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Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Force of the Future

Good morning everyone! What a great looking crowd! I used to sit right down there.

Good morning and thanks for that. And thank you Kayla for a wonderful and warm introduction and for your ambition to join us in your Department of Defense. Kayla is obviously bright and driven, like many of you in the school here. And we’re very much looking forward to having her join our ranks.

I also want to thank our Congressman who is here, for joining us, Congressman Boyle. He went to Cardinal Dougherty, so – but he seemed to have done all right, despite that, not being an Abington graduate.  But he represents this place in Congress.

And it’s great to be back here at Abington. I feel so fortunate to have begun my life in Abington High School. And you have today – I’m so admiring of the leadership that your school has – Superintendent Sichel, very well-known around the country and celebrated superintendent; your wonderful principal, Mr. Berrios; and, by the way, the principal in my day, Norm Schmidt, who’s here also.

Now, I don’t know about you, but in my day, we revered the superintendent, we respected the principal, but the assistant principal…we really just feared. And we have a couple of them also. In fact, I was just taken into the principal’s office, and it was a throwback: my heart started to beat quickly, remembering what I had done.

So a lot’s changed, but a few things that haven’t, one is that Abington is still, as we used to hear every morning, “first in the alphabet, first in achievement” – or academics, I guess – “and first in athletics.” And in that connection, I was – did three sports when I was here, and two of my coaches of here, and the wife of a third coach. I just want to mention them a minute, not because I was so good – actually, I really wasn’t...

I – Mr. Gavagan’s here and can speak to my career as a cross-country runner. And what I remember about Mr. Gavagan was him standing out there on the field with – and he’d look at his stopwatch, and he’d say, "Carter, I don’t even know why I use this. I should get a calendar for you."

And then Mr. Roeder was my wrestling coach. I was also not so good at that.

But the only thing I was even half-good at was lacrosse, and my coach in those days was the legendary “Doc” Jurich. And Joanne, his wife, is here today somewhere, and I just wanted to give a shout out to you, Joanne, and to "Doc."

…Three great coaches. Three great coaches. And – and by the way, Mr. Roeder was my physics teacher too. And I told him this morning – it’s really true – I wouldn’t be a physicist if it weren’t for Mr. Roeder.

And I wouldn’t – I know that I wouldn’t be where I am now without Abington High School. And so for all those people who are part of my past and are now part of your future, thank you.

So I wanted to come here today to talk to you, because your generation is the future of our country, and the future of our national security.

And we now have the finest fighting force the world has ever known, and we’re blessed to have that…And they’re not just defending our country against terrorists in places like Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq; they’re helping to defend cyberspace, as Kayla indicated also.  They’re working with cutting-edge technologies, like robotics and biomedical engineering. When disaster strikes, they deliver aid all over the world, from the nuclear-reactor meltdown in Japan to Superstorm Sandy here in the United States.  And they mobilized to Africa to save thousands of lives, helping keep the deadly Ebola virus from spreading around the world.

So our country’s military’s missions continue to evolve rapidly as our world changes and as technology continues to revolutionize everything we do.

What all this means is that the institution that I lead, the Department of Defense, has to keep pace with that change as well – to keep our nation secure.

We speak in acronyms at the Pentagon, and one of them is “BLUF,” B-L-U-F. It stands for Bottom Line Up Front, where you tell somebody the meat of what you have to say right away.

So let me tell you the BLUF of what I want to say to you.  I’ve made a commitment to the men and women in uniform, to President Obama and to the American people that as Secretary of Defense, I will drive change to build what I call the force of the future: the military and the broader Defense Department that we need to serve and defend our country in the years to come.

And that is the vision that I want to talk to you about today.

Movies like American Sniper, video games like Call of Duty, TV commercials with troops coming, home – you see all those – and they’re most likely where you see our military every day, unless you have a family member or a friend who’s serving.  And while all those images are somewhat true, they’re only a slice of what our military does on a daily basis. The jobs and lives and stories of our military are as varied as the 2.3 million members we have.

Because we too often talk about sacrifice alone, which is no small thing, we probably don’t spend enough time highlighting the opportunities that exist and the fulfillment one has from achieving excellence and doing it in service to your country. No one should gloss over the hardships or the dangers of military life, but I do want you to understand how fulfilling and rewarding military life can be also.

If you ask people just like you, people like the over 150 Abington graduates who’ve joined the military, both before and after college, since 2000 – or anyone else who serves about what military life is really like, they’d tell you that they have friends, that they’re able to have a family. And even on bases around the world, they’ve been watching March Madness, too. 

Some are doing all of this, as enlisted personnel, those who signed up right after high school – who will pursue college education over time – while others are in college participating in R.O.T.C. programs. I stress these two approaches to let you know that, in all cases, college and higher learning are encouraged – encouraged – because we need our sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines to be the best and the brightest this country has to offer.  That’s why nearly 40% of our officers come out of in R.O.T.C. programs at colleges and universities around the country. And we send many of them to top-notch graduate programs, like civil engineering at M.I.T., medical school at Stanford, Penn’s Wharton Business School.  Plus, everyone who serves can get college benefits through the G.I. Bill which has helped over 1.3 million Americans pay for college over the past 5 ½ years – 1.3 million college educations.

Our men and women in uniform would also tell you that not only are most days more exciting than they expected, but also that they’ve been empowered with more opportunities and more responsibilities than they ever could have imagined. And they tell you how satisfying it is to be part of something bigger than yourself with people who become their closest friends.

Ask Lieutenant Matt Capps Abington Class of 2000, who’s currently a Navy helicopter pilot stationed in Hawaii. That sounds pretty good already, right? He’s also married, two boys. And because he decided to join the military, he’s been able to literally travel around the world, make the closest of friends and even get his MBA from Drexel. He’ll tell you that serving his country was, as he put it, one of the best decisions he’s ever made, second only to marrying his wife Alison.

Some of you might know Matt’s mom, Carole, who still works here at Abington. I know how proud she is of Matt. We’re all proud of him, too.

Now you don’t have to...Where? Is Carole here? Say hi to Matt. Now you don’t have to join the military to serve your country. I didn’t. But Matt and all those other Abington graduates are the foundation of our future force.

There are lots of other pieces, too, like having the best technology, the best planes, ships, and tanks. But it all starts and ends with our people. If we can’t continue to attract, inspire, and excite talented young Americans like you, then nothing else will matter.

Our military is so magnificent, both because of what it’s become and what it’s always been.  Our troops today are the latest in a long line of American patriots stretching back over 200 years, whether in Fallujah or in Helmand, recently, they’ve carried out the proud traditions you read about in history classes from Lexington, Concord, Gettysburg and Normandy.

And today our force is made up entirely of volunteers. Everyone has their own reasons for joining. And over the last decade or so, many signed up because our country was attacked on September 11th, 2001, and because of the threat of terrorism that’s still with us today.

But in the coming years, as the so-called 9/11 generation begins to leave our ranks, the Defense Department must continue to bring in talented Americans from your generation and others.

That starts with being honest about our challenges in attracting people we need and want. For one thing, fewer young Americans are capable of serving in the military. Of the 21 million Americans aged 17-to-21, we estimate that only about half are able to meet our high-quality standards on our entry exam – only about half. And when you factor in our standards for physical fitness and for character, only about a third are actually eligible to join the military. And as people already in our military retire or move on to new opportunities in life, we have to bring in about 250,000 each year just to keep up.

We’ve got another challenge also just over the horizon, actually because of good news in our economy. As our growing economy creates more civilian jobs, which is a good thing obviously, we’re going to have to work harder to compete to keep bringing in America’s best and brightest to our military. And when it comes to recruiting some of the most highly skilled parts of our force, like cybersecurity specialists, who are also in high demand in corporate America, we’ll have to be even more creative, because we’re going to need a lot more of them in the years to come.

To meet all these challenges, the Defense Department has to think hard about how to attract, inspire, and excite people like you.

Now, look, I know each and every one of us is different. And I remember that when I was a teenager, one of America’s most popular magazines had an article on its cover calling us in that generation – and I quote – "lazy cop-outs."

When one generation talks about the next, there’s always a sense that “the kids these days have it too easy.” And one day, even you guys will begin to talk that way and start to say, "When I was your age," and so on.

But the fact is, we’re all shaped by the world around us. I grew up during the Cold War, when it was us versus the Soviet Union – and that drove a lot of how we thought and what we did. You were born a decade after the Cold War ended. Some of you have only dim memories, I know, of 9/11; others may not remember it all.

My daughter was only eight years old on 9/11.

And like my kids, you’ve grown up using technology as second nature, which has probably helped you learn more than any prior generation about all the opportunities life can offer. Technology has also given you an unprecedented ability to collaborate, create, make your voice heard, and be more globally-minded in all you do. And maybe that’s part of why you’re not just more diverse, but also more open and tolerant than past generations. All these things make your generation unique, and all these things make you attractive to us.

[But] some things don’t change. You’re just as devoted to living lives of service and purpose as the generations that were – won World War II, fought for civil rights, and drove the Internet revolution that’s reshaped our politics, economy, society, and culture. And we need the finest among you in the next year to lend your skill and talent to securing our country and helping make a better world.

So, to get you to join, we need to better understand your generation. Not just who you are, but also what you value.

Every year since 1975, the University of Michigan has been asking high school seniors what they value in life. You can probably guess the concept themes – they want interesting jobs, strong friendships, a good family life, the ability to succeed and give their kids better opportunities than they had. That’s the American dream.

But a few things have changed.  For one, your generation values more than just having a job and a family. Compared to 30 years ago, people your age are more likely to want a job where you can try and experience new things. You’re more committed to being leaders in your communities, and you care more about taking on responsibility and making a difference in the world around you. I know many of you here at Abington already have a strong sense of service and commitment to making the world a better place – you’ve raised thousands of dollars to help children with cancer, for example.

You’re also more likely to go to college than your parents and grandparents – something I know many of you are thinking about this very week.  And once you get into the workplace, you’re more likely to want feedback and mentoring so you can keep learning and growing.

So much of this is the core of what life is like in the Defense Department…and I’m not just saying that because I run the place.

If you want to try to experience new things, think about a young woman who works with me at the Pentagon, a Navy lieutenant, who’s been to more countries than the number of years she’s been alive. No other job lets you do that.

If you want to go to college, without taking on a mountain of debt, the G.I. Bill can give you up to $284,000 for college. At a time when student loans account for over a trillion dollars of debt in America, that’s unbeatable…and it helped three U.S. Presidents, a Supreme Court Justice – as well as your principal and one of your physics teachers – all graduate from college debt-free.

If you want responsibility and leadership opportunities, we’re better at that than any other institution on earth. A relatively recent study showed that, while former military officers made up only 3 percent of U.S. adult men, they’re 10 percent of the CEOs of America’s largest corporations – companies like Johnson & Johnson, FedEx and Verizon.  And today, leadership skills are often the number-one reason why companies want to hire veterans.

And finally, if you want to make a difference defending your country and making a better world, it’s the highest calling there is out there.

So here’s the bottom line: You’re our kind of people – your generation is a great fit for the U.S. military and a great fit for what we do.

Because our mission is so important and since our people are that heart of it, we’re exploring new ideas that will make us an even better fit for a generation like yours.  The Pentagon can be a pretty closed, five-sided box. So we need to think outside of it, and we know that. Because if a good idea will help make us better, we’re going to consider it.

For example, we know from talking to people your age how much you value merit – the principle that people should be given responsibilities and benefits they deserve. Today the military rank structure still dates back to when Napoleon was invading Europe two hundred years ago. Now there’s some good reasons for that. But certainly specialty jobs, like cyber-security, we need to be looking at ways to bring in more qualified people, even if they’re already in the middle of their career, rather than just starting out. And as college loans get bigger and bigger for people with certain skills, we need to look at ways to help pay off student debts for people who’ve already gone to college.

We also have to look at ways to promote people, but not on just when they joined but even more, based on their performance and their talent. And we need to be on the cutting edge of evaluating performance. Your generation’s command of technology is beyond what we’ve ever seen, and we need to take advantage of that kind of data-intensive technology – the kind that you use every day, and that suggests movies and TV shows and so forth on Netflix or who to follow on Twitter or Facebook – and apply them to measure and to chart how a person is doing in all aspects of their job on a day-to-day basis. We also need to use 21st century technologies – like LinkedIn kinds of thing – to help develop 21st century leaders and give our people even more flexibility and choice in deciding their next job…in the military.

And while we currently have internships, fellowships, and pilot programs that let people pause their military service for a few years – while they’re getting a degree, learning a new skill, or starting a family – right now these programs are very small.  These programs are good for us and our people because they help people bring new skills and talents from outside back into the military. So we need to look not only at ways we can improve and expand those programs, but also think about completely new ideas to help our people gain new skills and experiences.

Finally, knowing how much your generation cares about diversity, drawing talent from a wide range of gender, racial, religious, cultural, economic, educational, and all sorts of other backgrounds – we’re going to keep making sure that anyone who’s able and willing to serve their country has the full and equal opportunity to do so.  Whether you’re a man or woman, gay, lesbian or straight, no matter what walk of life your family comes from.

And we’ll make sure you’re treated with dignity and respect.

We’re already a leader.  Right now, the Defense Department has a higher share of senior women leaders than America’s most profitable companies do. And we’re going to do even better because that’s the only way to compete in the 21st century.

I’m glad your generation has lots of choices in life, and I know you do – especially if you go to Abington – so we’re going to be competing hard for talent like yours around the country…engaging not just in the usual places, but everywhere we can find talented people like yourselves.

Now, I know that not everyone here in this room now is thinking about military service – and that’s okay. But if you’re like I was, and you’re still interested in serving your country and making a better world, we need to be ready to help with ways you can serve as a civilian. Right now, that’s not something our local recruiters offer, but we have to re-think that.

We want people to consider military and public service because when it comes to working in national security, no matter what you do, military or civilian, you will be better off for having been part of this incredible mission. Whether it’s the people, the skills, or the experiences, nothing else compares. I guarantee it.

So let me close by putting all this in perspective.

You’ve grown up in an era when plenty of public figures and big institutions have given you good reason to ask tough questions about them, whether it’s gridlock in Congress or controversies surrounding some of our biggest banks, corporations, and sports teams.

But there’s also a good reason why in spite of all this most Americans your age – and most of the rest of the country – still hold one institution in high esteem, and that’s our nation’s military. You can look it up...year after year, Gallup polls show our military is the most trusted institution in America.

That’s partly because Americans know deep down that our men and women in uniform will always do whatever it takes to keep our country secure.

And it’s partly because honor and sacrifice – putting yourself at risk for your fellow Americans – these are timeless values.

That’s why people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver – who all spend a lot of time poking fun at our government and our society – also spend lots of time off-camera supporting those who serve in uniform. Because the military is something special.

Now, no institution is above scrutiny – and I’m scrutinizing the Pentagon more than anyone else. But the military and public service as a whole is worthy of your respect…worthy of your support…and worthy of your consideration as a career, not just for the difference it will make in your life, but also the difference it will let you make in the lives of others.

One last point. I myself didn’t think much about national security when I was your age. I was focused on physics, history, sports, things like that.

That changed a few years later when I heard a speech about the future of technology in the military. It helped me realize that I could make a contribution to defending this country.  As it turned out, that speaker was a man named Bill Perry, who later became my mentor, stood in for my father at my wedding, my friend, and a Secretary of Defense.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a future Secretary of Defense sitting among you today…maybe it’ll be Kayla, or maybe someone else. But I’m also confident that you all have something to contribute: the drive to be part of something bigger than yourself.

That’s where the call to service begins. And that’s the beginning of how, together, we’ll make a better and a brighter world.  Thank you.