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Kaiserslautern High School Commencement

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Kaiserslautern, Germany, Friday, June 11, 2010

Thank you, Brittny, for that introduction.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here tonight.  Believe it or not, nearly a half century ago – yes, I am that old – I was in a similar position to where you are now, waiting – indeed begging – for the graduation speech to end.  So I will keep my remarks brief, keenly aware that I am the main obstacle between you and a great party.

First, to the parents:

You serve your country here in various capacities – military and civilian – but, most importantly tonight, you're all proud parents.   I know that moving your family to another country and culture can be challenging.  Many long days and nights at work compete with the time you would rather spend at home with your child.  The dual role of parent and public servant is not an easy one – I can attest to that, myself.  Some of the uniformed parents of today’s graduates are deployed and cannot be here today, while some of you have just returned or are getting ready to leave.  We're all grateful for the sacrifices you make on behalf of all of us.

I’d also like to say a few words to the teachers:

Much of what I have accomplished I trace back to high school teachers whose names and faces I have never forgotten.  They opened my eyes to the world and to the life of the mind, and they were role models of decency and character.  I only hope that half a century from now, these graduates will look back on their time here with such fond memories and, above all, remember the role you teachers played in their lives.

To the wider Kaiserslautern community:

The saying “it takes a village” rings true when it comes to military families – especially those far from home.  Everyone does their part and no one should be taken for granted.  From its humble origins more than six decades ago this institution has grown and evolved – reflecting the strong and enduring bonds between this school and the community, and between the United States and Germany.  So thanks to all in “K-Town” and to our German friends for your support of these kids and their families over the years.

And, finally, to the class of 2010:  Congratulations!

You have all shown that you are a truly remarkable bunch.  The challenges associated with being a child of the military or foreign service are considerable.  Some of your parents have been gone over extended periods.  Many have moved multiple times.  New faces, new curriculums, new teachers, and new friends:  none of this is easy. 

I'm impressed by the way that you all, much like your parents, have risen to the challenge and excelled.  You have exceeded expectations in academic performance, with an extraordinary ninety percent of you going on to college.  Your community service programs such as Soles 4 Souls and your Haitian fundraisers put others before yourselves in their time of utmost need.  Through your travels and experiences you have learned about your host country and familiarized yourselves with its culture.  And, the whole while, your sports teams – the Raiders – have competed with the best of them.  You have all come to represent Kaiserslautern High’s mission of “model citizens in a diverse society.”  For all of this, and for everything else you have and will accomplish, I congratulate you.

I should also add that I’m traveling with a former Kaiserslautern student:  Dr. John Baxter, now a retired colonel in the United States Air Force.  He spent a year and a half here – though he didn’t want me to mention his name since he still thinks he might be on a detention list somewhere.

What I’d like to do for the next 7-8 minutes - and that's a promise - before the well-deserved celebration begins, is share some of the experiences and lessons I have learned over the years – lessons I hope will be useful to you.

First, for those of you on your way to college later this year, don’t be intimidated or frustrated if you find yourselves not doing so well at first in your classes.  Back in Kansas I had gotten good grades in high school so I thought I was pretty smart.  Well, the first semester my freshman year of college at William & Mary, I got a ‘D’ in calculus.  My father called me to ask how such a thing could possibly happen, and I told him, “Dad, the ‘D’ was a gift.”  Many years later, as president of Texas A&M, I would tell university freshmen that I learned two lessons from that ‘D.’  First, even if you’re fairly smart, you will not succeed if you don’t work hard.  Second, I am standing proof that you can survive a ‘D’ as a freshman and still go on to make something of yourself.

So, if you run into tough sledding early in your college days, just remember to work harder, learn better how to learn, and don’t let the challenges stop you from reaching outside your comfort zone to consider new subjects or try new things.  Statistically, most of you who go to college will change your major at least once.  I started out as pre-med - wanted to be a neurosurgeon.  God only knows how many lives have been saved by my becoming director of CIA and Secretary of Defense instead of a brain surgeon.

All of you, whether you go to college or take another path, should be prepared to take your life in a direction you hadn’t necessarily planned for.  When I went to graduate school, I ran into a recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization I had never considered working for.  After all, by then, I thought I was going to be a history professor.  At first, CIA tried to train me to be a spy.  However, my efforts were less James Bond and more Austin Powers – and I don’t mean that in a good way.  One of my first training assignments was to practice secret surveillance with a team following a woman CIA officer around downtown Richmond, Virginia.  Our team wasn’t very stealthy, and someone reported to the Richmond police that some disreputable-looking men – that would be me and my fellow CIA trainees – were stalking this poor woman.  My two colleagues were picked up by the Richmond police, and the only reason I didn’t get arrested was because I had lost sight of her so early. 

I – and CIA – concluded pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out to be doing operations in the field, and instead I became a CIA analyst – one of the people who assess and interpret the information that comes in.  And that led me into a career that allowed me to witness amazing moments in American history.  So it may take you a few missteps and even embarrassments before you find the thing you’re really good at.  But, keep at it.

In the nearly 45 years since joining the government, I’ve been privileged to work for eight presidents.  And, as a result, I’ve learned a few things about service, and a few things about leadership.  Many of you probably already have found opportunities, even at your young age, to exercise leadership in different ways – in athletics, extracurricular activities, student government, your church, or wherever you happen to have a part-time job.  These opportunities have placed you in a position to show responsibility or influence others.  Above all, you are fortunate to have parents who, in carrying out their duties, provide sterling examples of leadership and service on a daily basis.  

There are a few basic qualities of leadership and long-term success that hold true no matter what career you pursue.  One of those is integrity – I’m talking about honesty, telling the truth, being straight with others and yourselves.  In the movie The Alamo, John Wayne – one of my favorite American philosophers – says:  “There’s right and there’s wrong.  You’ve got to 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.”

Second, courage:  the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular.  Educational institutions, and business and government experts, all talk a lot these days about teamwork, team building, and collaborative efforts –  and that's important.  However, the time likely will come someday when you see something going on that you know is wrong.  You may be called to stand alone, and say, “I disagree with all of you.  This cannot be allowed.”  Don’t kid yourself – that takes courage.

Third, and finally, real leaders treat other people with common decency and respect.  Too often, those who are in charge demonstrate their power by making life miserable for their subordinates – just to show they can.  President Truman had it right when he said:  “Always be nice to all the people who can’t talk back to you.”  In America today, we badly need leaders with these three traits – integrity, courage, common decency.  

We also need people to step up and be of service to others.  It has been the sacrifice of those willing to step forward at a times of crises and conflict – men and women like so many present tonight – that has made it possible for us to live free and secure.  To be able to make the choices about our own lives that I’ve been talking about.  Those of you who will follow your parents into the armed services or other public service will sustain a noble tradition that often spans several generations.

But there are many ways to serve beyond the military:  at school, in your community, and elsewhere – as so many of you are doing already.  I think this work – service beyond self – is so important because when all is said and done, American democracy is not just about our rights – it’s also about our responsibilities and obligations.  Which brings me to my final point:  I’ve noticed that too often people back in the United States get so absorbed in their own needs, and their own problems, that they lose sight of how blessed we are to be citizens of the United States of America.  It is the goodness and opportunity of America that made all things possible for me, that made possible my journey from a public high school grad in Kansas to the corridors of power in Washington and around the world.  It has been my privilege, and the honor of my life, to give something back in service.  So, for all of you, tonight, with this graduation, the door to opportunity opens – for you to serve and to lead.

Good luck, and God bless. 

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