point to be honest with you, but I went,” said Dempsey, who went to high school about 25 miles away from West Point, New York. “I didn’t aspire to be a general officer, but I became one. I certainly didn’t aspire to be the four-star chairman of the Joint Chiefs but I became one.”

The lesson, he said, is that history will find a person.

“If you are out there thinking that you’ve got this grand plan that you will execute on your terms and that nothing else will impact on your life, you are kidding yourself,” the chairman said. “Because history will find you and when it finds you on behalf of yourself, on behalf of your family and on behalf of your nation, you’ve got to be ready.”

Dempsey added, “Keep the doors open. Don’t do anything stupid to close them.”

Dempsey said U.S. citizens should have a discussion: What makes an American?

Diversity is Key to U.S. Success

“When I travel around the world, what makes America different than anyplace else we go is the dash,” said Dempsey, noting that hyphenated Americans are key to the success of the United States.

Irish-American, African-American, Muslim-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American -- it doesn’t matter, the chairman said, because different nationalities have found a way to work together in this country in a way that couldn’t be accomplished in other nations.

“Look around this room,” he said. “When I travel, I do not talk to groups like you: They do not exist anywhere else in the world. That dash represents diversity. It represents fairness. It represents inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. That’s who we are.”

He told the students that it’s up to them to preserve that ideal; to understand what the “dash” means to being an American.

Dempsey said expertise, humility and courage are guiding values to him.

The students are already building expertise, Dempsey said. He admitted to throwing some bad passes as a Burke basketball player and hitting a few wrong notes as a bandsman, “but it wasn’t because of lack of trying.”

‘Keep Building Expertise’

He added, “You’ve got to keep building expertise, keep learning even when someone isn’t standing over your shoulder.”

The second value is humility, said Dempsey, noting success in life is based on relationships. “You cannot single-handedly bludgeon yourself through life,” the general said. “You’ve got to build relationships that allow you to influence decisions as a group. And you can’t have a relationship with folks unless they sense a true humility, a sense in you that the other side of the relationship matters just as much as your side. They’ve got to trust your motivations and that means showing humility.”

Courage -- physical and moral -- is another important value, Dempsey said.

“You have to believe in something,” he said. “If you don’t believe, you’re not much use to yourself, your family or your nation. You have to believe. Be open-minded, but have a moral compass.”

Whatever happens in the future for these students will happen faster than in the past, the chairman said.

“That’s the way of the world today,” he said. “So on the one hand you have to live life like an architect -- you have to be very deliberate. You have to build a plan. You have to build a path on which you will try to take your life. But you also have to be sort of like a NASCAR pit crew where it’s nothing but chaos.”

The general had one more life lesson for the students.

“Make sure you pick a good mate in life because it will in some way determine where your path takes you,” he said. “They will be supportive or not and that absolutely contributes to the decisions you make.”

Standing with the general was his wife, Deanie, a 1972 graduate of John S. Burke Catholic High School.

“Deanie and I met when she was a 15-year-old sophomore and I was a 17-year-old senior,” he said. “We married two years after she graduated from college.”