Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

Secretary of Defense Austin Remarks for the U.S. Military Academy Graduation Ceremony (As Prepared)

May 22, 2021

Thank you so much. 

And thank you, Lieutenant General Williams, for that warm introduction.

You know, coming back here always feels like coming home.

It’s great to see Senator Reed and his classmates from the Class of 1971, Congressman Womack, Acting Secretary Whitley, General McConville, and so many other supporters of this exceptional academy.

And let me thank Lieutenant General Williams, Command Sergeant Major Coffey, and all the faculty and staff of West Point, for all that you have done to uphold the traditions of this extraordinary place, and for all that you have done for the newest officers in the United States Army.

And that brings me to the Class of 2021.

You know, the next time I see your commander in chief, I will report to him some very good news about the U.S. Army: reinforcements are on their way.

Let me also give a quick shout-out to your First Captain, Second Lieutenant Reilly McGinnis.

I am particularly proud that this year, the senior cadets from West Point, the Air Force Academy, and the Naval Academy are all women.

I hope you’re all feeling proud of yourselves, because we are certainly proud of you.

You are graduating under exceptionally tough circumstances, but you have fought through—from R-Day to today—to take your place in the Long Gray Line.

So congratulations. 

You know, this isn’t just your day.

It also belongs to the families and loved ones who have done so much to get you here.

Amid the pandemic, when so many families have suffered such aching losses, it’s particularly powerful to have all of you here with us.

Your families have worried and sacrificed and told you to call your mother.

 They’re not going to stop worrying about you.

But they’re also not going to stop being proud of you.

They have given their love and been your biggest cheerleaders, so let’s turn that around.

Everyone, let’s give it up for your families.

Lieutenants, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was sitting where you are.

So I’m congratulating you not just as the Secretary of Defense but also as a member of the Class of 1975.

You know, I think it’s finally safe for me to admit that, for much of high school, I never really considered West Point.

Still, my family has a strong tradition of service.

My father served proudly in World War II as a truck driver in the Army Air Corps, and I can still remember seeing pictures of him in uniform as a young corporal.

And one of my uncles was the first African-American Green Beret that I ever saw.

He came home once wearing that green beret and those jump boots, and I said, “I have got to do that—I’ve got to have some of that.”

So I grew up wanting to serve at some point, but I also grew up Catholic and fascinated with the idea of going to Notre Dame and joining the Fighting Irish.

I wound up getting into Notre Dame, on a full scholarship, as well as being offered a place at West Point.

So my father called me in to talk through this big decision.

And he said, “Hey listen, if you go to Notre Dame, even with that scholarship, it’s still going to cost me some money.

Now, if you go to West Point, it would be quite an honor.

And not only will it not cost me money, but they will also pay you every month.

And you’ll get an opportunity to do something that very few people in life get to do.

You can always go to graduate school at Notre Dame, but you only get one chance to go to West Point.”

So we talked some more, and then he asked, “So, what do you want to do, son?”

And I said, “That’s easy, Dad. I want to go to Notre Dame.”

And he said, “Let’s try this conversation again tomorrow.”

And I guess you can tell how that played out.

Now, I had never set foot at West Point when I started here.

And I had never been to the state of New York.

In fact, the furthest north that I had ever been was north Georgia.

I paid for my own flight from Georgia.

It was the first plane that I ever flew on.

I landed in New York City, in 1971. And let me tell you, it wasn’t just different from my hometowns in Georgia and Alabama.

It was another planet.

And so the next day, I got on a bus and headed up here.

And this academy on the Hudson looked like my second new planet in two days.

It was unlike any place that I had ever seen.

The grounds were perfectly groomed, and they seemed to be filled with perfect people.

You know, I still remember the rising seniors who gave us our first instructions.

They were athletic and brilliant.

They spoke flawlessly, with no pauses or stumbles.

I don’t think they ever even blinked.

So they made quite a first impression.

And I found myself thinking, “There is no way I can ever be that good.”

Like many of you, my goal at first was just to make it to the next day—and then to the next week, and then to the next month.

I sometimes wondered what good would come out of all this intensity.

And I remember being given just a few minutes to read the newspaper in the morning and then be prepared to discuss it with upperclassmen.

And I thought, “How does that matter? How can that make me a better officer?”

And now, every day as Secretary of Defense, I find myself with a stack of news clips to race through—and I think of West Point and chuckle.

That’s just one of the skills that I learned here.

And it turned out that the upperclassmen who gave us such a fine first impression had actually been rehearsing for weeks.

That taught me a lifelong lesson in the importance of serious preparation.

 I learned focus and discipline.

I learned the importance of mastering your trade.

And above all, I learned the importance of becoming a team member.

Lieutenants, on challenging deployments, you will have to work together with your teammates to survive and succeed.

And this institution excels at instilling exactly that spirit.

You have learned how to follow with loyalty, and how to question with rigor, and how to lead with honor.

You know, looking out at you, I see the vanguard of a generation.

I see patriotic, committed young people coming of age at a hinge in history—who grew up never knowing anything other than a nation at war.

And so now 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.

You are seeing raw divisions at home and the painful aftermath of the pandemic.

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.

You are watching as America’s longest war winds down.

You are seeing technology change the character of war itself.

And 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.

You know, I may have a bit of insight into what you’re facing.

A democracy under strain, economic fallout, painful issues of racism and discrimination, social tensions, and the end of a long and controversial war: well, that all sounds pretty familiar to those of us from the Class of 1975. 

So let me assure you of something, and this is from very personal experience.

No matter how strong the headwinds, West Point will keep you on course.

It worked for my class. And it will work for yours.

Some things change.

But the skillset taught here is made to last—because it teaches you to adapt.

It teaches you to stick with it, as your class motto says, “Until the battle is won.”

Lieutenants, you are ready.

In this young century, adaptation is the name of the game.

Leadership is the name of the game.

And West Point has given you what you need.

To tackle any worthy challenge.

To embrace any honorable mission.

So yes, you are graduating in extraordinary circumstances.

But let’s be clear.

Extraordinary circumstances are what the United States Army does.

On the face of it, there may not seem to be much in common between the forces that George Washington led along the Hudson and between the units that I’ve led in the Middle East.

But when we’re at our best, when we’re true to our founding values, we don’t fight for a tribe, or for a political leader, or for conquest, or for plunder.

No, when we’re at our best, we fight to defend our republic.

We fight to defend our democratic ideals.

We fight to defend human rights, human dignity, and human liberty.

You know, the U.S. military isn’t perfect.

Take it from someone who spent 41 years in an Army uniform.

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 sees the use of force as a last resort.

That loves liberty.

That rejects bullying and aggression.

That seeks a world rooted in rules that favor the advance of freedom.

That stands for democracy and decency at home and abroad.

That works hand in hand with our old allies and new partners.

That cherishes the rich tapestry of the backgrounds of its citizens.

That strives to grow, and to mend, and to reach the better angels of our nature.

A country that knows, as the President has said, that we are strongest when the power of our example matters more than the example of our power.

Since becoming Secretary of Defense, I have worked hard with my team to put those principles into practice.

We are working urgently to help bring this global pandemic to an end.

We have refocused on the security challenges presented by China.

We are working hand in hand with our allies and partners to strengthen a rules-based international order that advances the cause of human freedom.

And we are driving hard to ensure that we have the right capabilities and operational concepts, and weaving them together in new and networked ways to produce a truly integrated, 21st-century vision of deterrence.

We’re doing all this while making sure we take care of all of our people—to grow and develop the talent we need for the future, and to ensure that everyone who serves can do so in an environment free of hate and harassment and discrimination.

And that’s not just a matter of national principle.

It’s a matter of national security.

I learned all of this at this great institution, this great engine of leadership.

And I kept learning from West Point long after I graduated.

I lived through a lot between my last day here and my first day as a general.

But there wasn’t a day when I didn’t draw on my years here.

And your time here will serve you incredibly well over the decades to come.

You know, most of all, I still depend on the values that I learned at West Point.

I still believe that leadership demands character.

I still believe in telling the truth.

I still believe in treating people with dignity and respect.

I still believe in serving your country.

And I still believe in the tenets of our democracy and the words of our Constitution.

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.

And some of you second lieutenants will have to make life-and-death calls.

Those values will see you through.

Those values will guide you home. 

You’re prepared to make those decisions.

You may not know it yet, but you are.

You are ready to be leaders.

The values that we uphold are the values that will hold us up.

And the Department of Defense is committed to doing everything in its power to support you when you serve, when you deploy, and when you come back.

We’re also here to help your families on the home front.

Because we know that when a soldier deploys, their loved ones are on the line too.

Now, one word of advice: hold onto your academy friends.

They’re a huge part of what you’ll carry forward.

My West Point buddies and I still remember going into New York City on the very few weekends when we could get off post, back in those disco days of 1975, when we were surrounded by bell bottoms and big hair and wide collars.

I can tell you up-front, just for the record, that I never wore any of those.

We still laugh about those times.

But there was plenty we didn’t laugh about.

We didn’t laugh about the struggles of getting through Ranger school and airborne school, or the strains on the home front of a life serving your country.

But throughout it all, we always knew: The friends that we made here were the kind of people you want to be in a foxhole with.

I can promise you that you will draw on those friendships in the years ahead.

And I can promise you that we are going to need your courage and your commitment.

You know, when I graduated, Vietnam ended, and my classmates and I went for a long time in which many of us weren’t engaged in a major conflict.

But after September 2001, this country found itself in a continuous fight for more than 20 years.

And I wound up commanding troops in combat at the one-star, two-star, three-star, and four-star level.

Now, America’s goal is to always lead with diplomacy, and to deter conflict whenever we can.

But if we are forced to defend ourselves, we will win, and we will win decisively.

Lieutenants, our job is to fight and win our nation’s wars.

And that means that nothing you’ve learned here is solely academic.

Because I can pretty much guarantee you that something that we’re not anticipating is going to happen on your watch.

We live in an imperfect world.

One in which patriotic young men and women still learn the ways of war, and volunteer proudly to keep their fellow citizens safe.

And we’re grateful to you for standing up and standing tall.

Now, we don’t get to choose our times.

But we do get to shape our times.

And in our democracy, that isn’t just a job for those at the top.

It’s a responsibility for every citizen.

And it’s a mission for every soldier in the United States Army.

Lieutenants, your hour will come.

And when it does, the eyes of the nation will turn again to the men and women of West Point and of our entire military.

The course of the republic and the depth of our security will be shaped again by you and by your teammates in the other services. 

Until the battle is won.

Those who came before you are so proud to see you standing here today.

We believe in you.

In each and every one of you.

We know that you will prevail.

We know that you will make us proud.

For democracy. For liberty. For the Constitution.

And for duty. For honor. For country.

Thank you. Congratulations again, Class of 2021.

God bless you, and may God keep you safe.

And may God bless the United States of America.