Remarks by Secretary Mattis at the graduation ceremony for the Air Force Academy’s Class of 2018

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Hey, thanks everybody and what a great day here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. And those mountains reach right up into the sky and they remind us that these graduates have got unlimited horizons as they move out of this superb school that they've been at.

Sometimes held against their will, but now finally we will grant them emancipation. But Secretary Wilson, thank you for the introduction. General (David L.) Goldfein, old friend, thank you. And General (Jay B.) Silveria for inviting me out here to spend the day with you.

I do have my three hour speech and my 12 minute speech. I'm trying to figure out which one to give, but as I look at the deadly looks on the faces of the graduates, I decided to go with the short version. (Laughter.)

But congratulations to all of you cadets and to your families, the ones who provided support to - for you as you pursued this great honor that you're gaining here today. The - the graduation certificate that gives proof that you did it.

I would also say that it's a top rated school and like the Chaplain said in that great prayer, the education was paid for by your grateful fellow citizens that you're taking on this responsibility. So you are also some of the few who graduate in our country with no student debt, congratulations again. (Laughter.)

(APPLAUSE)

But graduates, your mission commences. And I think that we have to make the Air Force better every day. You cannot just accept it for what it is. As you heard earlier, you must make it into your own image. And you have a lot of a legacy to carry on forward.

As we remove any sense of complacency while leading by example. Because more than any other piece of your leadership, it will be your example that most inspires and shapes our Air Force for the future. Today, we gain almost 1,000 of you young lieutenants.

Bringing new vigor into our force and you are eager I know to defend what General Goldfein called this great, big experiment that you and I call America. When I joined the military like General Goldfein, I was 18 years old.

I never could've pictured I would be here, standing here in front of you trying to wax eloquent with something that you might find of value. I had an Air Force military assistant, Brigadier General Gipper Bunch characterized how different your life is going to be.

When he said he learned to embrace and enjoy the beauty of the unexpected. And that's exactly what you're in for in the U.S. Air Force. And it's going to be such an adventure that many others will envy you what you have done.

Today you follow in the footsteps of Air Force academy giants, like our own Secretary of the Air Force Secretary Wilson. Certainly General Goldfein, who I have served alongside, who has great respect for his leadership.

But go back a few years to Karol Bobko and Frederick Gregory from the first class in 1959. And these were two of the leaders who led our nation's charge into space. Of course, there's the indomitable Lance Sijan, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and never caving into fear and earning our nation's highest decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor only a few short years after graduation.

And then again, we have to remember too that because of the dedication of graduates of this school and your forbearers, America's air superiority stretches all the way back to World War II. To the war that defined your service's heroism.

The war that proved that you could hold the line for your country. When the Doolittle Raid proved following Pearl Harbor that a stunned nation had airmen who would come back swinging, keeping alive the spirit of resistance as our nation mobilized.

You're the same Air Force that flew against Ploiesti, the toughest possible opposition that could've been mustered against you. But it also was an Air Force that had the red tails of the Tuskegee Airmen, who gave everything they had to protect the bombers who were striking deep into enemy territory.

(APPLAUSE)

And when I saw that your class had chosen the namesake of Louis Zamperini, who epitomized the unbroken character that's now synonymous with our Air Force, a resolute character that your nation is now counting on each of you to provide.

Your predecessors also proved their mettle fighting it out in MiG Alley over Korea, and earned 41 new aces in that fight. And they maintained the line over the skies of Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Jolly Green Giants went into harm's way to rescue those at their greatest time of need, downed behind enemy lines.

You held the line during the nearly 70,000 sorties flown in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and so many more sorties that are being flown today, as we sit here, in the complex skies and missions over Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, holding the line, and leading the way for dozens of other nations to commit their forces to the fight that we're in, because of your ready, reliable stance overhead.

Now, I don't share these stories about unflinching bravery to give you a history lesson. You've received plenty of those during your four years here at the academy. I share this is a reminder of the legacy that is now entrusted to you, the warrior ethos and the fierce character you now inherit as you own -- as your own character will now have to stand. It will have to stand between us and some of the forces that would take our democracy and our liberty away. You are there to inspire, and you are there to assure yourselves that you will encounter nothing worse in the future than what previous graduates encountered and overcame.

And thanks to our Air Force's decades of America's ground and naval forces that have operated with that certainty, that certainty that the sky overhead was held by you overhead, watching over them like guardian angels.

I have a personal experience with this faith in air power. In late 2001 in Afghanistan, then-Lieutenant General (Michael) Buzz Moseley promised me that "If you're in trouble, I'll put every plane in the sky over your head." And for the first time in 30 years as a Marine infantryman, I did not take artillery into the assault waves attacking 350 nautical miles in from the sea. That is how much confidence I, and every other member of the Joint Force has in an Air Force officer's word, and our Air Force's ability to hold the high ground overhead.

Each of you are now responsible for ensuring American air superiority survives in a world of renewed competition, inspiring that same confidence in those you lead, and your comrades below, who are relying on you to unleash your ferocious capabilities in the finest tradition of the Doolittle Raiders.

Now, from my remote position as the secretary of defense, I don't know many of you, or any of you personally. Yet, I do know your character, my fine young airmen. Growing up as witnesses to the longest stretch of combat in our nation's history, every single one of you could have chosen a different college, a different profession, a different path; paths that would've been undoubtedly far less demanding than what this academy asked of you these past four years, or what our Air Force, our nation, and even our allies will ask of you in the years to come, as together, we defend freedom. Pledging your honor, just as those patriots did who signed our Declaration of Independence, an independence you will now defend with your lives. For at your young age, you chose to pursue a life of service and for that, our nation gives you respect.

Because you signed the blank check to the American people payable with your lives. You now stand ready to hold the line to protect America's experiment in democracy, with all the cunning, ferocity and grit you have inside you.

And as you step into your new roles, my expectation for you is quite simple. Always be ready to fight and to win. There's no room for complacency as our adversaries do everything in their power to erode our military's competitive edge.

And even less room for a sense of cynicism or victimhood. Your primary weapon system now is your attitude, coupled with the legacy of the Air Force that permitted you to join its ranks. As you train to become pilots, remote pilots, space officers, combat systems officers, missileers, intel officers, engineers no matter the specialty that you pursue.

In every domain and by your service as you fan out across our Air Force, we want you to bring rigor and vigor to our forces. You will be essential to ensuring our nation maintains our edge in the air, now and also in the contested war fighting domains of outer space and cyberspace.

In the department, we remain undistracted in our pursuit of military superiority, for America has no ordained right to victory on the battlefield. It is now your responsibility to ensure our adversaries know they should always prefer to talk to our Department of State, rather than face the U.S. Air Force.

(APPLAUSE)

Those of you - those of you - anybody out there in the world, anyone who wants to test our country's resolve must know the full threat and the weight of the words you proudly sing in the Air Force song, ‘give her the gun’.

Doing so - doing so means unleashing the initiative and aggressiveness of those you will lead, keeping in mind that is the airmen's boldness and an unrelenting commitment that would derail our adversaries. As officers, you will have only to win one battle, and the battle for your troops’ respect and your peers’ respect.

Gaining their affection for an Air Force, because once you win that battle through your example, your airmen will win all the others. More than six decades ago, then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan Twining stood in front of the first class of cadets on your academy's dedication day.

Delivering words of wisdom to those about to open their first chapter of their service. He said the eyes of the nation and especially the eyes of the Air Force are going to be on you. Everybody will be looking over your shoulder and they will be critical, for they have a right to expect great things.

Today, that expectation still holds. The American people and especially our veterans continue to expect great things from you. We need you now and tomorrow at the top of your game, we need you harder than petrified woodpecker lips.

We need you mentally sharp, we need you physically tough and we need you spiritually strong. So aim high clear into the outer reaches of space, fly, fight and win, and as you have been good cadets, go and be good officers.

Congratulations to you, God preserve you and God bless America.