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Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Remarks for the 2020 United States Naval Academy Commencement

Good afternoon, it’s great to be here today.

I want to thank the United States Naval Academy for inviting me to participate in this year’s commencement.

Chaplain Foley, thank you for your invocation.

Acting Secretary McPherson, Admiral Burke, General Berger, Captain Buchanan, and Dr. Phillips thank you for being here.

Vice Admiral Buck, thank you for the kind introduction and for your leadership of an institution that has trained and prepared our country’s leaders for over 170 years.

To the friends and family tuning in today—especially the parents—thank you for your support and sacrifice over the years in anticipation of this moment.

In many ways, you have earned this as much as your sons and daughters, and the Nation thanks you for sharing them with us.

And most importantly, to the United States Naval Academy Class of 2020 – Congratulations and Bravo Zulu!

Today, you join the ranks of commissioned officers in the finest and strongest naval force in human history—the greatest the world has known—a distinction you have earned through dedication, hard work, and perseverance.

I know that making it through a service academy is challenging enough.

But your experience was made even more difficult by the outbreak of a global pandemic during your final year.

Yet, in spite of this crisis, you stayed true to your class motto: “We will find a way or make one.”

In the past few months, you’ve done just that, transitioning to a new normal.

You’ve adjusted to online instruction, shouldered more of the responsibilities for your personal development, and connected with others in new ways.

Through it all you’ve remained agile, flexible, and committed; these are traits that I expect from all of our military leaders, especially in difficult times like these.

While the coronavirus is a daunting, and in some ways, an unprecedented challenge, it is just one of the many trials you will experience throughout a lifetime of military service.

As new threats continue to emerge, you must remain ready, vigilant and prepared to protect our country, our people, and our way of life.

And, as our next ensigns and second lieutenants, you must never lose sight of our mission to deter conflict, preserve peace, and if necessary, to fight and win.

Today, the character of warfare is changing before our eyes.

The development of new cutting-edge technologies, coupled with the re-emergence of Great Power competition, requires us to prepare, once again, for high-intensity warfare against near-peers.

 The National Defense Strategy guides our efforts to adapt the force to a security environment shaped by new threats from our strategic competitors: China and Russia.

Both of these revisionist powers are modernizing their militaries and seeking control over critical waterways, such as the South China Sea and the Black Sea, in order to exert veto power over the economic and security decisions of smaller nations.

We see other countries trying to do the same in places like the Persian Gulf.

Thus, maintaining our maritime dominance and freedom of maneuver is critical to the success of our strategy, and essential to the preservation of the rules-based international order that has provided peace, security and prosperity for many around the world, for decades.

Maintaining American military superiority is particularly important in light of the threats posed by advanced technologies such as hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, and space-based weapons, which in the hands of our rivals, would allow them to challenge our ships, our aircraft, and our other joint platforms.

To counter these adversaries at sea, we are accelerating the development of next generation capabilities and designing a future fleet that is more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, and larger than we have seen in years.

Its distributed lethality will be marked by more and smaller surface combatants, lightly or optionally manned ships, an ample submarine force, and a modern strategic deterrent.

It will also require Marines trained and equipped for littoral warfare, enabled by unmanned systems, and networked to employ the advanced weapons systems and firepower the joint force can bring to bear.

This also means that we must modernize the way we fight by developing new Joint Warfighting Doctrine for the 21st century, and implementing novel concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.

Ultimately, tomorrow’s Navy and Marine Corps will serve even more nobly as a visible, ever-present, and dominant fighting force that will strike caution in the hearts of our adversaries, and uncertainty in the minds of our enemies.

It will allow us to project power, including through long-range precision fires, more capable ships, and advanced sensors, to stay ahead of all others, and to lead in a world fraught with new threats and unknown challenges.

And, it will operate at the forward edge of American interests—as the Navy and Marine Corps team have always done—defending against our enemies, providing a credible deterrent to competitors, and reassuring our allies and partners.

In short, you will be at the helm of the most lethal and advanced naval and Marine force operating on, above, beneath, and from, the Seven Seas.

You will master the oceans and control the littorals.

This will be a momentous time in our history, exciting and challenging on one hand, yet fraught with danger and uncertainty on the other.

Opportunity will abound, as will risk.

But you, each and every one of you, are ready.

Today you begin leading your fellow Sailors and Marines, and today you become stewards of our military’s most precious resource – our people.

In time, each of you will develop your own distinct leadership style, but the one attribute I expect all of you to share is the one this great academy has impressed upon you for four years: the imperative of possessing a strong and ethical character.

As leaders, your people will be watching you constantly.

It is not enough to merely comply with standards of behavior; you must also set an example of ethical leadership by doing what is right without hesitation; by never abusing your position or authority; and by upholding, at all times, the Navy and Marine Corps’ values of honor, courage, and commitment. 

Rest assured that your education and training have prepared you to be competent leaders.

If you doubt your abilities, or find yourself falling short, you will have non-commissioned officers, mentors, and peers to turn to for help.

And, if you make mistakes in performance, learn from them and recognize that they are a natural part of your development as officers and leaders.

Just don’t make too many of them.

However, with failures of character, you will rarely get a second chance.

Whereas mistakes of competence are often hard to anticipate, failures of character are apparent from the start.

Keep that front of mind as you face difficult tasks and challenging choices.

Inevitably, there will come a time when you must choose between the harder right, and the easier wrong. 

In that moment, your team will watch you closely to understand your priorities, your expectations, and your values.

They will assess your competence, but more importantly, they will judge your character.

When conditions get tough – when you’re cold, wet, and tired, and your Sailors and Marines just want to call it quits after a long day at sea or in the field, will you keep pushing them until their equipment is stowed, weapons are readied, and the mission is completed?

When your subordinate makes an honest mistake while acting under your direction, will you accept responsibility when asked what went wrong? 

Only you can answer these questions.

And in those moments, your values must guide you to do the right thing, for the right reason, and just as importantly – in the right way.           

Moreover, as you take on the responsibilities of a Naval or Marine Corps officer, I want you to remember that leadership at its core is a privilege, not a right, and that trust is earned, not given.

To build trust, your Sailors and Marines must have confidence that you will do the right thing, even when it requires taking the more difficult path.

And remember, trust is fragile. It can take years of time and effort to gain, a moment to lose, and a lifetime to restore.

Finally, know that no matter how difficult the circumstances, Sailors and Marines, past and present, have faced them too and rose to the challenge.

From overpowering the Barbary pirates on the shores of Tripoli and defeating the British at the Battle of Lake Erie, to turning the tide of the war at Midway and securing the streets of Fallujah, our Service members have answered our Nation’s call.

I know that each of you will as well.

And as officers you will have the opportunity to lead men and women of the highest caliber such as Mess Attendant Doris “Dorie” Miller, the namesake of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier.

In 1942, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions on the USS West Virginia during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

On that fateful day, he raced to his battle station at the sound of alarms, only to find that it had been destroyed by a torpedo.

As he went on deck, he carried his fellow wounded sailors to safety and aided the mortally wounded Captain while under fire.

Then, he was assigned to another battle station, where he fired .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns at Japanese bombers for nearly fifteen minutes straight, until he exhausted his ammunition.

Miller was 22 years old at the time, with just over two years of service under his belt.

He had no formal training on the ship’s machine guns and only seconds of instruction from a young lieutenant.

But as the ship’s communications officer put it, he was “blazing away as though he had fired one all his life.”

Dorie Miller represents the type of American that you now have the privilege to lead.

It is a great honor and responsibility, and I am confident that you are prepared for the challenge.

Today, you become officers in the most ready, capable, and lethal fighting force in the world.

Be proud of all that you have accomplished, and commit yourself to being a leader of character.

Never lose sight of the Navy and Marine Corps’ values – honor, courage, and commitment – and hold yourselves to the highest ethical standards.

Your Sailors, Marines – and fellow Americans – deserve nothing less.   

Thank you, and once again, congratulations.

Go Navy and Semper Fi.