On behalf of the over 23,000 employees who work here at the Pentagon, and more than three million military and civilian personnel in the Department of Defense, I want to welcome you. Thank you, Brianna [Fitch], for your kind words. To you and to Christopher [Brown], whom 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 for being selected to participate in the United States Senate Youth Program, now in its 46th year. You have earned quite an honor. The school authorities back in your home states believed in you, and the United States Senate has chimed in with its support. I hope the program has met your expectations so far.
Your visit gives you an opportunity to look at all three branches of government. As someone who has been subject to regular oversight by the legislative branch for over 40 years, I can tell you the system has its quirks. It does not always work smoothly. And this, despite the fact that DoD, and in particular our men and women in uniform, enjoy the strong support of members of Congress from both political parties. But the hassles and frustrations are there mainly by design. As you know, the primary goal of those who wrote the Constitution was not efficiency; it was protecting the liberty of Americans. When the Founders circumscribed the power of officeholders, they knew what they were doing.
As delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense schools abroad, you were chosen for this experience because you have performed at the highest level academically, and you are just as accomplished in your extracurricular activities. If you want the honest truth, some of us took a little longer to learn how to multi-task. During my first semester as an undergraduate at William and Mary, I made a “D” in calculus – the only “D” I ever got. My father called me from Kansas – those were the days when your parents actually got your grades – and he said, “Tell me about the ‘D’.” To which I responded: “Dad, the ‘D’ was a gift.” I’m guessing not many of you have been at the receiving end of a parental call like that.
When I was president of Texas A&M, I used to tell the freshmen at our freshman convocation that there were two lessons to be learned from my experience: One, the fact that I got a D means you can be reasonably smart but if you don’t work hard you’ll still get a bad grade. And the other is, you can get a bad grade and still be reasonably successful.
Well, as you take your tour of Washington and learn about U.S. government institutions and how they work, it might be worthwhile to consider this question: “How will your progress in life shape the future of your 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. Of course I have to put in a plug for Texas A&M. It has a special spirit and a unique set of traditions, and I encourage you to give it a look.
But a university degree, wherever you earn it, has never been more valued or more valuable. The education you are pursuing will have a financial payoff later in your life. But the real value of an education is its ability to help you harness and direct your knowledge and your passion to help make a difference in the lives of others.
After I finished college, I served in the Air Force, and then started at CIA as an analyst, the first of a number of jobs in the national security arena. There are many different paths in life where you can achieve something not only for yourself but for those around you. There are a lot of roles you can fulfill, in or out of uniform. We need smart people who will grapple with the challenges of the 21st century here in the Department of Defense. We also think you can serve effectively in the State Department, in CIA, in the Peace Corps, and in a number of other places in and out of government.
But I would tell you that there is a special need and a duty at this time in the history of our country for the best and brightest to put their talents to work in the armed forces, and I encourage you to consider military service.
America is truly blessed by the dedicated young people who have stepped forward to raise their right hand in our nation’s defense. You’ve had a chance to meet and get to know some of them – the 17 officers who are your mentors in the Senate Youth Program, representing the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Coast Guard.
They and their comrades-in-arms make up as diverse, well-educated, and talented a group of young Americans as this country has ever seen. The sifting and selecting that take place in all of the services are the mechanisms of a system based on merit and on integrity. Every service member – each judged by what he or she is and does – wears the uniform with the pride of representing the United States.
As Secretary of Defense, I have traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan many times and met with our troops, many just a year or two older than you. They are skilled and committed men and women who each day confront the dangers and stresses of combat and separation from their families.
One Marine Corporal, by the name of Sean Henry, was 15 years old when the hijackers hit the Twin Towers not far from his home in Queens, New York. He told a reporter: “I felt like the country needed me to help fill a void.” He joined the Corps when he came of age, and has served two combat tours overseas.
In closing, and before taking your questions, let me 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 with whom you may or may not be familiar – could be an age thing. But one of my favorites was always John Wayne. He was something of a personal hero of mine. And John Wayne had a line in a movie that strikes me as just being true for real life, as well: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the 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 do in life, you have ahead of you a future of leadership, service, and impact.
So I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and hope you have a great experience to take home with you from the nation’s capital.
And now I would be happy to take your questions.