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U.S. Air Force Academy Commencement
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Wednesday, May 31, 2006, Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Secretary Mike Wynne, and General Mike Moseley, I do want to thank both of you for your outstanding leadership of the United States Air Force at what is clearly an important and historic time in our country’s history.  General Regni, thank you so much for your service here at this important Academy.

Now – before do anything else, I want to exercise my authority and grant amnesty to all Cadets with minor conduct offenses.  I'll leave it to others to define "minor" means.

You know, I’ve met with a great many men and women in uniform serving our country throughout the world, so it is a particular pleasure for me to be with you today, you who are the newest leaders that will help to take our country forward.

To the family members and friends of the graduating class, I have no doubt that one of the reasons these graduates have performed so well is because of the love and the support that you’ve given them.  So to all of the friends and family members who are here -- please know that we recognize and appreciate your contributions as well.

Now to the Class of 2006 – you have my heartfelt congratulations.  You can be enormously proud of what you have achieved.

Many of you already know the demands of a tough environment, working in 100-degree-plus heat in Southwest Asia as part of your summer training.

Some of you know the demands of reviving a unique school bus that I’m told is called “Edna.”

Everything you folks have done in your life before -- what you have studied, your experiences, and your accomplishments -- has prepared you for this moment.  The challenges you’ve faced have pushed you to what you might have thought were your limits -- only for you to find that you can in fact achieve still higher levels of performance.

Today, our country faces threats unlike any we have known.  Violent extremists are trying to terrorize and intimidate free people into submitting to their will.  Their war is more than a contest between opposing sides or societies.  These extremists are waging a war against society itself.  They have in mind only two outcomes – to control us or destroy us.

Let me say just a word or two about this moment in history and your role in it.

Just before Christmas in 2001, I traveled to Afghanistan and the neighboring countries.  I visited with a group of special operations forces that were operating in truly remarkable ways.  In preparation for performing a mission the month before, they had asked for the usual supplies, but one item stood out.  They asked for horse feed.

From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, our forces began adapting to the circumstances on the ground, as they had to.  And they ended up riding horses that had been conditioned to run through machine gun fire.  They used pack-mules to transport equipment across some of the roughest terrain in the world, riding in darkness, and along narrow trails with sheer drops.

Some of those forces operating in Afghanistan were combat controllers from the U.S. Air Force.  And those Airmen likely thought they would have sooner found themselves riding jet aircraft rather than horses, but they joined the American tradition of daring and ingenuity that has defined Airmen for generations.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, aircrews from what was then the Army Air Forces replied with a stunning bombing raid on Tokyo that was led, as was mentioned by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle.  Like the three individuals who were just introduced, I’ve been around so long that I actually knew Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, and I am sure that when he began flying, he never imagined he would be taking a land-based aircraft off the deck of an aircraft carrier.  But he and his Raiders, the three men here today, were determined to accomplish their mission -- no matter what the odds.

And I remember as a boy the electrifying emotion in our country when we learned what that small band of airmen had done what they had done.  They inspired our country.  They gave the American people the strength to persevere on behalf of human freedom.

That is the force you join today.  A force where the improbable can become the norm.  Where individuals are dedicated to securing our liberties, no matter the circumstances -- no matter the odds.

Much of their success stems from the fact that we are a nation of optimists -- a country that forged freedom out of a frontier -- a country where our only limits are self-imposed.

Of necessity, new ideas are replacing outdated notions.  And when that happens, there’s resistance, always. 

I remember during my first tour as Secretary of Defense in the mid-1970’s, controversy engulfed the B-1 program.  I actually approved the B-1 bomber back in the mid-1970’s, and then it was cancelled by the next administration, but it was revived by the administration after that.

And interestingly, during the first months of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, that platform -- the B-1B -- that I had approved in 1976, and was designed for Cold War nuclear strikes -- dropped 40% of the weapons and 70% of the precision munitions that helped to defeat the Taliban and the al Qaeda in Afghanistan 25 years later.

The process of transforming a big institution is an enormous challenge.  But revolutions have always been challenged and resisted.  It’s a fact that many folks fought when people tried to end the horse cavalry.  And I should add, here at the Air Force Academy, there were doubters who objected to the concept of a separate air service -- the service that today we call the United States Air Force.

Your challenge will be to go beyond simply a change of a process here or of a piece of equipment there.  Our country did not survive and become great through timid responses or aversion to risk.  Ours is a nation born of ideas and raised on improbability.  Your charge will be to challenge inherited assumptions, and cherished habits, and seek out better approaches.  I urge you to make that the bedrock of your career.

That is the spirit that made heroes of the Doolittle Raiders, that same talent for innovation that those Americans on horseback used in Afghanistan, and I might add, that same determination that lives in the lives of many of your fellow Airmen today, including a leader who was at my side during two wars at a pivotal time in our history, the now-retired Air Force General Richard Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As each of you carry on their tradition -- when barriers seem too difficult to surmount -- remember that Americans have a long history of overcoming adversity.  Ours is a nation that somehow:

  • Molded Founding Fathers out of farmers and shopkeepers; and
  • Pierced an Iron Curtain and helped bring down an evil empire.

I remember in my senior year in college, that was a long time ago, that was 1954, 52 years ago – our country faced many challenges.  It was a time when the hardships of the Great Depression of the 1930’s were still clear in our minds, when the experiences of World War II and the Korean War were still fresh.  It was the dawn of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and of the nuclear era.

A former Governor of my home state of Illinois – had been the defeated Democratic candidate for president against General Eisenhower.  He spoke to my senior class, and he spoke about the difficult world we would inherit.  His remarks could have been grim, they could have been pessimistic about our circumstance, but they were not.  They were filled with hope.  They were filled with promise.

Among the things he said to us:

“You live in a time of historic change and of infinite difficulty.  But do not let the difficulties distract you.  Face the problems of your time, you must.  Deal with them, you must ... [Dare] to live your lives fully, boldly.  Dare to study and to learn, to cultivate the mind and the spirit.”

Most would prefer to live when times are calm -- when we might all peacefully go about our lives.  But it is in the difficult times -- when the tasks taken on, and the challenges overcome, have the greatest significance.

Each of you have stepped forward to meet a dangerous threat.  You have volunteered to stand on the front lines of freedom’s defense.  Your decision will help decide the fate of millions of human beings across the globe.  And as Adlai Stevenson said to my senior class:

"[You] dare not... withhold your attention.  For if you... do not participate to the fullest...of [your] ability, America will stumble, and if America stumbles the world [could] fall[s]."

That is an enormous responsibility.  And each of you have seized it.  And yours is a truly noble calling.

In this “long war,” American forces have accomplished what few have before -- indeed, what few have ever even tried before.  Our country has sent its finest young men and women in defense of the ideal that people, when faced with paths leading to either tyranny or freedom, will forever choose freedom.

Today, you volunteer to help lead them.  You raise your right hands to say, “Send me to serve others.”  So to each of you, I thank you for what you do.  I thank you for all that you are.  Go out and make history.

May God bless you.  May God bless your families.  And may God bless our wonderful country.