Distinguished guests, parents, families, friends, and above all, Marines of Charlie Company, it is, for me, a very distinct honor and privilege for me to be here and to have the opportunity to participate in this special occasion as Secretary of Defense.
Let me first and foremost offer my sincere congratulations to all of you, all of the graduates. Congratulations, you made it! And I’m sure your families are all saying “Thank God you made it!”
Please join me in giving these graduates and the families a big round of applause.
I’d like to offer my deepest thanks to the parents, families, and friends here today. Your love and your support has made this day possible. As Secretary of Defense, I’m grateful for your support and the willingness of families to share your loved one with our military family. You are part of our larger family. And let me tell you, frankly, that we could not do the job of defending this country without you. And for that reason I deeply appreciate your loyalty, your support, and the love that you provide for the fighting member who’s graduating today.
Let me also thank all of the service members and veterans who are here today. I know there’s a great many of you here. What I’d like to do is for those of you who have served in uniform to please raise your hand and if we could give them all a round of applause.
Thank you all very much for your service and for your sacrifice.
I’d also like to thank those who had a part in the training of this class: Charlie Company Commander Major Ryan Orozco, the Platoon Commanders, the Sergeant Instructors, and the entire staff of OCS.
While members of this class may not have fully appreciated it while doing push-ups or marching on the parade field, you’ve given them lessons that they will call upon for years to come.
Most of all, let me thank this graduating class. Thank you for choosing to serve our country. Thank you for your willingness to step forward, for your willingness to protect this country and to put your lives on the line in order to defend your fellow Americans.
Our democracy exists today because of brave people like you who are willing to stand up and defend it. You have all committed to giving something back to this nation. At a critical time of war; a critical time when we continue to confront terrorism throughout the world; a critical time when security threats across the globe, whether from North Korea or Iran, or the turmoil we confront in the Middle East, or cyber attacks, or the threats we face from rising powers. All of those areas represent the kind of challenges that we have to confront on behalf of the United States of America. And all of you have set yourself apart from your fellow citizens in a profound and in an honorable way. You have stepped forward to serve in uniform, and as I said, you stepped forward with a willingness to put your lives on the line.
I was at a command change ceremony this morning for General Schwartz of the Air Force and it reminded me that we are very proud to have some of the best weapons and technology in the world. I’ve got great aircraft; I’ve got fighter planes; I’ve got bombers; I’ve got B-1’s and B-2’s. I’ve got tremendous aircraft carriers, I’ve got amphibs. I’ve got some of the very best technology in the world.
But I’ve got to tell you something, none of that is worth a damn without the men and women in uniform who are willing to serve this country.
You are the heart and soul of what keeps this country safe. I often tell people that as the son of Italian immigrants, who came to the United States like millions of others. My parents had little language ability, few skills, and no money in their pocket, but they believed deeply in what this country was all about. I used to ask them, “Why would you travel of all of that distance? Why did you travel all of that distance, to come to a strange land?” And although they came from a poor area of Italy, at least they had the comfort of family. “Why would you leave the comfort of family?” My father said, “The reason we did it was because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life in this country.”
That is the American dream. It's what our parents wanted for us, it’s what we want for our children, and hopefully it’s what our children will want for their children: to always give them a better life. It is the dream we all share. It is the bond that brings us all together. Everything you do is based on making sure our children have a more secure and a better life for the future. By earning your commissions and serving as Marines, you are making this country safer and more secure, you are ensuring your families and all American families can have better lives.
You’ve come a very long way since the start of OCS. Your time here in Quantico has probably been the longest and the most challenging ten weeks of your lives. You’ve certainly been under a lot of heat – from your instructors and from a very hot July on record.
You’ve been up before sunrise and you’ve collapsed exhausted onto your rack after dark. I’m sure that each of you had moments – as you were low-crawling through the mud, carrying a heavy pack, or running in boots with blisters on your feet – when you wondered just what the hell you’d gotten yourself into.
Nearly a third of those who started with you did not finish. But you proved to yourself and proved to others that you can fight. That you can fight through pain and frustration, and that you can endure what most people can’t. You’ll need that self-confidence and you’ll need that discipline as you step forward to lead the Fleet Marine Force and our military.
For eight of you, the start of OCS wasn’t your first time in uniform – you’ve already served as enlisted Marines, and some of you have seen combat. So you know first-hand the sacrifice and discipline that the Marine Corps is all about, and I commend you for shouldering this new responsibility as a Marine officer.
Each of you graduating today will carry on the proud legacy of the Marine Corps, which stretches back to the very founding of our country.
It is a legacy of grit, it is a legacy determination, of taking the fight to the enemy on far-flung shores. It is a legacy of fighting like hell – especially when the odds are against you. Across generations, Marines have added chapters to that legacy and you can see it here in this museum. From the shores of Tripoli, to the Pacific islands in World War II, to the cold and unforgiving mountains of Korea, to the jungles of Vietnam.
During this past decade, our nation has depended on Marines to confront determined enemies and threats around the world. And we’ll never forget the more than 1,400 Marines who’ve paid the ultimate price for this country since 9/11.
In Iraq, Marines went after the enemy in their own strongholds – taking Fallujah in some of the deadliest fighting of that war.
In Afghanistan, Marines have wrested control of Helmand province from the Taliban. I’ve had the chance to be there and to see it. It is because of them that we are denying sanctuary to the insurgency in its spiritual heartland.
And right now, as we speak, night has fallen in Sangin District of Helmand. The enemy may be resting, but you can be damn sure the Marines are not. They’re taking the fight to the Taliban every day, every night, helping their Afghan brothers take the lead for security so that Afghanistan can govern and secure itself and never again become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda.
Our nation will never be able to adequately express our gratitude to the men and women who have stepped forward to protect this country since 9/11. This generation – your generation – will take its place alongside the greatest generations in our history.
And I believe the officers who have led this generation into battle will also take their place alongside the greatest in history. You have sent a very strong message that will ring throughout history – nobody attacks America and gets away with it.
That great history is reflected here in this museum, and it includes some fine Marines that I’ve been privileged to work with:
General Jim Amos is serving as the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, and helping the Marine Corps and our military build the force for the 21st century;
General Jim Mattis is leading some of our most important military efforts as Commander of U.S. Central Command;
General John Allen is leading the coalition campaign in Afghanistan; it is his plan that is in place. It is his plan that NATO is supporting. And it is his plan that will guide us to achieving the mission that we set out in Afghanistan.
I want to also acknowledge General John Kelly who serves as my Senior Military Assistant. I simply could not do the job without his candor and without his advice, and he will soon assume command of U.S. Southern Command.
It is now your turn to take up this mantle of responsibility as leaders in the Marine Corps – to preserve our military strength, to uphold the honor and reputation of your uniform.
In wearing the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, always remember that you have set yourself apart. Remember that you are expected to abide by the highest standards, to display the strongest character, and to demonstrate the utmost integrity in all you do.
I need you to enforce those standards in your units. That is what the Marine Corps has always been known for; it is a sacred bond shared across generations, with those who came before you and with those who will follow you.
On this day seventy years ago, men of the First Marine Division had landed on Guadalcanal in the Pacific and had begun a bitter fight for that island against the Japanese.
In those early days of the war, America had good reason to worry about insufficient supplies, untested forces, and flagging confidence. Victory at Guadalcanal and in the larger war was anything but inevitable.
Seeing the lack of supplies and aircraft available to the first Marines landing on Guadalcanal, General Harmon wrote a letter to Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, stating, and I quote: “We have seized a strategic position…Can the Marines hold it?” Unquote.
Over six months of bloody fighting, the Marines at Guadalcanal answered that question and turned the tide of the Japanese onslaught across the Pacific.
That battle set a tone not just for a war but for the future of the Corps. We need the Corps to project power abroad and to defeat our enemies wherever they may threaten us. We need the agility and flexibility of the Marine Corps to be able to respond to any contingency. Most of all, we need the pure toughness of Marines when we are in a tight spot.
When that great Marine leader General “Chesty” Puller was asked about pre-World War II Marines known as the “Old Breed,” he said: “Old Breed…New Breed…There’s not a damn bit of difference so long as it’s the Marine Breed.”
All of you have earned your place in that Marine Breed. I challenge you to keep earning that place every day, for yourself, for your fellow Marines, and for our country.
There’s a great story I often tell of the rabbi and the priest who decided to get to know each other. So, one evening they went to a boxing match, thinking that if they went to events, they’d talk and learn about each other’s religion. Just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. And the rabbi nudged the priest, and asked him, “What does that mean?”
And the priest said, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight.”
Officers, ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything will be good in this country, and that we’ll be fine. But let me tell you something: it doesn’t mean a damn thing if we’re not willing to fight for it. Your presence here, your graduation as officers of the Marine Corps, tells me that you are willing to fight, to fight for that American dream, to fight for a strong America, and to fight for a strong government, of, by, and for, the whole people.
My deepest congratulations to you, semper fi, and I wish you the best of luck.
God bless you, and God bless America.