Gates Urges Graduating Class to Embrace Public Service
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 13, 2009 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates implored America’s youth to weigh the virtues of a career devoted to serving the country, saying “no life is complete without service to others.”
In a commencement speech to the outgoing class of the University of Washington in Seattle, Gates called on the graduates to translate their campus activism to the United States civic system writ large.
“If, in the 21st century, America is to be a force for good in the world – for freedom, social justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person; if America is to be a beacon for all who are oppressed; if America is to exercise leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and idealistic of today’s young people must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service,” he said.
Gates, who accepted an honorary degree from the university recognizing his 43-year career in public service, extolled the merits of committing one’s life work to bettering his or her country. The defense secretary, known for his biting criticism of Washington, D.C. culture, cast aside cynicism in describing the motives of public servants.
“Each person in public service has his or her own story and motives,” he told the young audience packed into Husky Stadium. “But I believe, if you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical – are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists and optimists.
“We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can make the lives of others better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of the greatest country in the history of the world,” he added.
Gates remarked on the university’s distinguished record of matriculating students who continue on to public service, sending some of the highest numbers of graduates into the Peace Corps. He also noted the graduating class contribution to the U.S. military.
“Sixty four members of your class are becoming new lieutenants and ensigns in the United States Navy, Marines, Army, and Air Force – following a long line of University of Washington grads who proved their valor on the battlefield,” he said, noting that the school is tied with Virginia Tech and Texas A&M for graduating the most Medal of Honor recipients of any civilian American university.
“I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all ROTC cadets and midshipmen on campus, University of Washington graduates currently serving, and especially the veterans who are pursuing their education – some of whom are graduating today,” he said. “You have served your nation honorably, and your nation is proud of and grateful for what you have done.”
The defense secretary recognized the more than two million American public servants wearing military uniforms and deployed overseas.
“They are risking their lives in service to our country every day, fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan to the streets of Iraq. Their courage is awesome, their tenacity boundless,” Gates said. “As junior Michael Beatty – an Iraq Army vet and co-founder of Husky United Military Veterans put it: ‘If you don’t do your job, your brother is going to pay for it with his blood.’
“That spirit is the reason these extraordinary men and women have rightfully been called the new ‘greatest generation,’” he continued.
Despite millions of examples of public service, Gates said he worries that campus activism sometimes fails to translate to engagement on the national scale.
“Even in last year’s election, with all the challenges facing our nation – two wars, a meltdown on Wall Street and an economy in free-fall – not even half of eligible voters in the college-age bracket cast a ballot,” he said. “So, I worry – and I worry greatly – that too many young Americans, so public-minded in campus and community affairs, turn aside when it comes to our political process or careers in public service.”
Given that those who enter public life are frequently repaid for their commitment and sacrifice with criticism and even character assassination, the rewards of patriotism and selflessness outweigh public service’s less auspicious aspects, Gates said.
“I entered public life 43 years ago, and no one is more familiar with its hassles, frustrations, and sacrifices than I am,” he said. “Certainly the challenges are daunting, and the current state of our politics isn’t exactly the best marketing scheme for attracting new talent. The pay and working conditions can be difficult, at best.
“However, there is another aspect to public service about which Americans hear very little,” he added, “the idealism, the joy, and the satisfaction and the fulfillment.”