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Commencement Address at Indiana University

As Delivered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thank you President McRobbie, thank you Dean Bertenthal, members of the faculty, parents, and distinguished guests.  First, I do want to thank the faculty and the university for this very special recognition.  I am deeply honored.  And it is an honor and a pleasure for me to be back at Indiana University to help graduate the Class of 2009.

And to all of you who will get your degrees today:  Congratulations!

As you know better than anyone, IU is a special place.  As all people of good sense are well aware, the proper answer to many a profound question in life is:  Because “it’s Indiana.”  A world-class institution like IU attracts legions of men and women from all over the country and every corner of the globe.  But I have to think they all benefit from exposure to the Hoosier spirit.

            IU will always have a special place in my life.  Most importantly, this is where I met my wife.  It was 1966, and she was working on a Master’s in education.  We met on a blind date chaperoning a student hayride as resident assistants in Wright Quad and McNutt.  (Laughter.)  Yes, chaperoning.  It was a long time ago.  When Becky tells people about our time together in Bloomington, she tends to dwell less on the romance and more on the fact that I wound up at Nick’s most evenings. (Laughter.)  By the way, it’s great to see Nick’s is going strong, taking care of hungry – and thirsty – Hoosiers.

I came to IU’s Russian and East European Institute in the Department of History in 1965 to get my Master’s degree.  Here, as at the other institutions I attended, I found teachers who opened my eyes to the world and the life of the mind.  Galvanized by the great issues of the day, I was drawn to the study of our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.  And that brings me to yet another reason why this place is personally so significant to me:  a recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency recruiter showed up in Bloomington in the fall of 1965.  I met with him thinking I could maybe get a free trip to Washington, D.C.  I did get that trip.  But what began as a lark turned out to be much more.  It was my entry into a way of life where I could combine my intellectual curiosity with something greater:  service to country.

And it’s this combination that I want to speak briefly to you about today, for it is an important potential path open to you at this moment in your lives.  Nowadays, when talking about our America, we hear a great deal about freedoms and rights and even the entitlements of citizenship.  But, we don’t hear so much about is the responsibilities and duties of citizenship.  Teddy Roosevelt was eloquent on this point.  He said, “No one of us can make the world move on very far, but it moves at all only when each … of [us] does his duty.”

Over this past decade, doing one’s duty has taken on a whole new meaning and required a whole new level of risk and sacrifice – with hundreds of thousands of young Americans in uniform who have volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend us – to set aside their dreams so you can fulfill your dreams.  They come from all over the United States and they join up knowing they will likely be sent to war.  Four of them will graduate with you today:

Second Lieutenant Christian Litscher, from the “Wild Aces” detachment, United States Air Force, and Army Second Lieutenants Eric Bolin, Nathan Carpenter, and Andrew Roberts, from the “Screaming Bison Battalion.”  (Applause.) 

They join an honor roll of other Hoosiers who have served with distinction:

  • Major Adam Lackey, Class of 1999, with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, who has six Iraq and Afghanistan tours combined, to date;
  • Captain Jonathan Fields, Class of 2001, who after several overseas tours, including Iraq, came back here to pursue a law degree;  and
  • First Lieutenant John Donovan, Class of 2007, an infantry officer currently leading a combat outpost in eastern Iraq. 


And then there is the example set by Brett Hershey, Class of 2005.  His Indiana National Guard commitments took him to Afghanistan, where he made the ultimate sacrifice 30 miles south of Kabul.  All of these Hoosiers and their families deserve our admiration, our gratitude, and our respect.  (Applause.)  They are living what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote: “The man who loves his country on its own account, and not merely for [its] trappings of interest or power, can never be divorced from it, can never refuse to come forward when he finds that she is engaged in dangers which he has the means of warding off.” 

These individuals and others like them have justifiably been called the “new Greatest Generation.”  Yet they stand apart for another reason.  They are part of a much larger group of young Americans who are as decent, giving, and compassionate as our nation has ever seen.  But what puzzles and troubles me is that so many of that larger group of young people who are so public-minded when it comes to their campus and community tend to be uninterested in or distrustful of our political processes and public service.  As a result, I worry about how difficult it has become to persuade talented and capable young people to enter the public arena.  

Much of the resistance no doubt stems from the perceived hassles, frustrations, and sacrifices of public life.  The skepticism is somewhat understandable.  Government is, partially by design of the Founding Fathers, slow, unwieldy, and almost comically inefficient.  Will Rogers used to say, “I don’t make jokes.  I just watch the government and tell the truth.”  (Laughter.)

 I have about seen it all, since first entering government 43 years ago and now having worked for eight presidents.  I would add that being head of CIA lets you in for some interesting public commentary, such as the time that “Wanted” posters with my face on them showed up on an east coast campus.  I acquired one, and it is a treasured part of my collection.  (Laughter.)  It’s a reminder that a measure of skepticism and irreverence about government officials and organizations is always healthy – indeed, necessary.  It curbs overweening power and overweening egos – and in Washington, D.C. there is certainly no shortage of the latter.

Irreverence informed by healthy skepticism is essential to democracy.  But cynicism about the people and the institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive.  Too often those who chose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse, and in many cases politicians run for office running down the very government they hope to lead.  In the eyes of many successful private citizens, the burdens of public service have grown too onerous.  To them public life seems too mean, too ugly, too risky, too dangerous, and too frustrating.

I have a different view – a view informed by my own experience and by what I see every day:  That public service remains a necessary and honorable calling, and, contrary to the perceptions of many, a fulfilling and satisfying opportunity.  In fact, if in an unguarded moment you asked the public servants I have known what their motivation was you’d learn that – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded – they mostly were and are in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists.  And optimists.  You see, we who have taken this path actually believe we can make a difference, that we can change the lives of others for the better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of our country.

The consuming goal of the first half of my professional life was winning the Cold War.  I was lucky enough to see a successful result – with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the implosion of the Soviet Union, and the liberation of hundreds of millions.  The period that has followed though, has been, shall we say, more eventful than many predicted.  Our country has been engaged in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, suffered September 11th, and is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have learned yet again that the fundamental nature of man has not changed, and that evil people and forces will always be with us, and must be dealt with through courage and strength, service and sacrifice.  

During the War of the American Revolution, Abigail Adams wrote the following to her son, John Quincy Adams.  She said, “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. . . .  Great necessities call out great virtues.”

We live in a time of “great necessities” – a time when we cannot avoid dealing with serious problems here at home, or the burdens of global leadership and responsibility.  The stakes are too high.  It is now that America needs its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to come to the fore.  If, in the 21st century, America is to continue to be the land of the free and home of the brave, a force for good in the world – for freedom, justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person – then the most able and idealistic of our young people – of you – must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service.

I just quoted what Abigail Adams told her son, John Quincy.  I will close with a quote from a letter that her husband, John Adams, sent to one of their other sons, Thomas Boylston Adams.  He wrote:  “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

So I ask you, the Indiana University Class of 2009, will the wise and honest among you come help us serve the American people?

Thank you.


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