Good morning. On behalf of the nearly 23,000 employees who work here at the Pentagon, and the three million civilians and military personnel in the Department of Defense, I’d like to welcome you. Kara, thank you for your kind words. To you and David, who we’ll hear from later, please convey my special thanks and appreciation to your parents for their service and sacrifice.
I congratulate all of you on your selection as delegates to the United States Senate Youth Program, now in its 45th year. You have earned this highly competitive and prestigious honor. Your state school boards back home believed in you, and the U.S. Senate has chimed in with its support. I hope the visit to Washington has met your expectations so far.
The military is a strong supporter of your program – as evidenced by the 16 military officers who are here today, your mentors and ambassadors of the armed forces. I want to mention someone who was selected to be a mentor and part of this program, Captain Jennifer Harris of the United States Marine Corps. Captain Harris was a helicopter pilot, killed in the line of duty in Iraq on February 7. We honor her service, and express our condolences to her family.
All of you in the Senate Youth Program have performed at the highest level academically, and are just as accomplished in your extracurricular activities. Some of us took a little longer to learn how to multi-task, I must say. During my first semester at William and Mary, I made a D in calculus – the only D I ever got. My father called me – those were the days when your parents actually got your grades in college – my father called and said, “Tell me about the D.” To which I responded, “Dad, the D was a gift.” I’m guessing not many of you have had a conversation like that.
I used to tell the freshmen at Texas A&M that I had two messages for them. One, the fact that I got a D means that you can be reasonably smart and if you don’t work hard you’ll still get a bad grade. And the other is that you can get a bad grade and still go on to be somewhat successful.
Well, as you take your tour of official Washington and learn about U.S. government institutions, it might be good to pause for a moment and ponder this question: “How will my progress shape the future of my community, state, and country?”
You are about to become adults and take that first step toward fulfilling your dreams: the choice of whether to go to college, and if so, which one. Now of course I have to put in a plug for Texas A&M, the sixth largest university in the nation, 46,000 students. Four months ago I was president of a university. I had really bad timing. I left Texas A&M just as, for the first time in four years, the football team was nationally ranked, and just as our football team beat the University of Texas in their home stadium for the first time in 12 years, and just as our men’s and women’s basketball teams were nationally ranked for the first time ever. Of course I used that opportunity simply to say, “My work here is done, it’s time for me to leave.” But A&M has a special spirit and traditions that are very -- that are unique -- and I encourage you to give it a look. In fact, one of the real downsides of becoming Secretary of Defense was leaving just as we were starting half a billion dollars in academic construction and the athletic program was taking off.
Nevertheless, a university degree, wherever you earn it, has never been more valued or more valuable. The education you are pursuing will certainly have a financial payoff later in your life. But the true value of education is its ability to help you harness your knowledge and your passion to help make a difference in the lives of others.
After college, I served in the Air Force, and then joined CIA as an analyst, the first of a number of jobs in the national security arena. There are many different roles that you can fulfill, in and out of uniform. But I want to tell you, we need smart people who will grapple with the challenges of the 21st century here in the Defense Department. We also think you can serve in the State Department, in the Agency for International Development, in CIA, and in a number of other places.
But I would tell you that there is a special need and a duty at this time in the history of our nation for the best and brightest to put their talents to work in our armed forces, and I encourage you to consider military service.
America is truly blessed by the dedicated men and women who have stepped forward to raise their right hand in our nation’s defense.
These young people make up as diverse, well-educated, and talented a group as this country has ever seen. The sifting and selecting that take place in all of the services are the mechanisms of a system in which merit and integrity are the strongest criteria. Every service member – each judged by what he or she is and does – wears the uniform with the pride of representing the United States.
When I was president of A&M, I interacted a fair amount with students preparing to go into the armed forces. A&M still commissions more officers into the armed forces than anyplace else in the country other than the three service academies. And during our early morning runs together, or in conversations between classes, I always felt that they carried an extra sense of pride. As Secretary of Defense, I have traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan and met with many of our troops – skilled and dedicated individuals who each day are facing dangers and stresses of combat and separation from their families.
Among the service members I’ve met have been National Guard members home from Iraq who volunteered to remain on active duty to help rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Others have volunteered for additional tours in combat areas so that they could, in their own words, “make a difference.”
One reads and hears often about “supporting the troops,” but often people who want to help don’t know where to start. A few years ago, the Department of Defense launched a program called “America Supports You,” that recognizes all the things the American people do across the country to support the men and women of the U.S. military and their families. If you go to the “America Supports You” website, you can find countless projects to join – from sending care packages to soldiers deployed abroad, to lending a helping hand to their families here at home.
In closing, I want to reinforce something you already know: that character and integrity must be at the core of your quest for high achievement. These are what make a decent and productive life possible, whether in public service or in the private sector. At a time when we are all too aware of the social, political, and even economic costs of politicians who lie, business leaders who cheat and steal, and other fraudulent individuals, your honesty and your integrity will be your greatest assets. They will shine like a beacon in a storm. Develop them. Refine them. Bind yourself to them.
There was an actor in Westerns that I’m sure you’re familiar with -- maybe, maybe not. It may be an age thing. But one of my favorites was always John Wayne. And John Wayne was something of a personal hero of mine. And he once said in a movie that I think still holds true in real life: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You get to do one or the other. You do one, and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you’re as dead as a beaver hat.”
In holding steadfast to your honesty and your integrity, you set yourself apart. You make it inevitable that, whatever you decide to do in life, you have ahead of you a future of leadership, service, and impact.
I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, hope you have a great experience to take home with you from the nation’s capital. [Applause]