General Huntoon, thank you.
I am not unaware, especially on a rainy day, that graduates, their guests, and their families, prize brevity.
No, I’m not finished.
I told my wife last night that the last thing I want you graduates to remember is your Secretary of Defense droning on and on and that it’s raining. I want you to remember me and your experience here with far more positive memories.
First, let me thank you very much for this privilege to participate in such an important and historic occasion for all of you and for this institution.
Secretary McHugh, General Odierno – distinguished West Point Class of 1976 – we’re still figuring out of he has problems that he left behind here that we haven’t uncovered yet. If he’s walked everything off, then we can be sure he’s clean.
Members of Congress, West Point alumni and distinguished guests: I really am honored to be here with you to help celebrate this Class of 2013 and their families.
I’ve been looking forward to my visit to West Point since I was informed that I was asked to be your speaker. I’ve traveled to West Point over the years as a United States Senator many times and was always inspired by my visits and but I was mostly inspired by the conversations with the cadets. A long-time friend, who is no stranger to this institution, who has given me years of sage advice, came with me today – Harry Walters. Harry’s a member of the Class of ‘59. As you all know, Harry was the starting fullback on that great undefeated Black Knights team when Pete Dawkins won the Heisman Trophy. You also know that Harry was an Assistant Secretary of the Army and Administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Ronald Reagan. I always feel better when Harry’s around. Harry, thank you for what you have meant to this institution and our country.
I also want to acknowledge another good friend and distinguished West Point graduate, who you all know, my friend and former Senate colleague, Senator Jack Reed, Class of ‘71. Jack and I got to the Senate the same year, 1996. He’s been not only a friend and colleague but a confidant who has given me wise counsel over the years and continues to do that. As you may know, Senator Reed is the only West Pointer in the Senate.
Congratulations to the parents of the West Point Class of 2013. This is your day too. I know how very proud you are of these young American leaders. Four years have passed since you performed the “90 second goodbye” at Eisenhower Hall, and first saw your sons and daughters march in formation on the way to Trophy Point. At every step these cadets have benefited from your love, your support, and your reassurance. So thank you, thank you all.
To the faculty and the staff: thank you. We are grateful for your hard work in molding these young Army leaders. Many of you are combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank you for your service, and thank you for sharing your experience, and for helping prepare these future officers for the challenges that lie ahead.
I also want to recognize and welcome the members of the Class of 1963, celebrating their 50th anniversary. ‘63 is my vintage. You have built an enduring bond with these graduates. You welcomed the Class of 2013 as they reported to these grounds on R-Day, took part in their oath ceremony and spent time with them over the last four years.
To the class of 2013: congratulations! We’re all very proud of you.
Like every man and woman who has stepped forward to serve in uniform, you made a courageous decision to offer yourself for a very purposeful life. This institution has educated, trained, and inspired you to help shoulder the wheel in defense of our nation. You’ve learned the meaning of duty, honor, and country. And you will now be asked to lead our nation’s soldiers, an awesome responsibility.
My time in the Army shaped me forever, as it did for so many in this stadium today. And while tactics, techniques and training have all surely changed in the decades since I was in the Army and since many of you who have served, the basic principles of soldiering and leadership remain the same. Character and courage are still the indispensable requisites of both life and leadership.
In Vietnam, I learned that combat is a furnace that can consume you, or it can forge you into something better and stronger than you were before. But it requires leaders to help bring the best out in all of us.
Many of you in the Corps of Cadets with prior service have already learned these hard truths of war. You have also seen what is expected of young officers in today’s military – new demands of a shifting and complicated world.
Great leaders are men and women who know who they are, what they believe, and where they want to go. Great leaders listen. And they listen carefully.
Behind my desk in the Pentagon hang the portraits of two of the Army’s greatest leaders – men who played defining roles in shaping America and the world: Dwight David Eisenhower, West Point Class of 1915, and George Catlett Marshall. They each embodied every dimension of leadership – in particular, they were intense listeners and deep thinkers. And they knew when to act and when not to. There are differences and there consequences for both. They were never intimidated by failures or mistakes. We all have them, we all make them. But they learned and made adjustments and made wiser decisions as a result of those experiences.
The most important part of leadership is taking responsibility for your actions and decisions, and holding all around you accountable.
The military career of General Eisenhower provides one of the greatest examples of this kind of accountability. You all, I’m sure, know the story.
On the eve of the Normandy invasion which he would command, Eisenhower scribbled a message on a piece of paper in the event that D-Day was a failure. Eisenhower’s framed words hung in my Senate Office for twelve years. They read: “Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
That is accountability, and I often think of that story when I look at Eisenhower’s portrait in my Pentagon office. Eisenhower’s simple and honest statement should be a guiding point for all of us in positions of authority and responsibility, and for all of you as you embark upon your military careers.
Remember always that the coin of the realm of leadership is trust. In preparation for your career, you have been taught how to shoot an azimuth – how to use a compass to set your course toward an objective. You’ve scrambled through these granite hills as new cadets and yearlings, learning how to guide yourselves. Then you roamed them again as rising firsties, learning how to guide others. You know by now that the greatness of leaders lies in their ability to shoot an azimuth that is straight and true, even under hostile fire or trying circumstances. Adjust, adapt, be agile and be flexible, but don’t get thrown off course by the always-present distractions and uncontrollables of life. For they will always be present.
Leaders don’t cut corners. When you are faced with difficult decisions, you will always know that the right thing to do…is the right thing to do. Do it. Listen to yourself and be guided by what you believe is right.
Standing against the crowd and choosing the harder right instead of the easier wrong, as the Cadet Prayer prescribes, can be very lonely and frightening at times. And it requires immense moral courage. But it will serve you well over the long haul and throughout your life.
As you embark on your new profession, you are charged with the clear responsibility of helping ensure that the Army is prepared for the future, just as you have been prepared here on the Hudson. Pay attention to your environment and all around you, and listen carefully to your NCOs. For your NCOs will help you engage and navigate, and they’ll keep you out of the deep ditches of command.
The Army you enter today is emerging – and in many ways recovering – from more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. During what has been the longest period of sustained combat in American history, the ground forces have shouldered a very heavy burden – doing the fighting and dying, and adapting under fire to a kind of conflict far different than what the Army’s leadership trained and prepared for after the Cold War.
A new Army is being shaped and you will not only be present in that new Army that’s being shaped. You will have the responsibility of helping shape it and you will have the responsibility of helping lead it, and this all during a very complicated and uncertain time in the world. The past decade reinforced a consistent theme in the history of America’s armed forces: we can never predict when, where and how we will be called upon to fight.
The only thing we can predict is that wars are unpredictable, and they remain a fundamentally human endeavor. Those who believe that war can be waged with precision from a distance, with minimal personal risk, would do well to remember this lesson.
These great uncertainties have implications for the kinds of thinkers and leaders the Army and America will need you to be. The challenge you will face is how to build on the skills honed during the past decade of war while preparing for conflicts that are likely to take on a new and unfamiliar form – and to do this in an Army that will have fewer people and less money than it’s had in recent years.
You are entering the military at a time when the world is undergoing historic transformation. A new world order is being constructed. This moment, like others before it, calls for American leadership and engagement. That leadership will include continuing to build coalitions of common interests and strengthening alliances and forging new ones.
The words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his Fourth Inaugural on January 20, 1945 echo even more loudly today, when he said: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far away…We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”
Understand that there are rarely quick and easy solutions to every problem, there are evolving solutions, that require managing problems to the higher ground of resolution…and ultimately to a solution. Too many costly strategic and tactical mistakes have been made by not appreciating this complicated reality in world affairs.
All this will matter little if the Army you lead is not maintained as a ready, disciplined, and cohesive force. As the Army returns to garrison after more than a decade of constant deployments, some of the strains and stresses placed on soldiers and their families are easing. At the same time, budget constraints are forcing the Army – along with all our services – to curtail training and cancel exercises, impacting readiness and morale. Meanwhile, other threats to the health and quality of the all-volunteer force are increasing – alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and mental illness, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious and destructive forces but rather you must be the generation of leaders that stop it. This will require your complete commitment to building a culture of respect for every member of the military and society. Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts. This scourge must be stamped out. We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens. We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other, and we cannot fail the men and women that we lead. As President Obama said yesterday at the Naval Academy: “These crimes have no place in the greatest military on earth.”
While the Army today continues to be under stress, it is also far more professional, adaptable, lethal, and capable than it has ever been. It is likewise growing more diverse. We are all benefiting from the continued expansion of opportunities for women to serve in our military. The United States military has long benefited from the service of gay men and lesbians. Now they serve openly with full honor, integrity, and respect. That makes this Army stronger.
You know from your time here at West Point you will continue to learn from the work of generations of leaders – all generations of Army leadership – as you confront the new challenges of today and tomorrow.
This morning I have focused on your responsibilities – to the soldiers you will command, and to the institution that you will lead. But the Army also has obligations to you. In particular, it has a responsibility to put in place a culture and an organization that enables you to grow and succeed. I know our leaders sitting here today and all of Army’s leadership across the globe work every day to achieve that accomplishment, an important objective that never, ever ends. America will always need an Army that cultivates its best and brightest leaders, provides them and their families with incentives to remain in service, we always take care of our people. You must always take care of your people.
In preparing for today, I reflected on many of my own experiences. I reflected on my own experiences in particular during my days in the Army and all the great opportunities I’ve had in my life to serve this country. And I thought about what insights I might be able to leave you with and not minimize the opportunity you’ve given me to be with you today.
That reflection brought me to a concluding observation. It’s a reflection not about my own experience, not about me, but rather, it’s about someone else. A professional soldier who walked these grounds as a young cadet fifty years ago.
Robert George Keats was a member of West Point’s Class of 1965. He was an outstanding writer who helped put together General Douglas MacArthur’s memorial articles. He established West Point’s history club and became its first President. After graduation, he completed Airborne and Ranger schools, married his high school sweetheart, and volunteered for duty in Vietnam.
A few months after arriving in Vietnam, Captain Keats took command of my company – B Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. Within ten days of taking command, on February 2, 1968 – shortly before his 24th birthday – he was killed. I was there.
Captain Keats is buried at West Point Cemetery, alongside other heroes of the Long Gray Line – including 33 of the more than 90 West Point graduates who have died in uniform since September 11, 2001.
One of Captain Keats’ brothers, Walter Keats, and his West Point roommate, Robert Scully, are here with us today.
At Captain Keats’ funeral service a letter he had sent as a cadet was read aloud. He wrote of being an idealist, committed to upholding and defending American values and virtues. His letter included the following words: “I am in a fight to save the ideal now. I shall be until the day I die. The world can only be saved by people who are striving for the ideal. I know we shall win, it can be no other way.”
Wherever you go, whatever you do, remember, that like Robert George Keats, you chose to be a soldier at a defining time in our nation’s history. You too are fighting for an ideal – as the Class of 2013 motto says, you are “defending the dream.”
America needs you, and it will count on you to uphold this ideal. In Captain Keats’ words, “It can be no other way.”
Thank you for what you will do for our country and your families – and God bless you all.