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Austin Tells Cadets They're Ready to Meet Challenges in Changing World

May 22, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III today told the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, that when he was a cadet in the 1970s, his leaders taught him valuable lessons that served him well during his 41-year Army career.

During his first commencement speech at West Point, Austin said the academy was particularly rigorous at imparting military lessons, as well as academic subjects. "I sometimes wondered what good would come out of all this intensity."

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Among those lessons were the value of being well prepared; learning to focus; following with loyalty; questioning with rigor, character, discipline, teamwork; mastering one's trade; telling the truth; treating people with dignity and respect; and leading with honor, he said.

"Those values are the lasting legacy of West Point. Those are the guideposts that will steer you right when you face the hardest decisions of your lives," he said. 

Austin said the cadets will face new challenges and adversity in a rapidly changing world.

"You're about to graduate into a changing country and a changing world where many of the old ways of doing business don't hold up anymore," he said. "You're seeing raw divisions at home and the painful aftermath of the pandemic. 

U.S. Military Academy cadets stand with their right hand raised during a ceremony.
Graduation Ceremony
The graduating class of U.S. Military Academy cadets stand during the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, May 22, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders, DOD
VIRIN: 210522-D-XI929-1020

"You may also have heard some of America's competitors claim that the future belongs to a model that promises wealth as it stamps out freedom," he added, referring to China and Russia.

The graduating cadets are entering a world where technology will change the character of war itself, he said.

"Even as big and rising powers jostle and compete, you are seeing new threats—from pandemics to terrorism to cyber weapons—and you're seeing those threats race across borders like a gale," Austin said, adding that the department is working hard every day to meet those challenges.

Soldiers don't fight for a tribe, a political leader, conquest or plunder, he said. Soldiers are at their best when they fight to defend the republic and its democratic ideals that include human rights, human dignity and human liberty, he said.

Troops carry a log.
Log Carry
Teams competed in 17 various challenges during the 52nd annual Sandhurst Military Skills Competition at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., April 22, 2021.
Photo By: Photo by Class of 2023 Cadet Tyler Williams
VIRIN: 210422-A-A3342-1001

Austin noted that during his time in uniform, the Army wasn't a perfect institution. "I've seen the problems. But just like the nation it defends, the U.S. military strives to be a more perfect version of itself — and I will take that over our competitors any day.

"You serve a country that strives to grow, and to mend, and to reach the better angels of our nature," he added. 

More About the Class of 2021

This year's graduating class included:

  • 996 cadets graduated
  • Cadets from all 50 states and 13 other nations
  • 122 women and a full 70% of the cadets will serve in one of the combat arms branches
  • 38 cadets were national scholarship recipients
  • 65 cadets earned certification as master fitness trainers 

More About the Defense Secretary

Austin's family included other service members, including:

  • His father, who served in World War II as a truck driver in the Army Air Corps.
  • His uncle, who was a Green Beret and left a lasting impression on Austin when he was a youngster. Austin said he knew he wanted to be like him someday.

Austin wanted to go to Notre Dame and even had a full scholarship to go there, but his father talked him into going to West Point. The trip to West Point included his first-ever airplane ride. Before going to the academy, the furthest north Austin ever went was north Georgia. 

Graduates throw caps in the air at the conclusion of commencement services.
Graduation Celebration
Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy celebrate at the commencement ceremony, West Point, N.Y., May 22, 2021.
Photo By: CDT Ellington Ward
VIRIN: 210522-D-DO439-574

More About West Point

The U. S. Military Academy is a four-year, co-educational, federal, liberal arts college located 50 miles north of New York City. 

It was founded in 1802 as America's first college of engineering and continues today as the world's premier leader-development institution, consistently ranked among the top colleges in the country. 

Its mission is to educate, train and inspire the corps of cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character who is committed to the values of duty, honor, country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the nation as an Army officer.