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Remarks at the Yale ROTC Commissioning

It’s great to be back at Yale. This campus holds many special memories for me, and I know it will for all of you who attended and drilled here - moments, values and lessons you’ll carry with you for your entire life. This is a very important homecoming of sorts for the nation as well, with the commissioning of the first class to spend four years drilling on this magnificent campus in over four decades.

I’m so happy that ROTC is back on Yale’s campus, and welcoming students from other great schools in the area as well. I remember when that was not the case, I remember it well. And I’m so gratified to be Secretary of Defense in this era, when society is very admiring of the Department of Defense and the military, and many young people are giving it serious consideration.

It makes me very proud of both the military institution I lead, and the academic institution we now share in common.  

I want to thank Captain Kemper, for that introduction, and I want to thank your President, Peter Salovey, for inviting me to be here today. I also want to thank Governor Malloy for being here. And I want to thank all of the families here today for allowing me to share this magnificent day with you.

Most of all, I want to thank the 18 remarkable men and women we honor today, for embracing the awesome responsibility of leadership, and accepting the noblest mission that I believe a young person can pursue, which is to provide security for the American people and indeed much of the rest of the world.

It’s been said that security is like oxygen. When you have it, you don't think about it. But when you don't have it, it's all you can think about.  You have stepped forward to give our people that security that allows them to get up in the morning, take their kids to school, go to work, dream their dreams, live lives that are full.

And there's no better feeling than being a part of that mission. As you step forward into a complex and changing world, our nation is counting on your constant professionalism, on your pursuit of innovation, and most of all, on your principled leadership.

So before you pin on your bars, I want to take some time to discuss the strategic landscape into which you will soon figure.  Then I’d like to discuss briefly several of the lessons that I need and expect you to carry with you to the great challenges you will confront in your career.

Today, we face no fewer than five major, immediate and evolving  challenges: countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia-Pacific region; strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s nuclear provocations; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Persian Gulf; and accelerating the defeat of ISIL in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and everywhere it’s metastasizing around the world.

We don’t have the luxury of choosing among these five challenges. We have to deal with them all – and they may all affect your career in some way at different times.  Your service may span decades.  A future Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State – both Yalies - may very well be in this chapel. 

And history tells us that ten, twenty years from now, new challenges we don't even foresee and aren't among the ones I just named, will almost certainly arise.  To help you prepare and succeed today, and to lead and thrive in a complex and uncertain future, I want to speak briefly about four commitments that guide me, and that I want you to have and take with you wherever you go.

The first commitment is to ground your training and actions in our core mission at the Department of Defense: our primary obligation will always be protecting our people and serving our nation’s interests.  When I sit with the President in the situation room, we are always focused on America’s interests because that is what matters most.

And we also recognize that protecting American interests often means leading others, and leading by example.  Ever since World War II, America has been the world’s foremost leader, partner, and underwriter of stability in the world. It is a mantle we embraced again following the Cold War. And one that continues today to the great benefit of this nation, but also the rest of the world.

The positive and enduring partnerships the United States has cultivated with other nations around the world are built on our interests. They understand that. But they can also see that it's built on our values, which most find decent, honorable and attractive. One thing I hear consistently from foreign leaders is how much they like working with the men and women of the United States military. 

They want to work with you not just because you're capable and competent, and have an extraordinary force, but also because of the way you conduct yourselves. They can trust you.

Other nations know that you'll treat them with respect, and that we’ll take their interests into account. That trust creates opportunities to defend our own interests.

So whether you're working with our Coalition partners over the skies of Syria or Iraq, or conducting exercises with our allies in the waters of the Pacific, or responding to a disaster in some far off corner of the globe, remember that your individual actions will be a clear reflection of our values and our leadership in the world. That is your opportunity, and your responsibility.

In a way, you have already reflected our values through your service right here on campus. And that brings me to the second commitment I want to talk about today, and that is that it's our people who make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

As leaders in the return of ROTC to this campus, you’ve helped bridge a divide that persisted for too long. And in the process you’ve actually enhanced the education of your classmates as well as your own. For some of your classmates, you’re the first member of the military they’ve ever gotten to know – I hear the uniforms are a big hit on campus. And so you’ve already given them a perspective they never had before, just as they’ve probably expanded your perspective as well.

That will continue as you maintain these friendships beyond graduation. People think differently about the world when a former roommate is managing the nuclear reactor on a submarine, or a former organic chemistry classmate is serving as a combat medic, or a fellow programmer is defending our nation’s cybersecurity.

It's our people who will ensure that the force of tomorrow, which you will command, remains as great as the force of today. And we can't take that for granted. It has to be earned, again and again. That's why I'm so intent on building what I call the force of the future.

We have already announced reforms, including expanded opportunities for our service members to gain outside experience and more chances for outside talent to serve our mission of national defense, and expand family policies such as maternity and paternity leave and expanded day care so as you progress in your careers, you don’t ever have to choose between family and service. And we will be announcing more reforms soon. We have to continue to recruit and retain the very best talent for our all-volunteer force -- people as fine as you -- and we need to do that as generations change, technology changes, families change, and job markets change.

Our nation is strongest when we draw from all of our strengths, and when we give our best people every opportunity to serve. That’s also why we’re opening all combat positions to women, to expand our access to all of our population.

Competing for good people for an all-volunteer force is a critical part of our military edge, and everyone should understand this need and my commitment to it.

As you prepare to assume command, don’t ever forget that our people are our greatest strength. Recognize the caliber of those you will lead as a brand-new officer. Respect the quality of experience of the NCOs under your command. Remember their families and the sacrifices they make. And don’t ever forget that those you lead count on you to do your utmost.

Third, I want you to remember that our nation's defense rests on being able to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems. And that's only going to be more so in the future. In many situations, you're going to encounter unexpected challenges.

I’ve told you what we're up to today, and that's plenty. But I also told you we don't know what awaits us tomorrow, and we need to be ready for that, too.

Have the courage to accept risk and solve those problems, and the wisdom to determine when that risk becomes a gamble. You're responsible for the lives of your people in the accomplishment of your mission. Balancing these two solemn duties is one of the most difficult tasks you'll face, but you've got to succeed. That's the burden of command.

When you plan, rehearse, and execute your missions, you must also be able to reevaluate the situation constantly, and take a new course of action when the situation demands it. And to chart a new course, you must have the confidence to be open to new ideas, like the men who led the Yale Preparedness Movement, and became some of the first military aviators—and aces—during World War I.

They included one of my predecessors, Bob Lovett, who organized the production of the planes, and the training of the men, that would be decisive in World War II.

At the Pentagon, I've made it a priority to encourage people at all levels to think outside what I call our five-sided box, because we are a learning organization. The culture of learning you have experienced on this campus can't end with your graduation. You're warriors first, but you're also scientists, mathematicians, and so much more. Every day, you crack the code in some way. We need you to continue doing so.

This should be a lesson for our enemies. Never underestimate the ingenuity of American officers. It's a competitive world out there. And we need to maintain competitive advantage over our enemies. They're trying, too. They're evolving. They're adapting. They're trying to go faster. We need to be better.

And fourth, I want to discuss the importance of being a leader of character. As you prepare to leave this storied campus, you take with you the rich military tradition and history embodied in all of those who have drilled and studied here before you. Walk by the Yale Alumni War Memorial, or the memorial in Woolsey Hall, and you're reminded of what you are part of and what you will contribute to. And today, you are writing a remarkable new chapter to that history. 

As you accept your commission, I want you to consider the words of George Washington, who told his own officers, “Remember that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the officer, and that there is more expected from him than his title.”

These words will have greater meaning to you as your careers progress. Character is a lesson you have to constantly learn - you're never done. And it’s a lesson you will teach as well, throughout your career.

We're a great nation with great responsibilities. As we meet these responsibilities, our nation stands on the foundation of character that both you and this university make stronger and stand for, and show to the rest of the world.  As you embark on your career of lives of service, know that our country is 100 percent behind you. And I am 1,000 percent behind you. I know that’s not possible, but…

Everyone in this chapel knows what you've put into this, and we know what you're able to achieve. You're doing the noblest thing you can do, and I'm exceedingly proud of you. Congratulations to each of you, and to your families. Thank you all.