2008 Commencement Address

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
“Then, I said,” “Here am I; Send me.” Isaiah, Chapter 6, verse 8.

Today we gather to recognize the cadets of the
Class of 2008, men and women who, in the spring
of 2004, answered the call of our nation, a
nation at war-, “Here am I. Send me.” This
afternoon, they will be commissioned as Second
Lieutenants. And over the next year, our Army
will send them around our Nation and around the
world to one of 80 countries where American
Soldiers are serving the cause of freedom.

General Hagenbeck, General Finnegan, General
Linnington, Congressmen Pete Sessions and Jeff
Fortenberry, moms, dads, brothers, sisters,
distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen…and
the Class of 2008, what a profound honor it is to
share this occasion with you. And humbling–as a
civilian in the presence of those who have answered our nation’s call.

I came to work for the Department of Defense in
early Fall 2001 and was at the Pentagon when the
terrorists struck and killed 184 people,
including 69 Soldiers and Army civilians.

That day I watched Soldiers go to the sound of
the explosion. And, for the past 6 years, I
have watched Soldiers go off to war. And watched
their families stand with them. I have been
inspired by the service of our Soldiers and
humbled by the sacrifice of their families. From
the bottom of my heart — cadets and families,
thank you for your service — thank you for your
sacrifice. I stand before you as a grateful
citizen representing a grateful Nation.

General Hagenbeck, faculty, and staff, thank you
for the work you do for our cadets, our Army and
our Nation. I know you look across this assembly
of graduates with a great sense of pride and
accomplishment. Congratulations to each of you.

Let me begin with a little official
business-meaningless to most but most important
to a few. By the authority conferred on me by the
Secretary of Defense, I grant amnesty to all
cadets whose antics led to minor conduct
offenses. And, if he or she ever gets caught,
this includes the cadet who took a detour in his
land navigation course in the summer of 05-and
returned with buffalo wings for his buddies.

With that response — a wiser man than I would
say thank you, congratulations and sit down — you will not be so lucky.

2008–What a class–academic and athletic
excellence–great leaders. A Rhodes Scholar,
Fulbright, Truman and Marshall Scholars, All
Americans–academic and athletic, and a National
Championship in boxing, just to mention a few of the highlights.

Today I will be speaking mostly to our cadets,
but before I do, I want to address the parents
and family members who are with us.

Parents, thank you for molding your sons and
daughters into men and women of courage,
character, and accomplishment. And thank you for
entrusting them to us. As we honor them, we honor you.

And to the sweethearts who will become Army
husbands and wives over the coming days, some
this afternoon at the Cadet chapels, we welcome
you into the Army family and thank you for your
partnership in service to our nation.

Parents, as you look across the sea of white and
gray uniforms and find your child, you must be
filled with an extraordinary sense of pride. But
I know too, the concern that you also carry in
your heart–behind your pride. For we are a
Nation at war, and your sons and daughters have chosen to be Soldiers.

Over the weekends of this spring, hundreds of
thousands of parents across America gather as we
do today, to celebrate the graduation of their
children–celebrating with none of the
ambivalence that may tug at your heart–and many
unmindful of the debt they will owe to your
children-so much owed, by so many, to so few.

Your sons and daughters are among our Nation’s
very best. They could have gone anywhere to
college and had their choice of careers. Today
they could be accepting a diploma and lucrative
job offer instead of a commission in the United
States Army. But they chose the path of Duty, Honor, and Country.

The service our nation is asking of your sons and
daughters is important work for our country–for
the free world–for liberty loving people every
where. It will change our nation and the world
for the better. And, your sons and daughters are
ready–well-prepared for the tasks ahead of them.

When I reflected on these cadets and West Point
and what is at stake in this war, my mind turned
to Thomas Jefferson. Presidents Washington,
Adams, and Jefferson all understood the need for
a military academy–Jefferson acted on the need and established West Point.

We needed strong and capable leaders for our Army
in 1802, but even more so today. We need men and
women of immense talent and character–men and
women like your sons and daughters.

And, perhaps as no other Founding Father,
Jefferson would understand the threat we face
today–tyranny in the name of religion. Jefferson
knew history and he understood human nature.

He devoted much of his life’s work to the
advancement of individual liberty and religious
freedom, freedom that could spare our Republic
the religious strife that, over the centuries,
had soaked the soil of much of the world with
blood-the blood of those who shared much-history,
tradition and even Family–and differed only in their religious beliefs.

Jefferson considered his contributions to the
cause of religious freedom among his greatest
achievements. He wrote the epitaph for his
gravestone–dictated that it would say the following, “and not a word more”:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the
Declaration of Independence, of the statute of
Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”

The Declaration of Independence and the
University of Virginia need no explanation. The
statute for religious freedom is known to few,
but speaks powerfully to us today.

Let me read from it:
“[N]o man shall he be compelled to support any
religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever,
nor shall be … molested or burdened … nor
shall suffer on account of his religious beliefs
… [A]ll men shall be free to profess … their
opinions in the matter of religion.”

Jefferson’s ideal of religious freedom and
individual liberty stands in stark contrast to
the malignant vision of religious oppression and
the murderous practices of the Taliban and Al
Qaida — to the hatred that murdered 3,000 people
on 9/11 and continues its butchery today.

Two hundred years after Jefferson penned these
words, your sons and daughters are fighting to
protect our citizens and people around the world
from zealots who would “restrain”, “molest”,
“burden” and cause to “suffer” those who do not
share their religious beliefs, deny us whom they
call “infidels” our unalienable rights: Life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Your sons and daughters–our Soldiers– stand
against a threat to liberty and life that is as
old as civilization, in a cause that shaped the
foundation of our Nation, and against an enemy
that seeks to take us back to the future, and
establish an old world order of darkness and
oppression. Thomas Jefferson would not be surprised.

Mark Twain told us that history does not repeat itself, but that it does rhyme.

And for American Soldiers, the mission and the
threat are not abstract. They know why they are
fighting. An Army Captain recently described his
service in simple terms–Just as our grandparents
joined the Army to ensure that our land would
never suffer another Pearl Harbor, I joined to
ensure we never suffer another September 11.

And our mission goes beyond the security of our
own people. The United States always has stood as
a beacon of hope for those yearning to live free.
Over the past 6 years, our military has liberated
50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan from
brutal dictatorships and awakened hope in a
region that has known little but oppression and despair.
Our Secretary of Defense reminded us recently,
“[O] ur responsibilities to the world-to freedom,
to liberty, to the oppressed everywhere-are not a
burden on the people or the soul of this nation. They are rather, a blessing.”

And as we make the world safer for democracy–and
more dangerous for terrorists–we are making our world safer for Americans.

Your sons and daughters are well-prepared for the
challenges ahead of them. Most importantly, they
are men and women of character–they came that way to West Point.

Our Nation has you to thank for that. Character,
as Joshua Chamberlain told us, “is formed in the
silent and peaceful years by the mother’s knee and the father’s side.”

No matter how old, your son or daughter is
forever your child. And I know when you look at
him or her, your mind recalls a scrapbook of
memories–a kaleidoscope of life experiences,
from the cradle to this graduation day–you
remember their first steps, their curiosity,
their mischief, their successes. You know their strengths and their frailties.

But West Point knows your sons and daughters well
now also. For the last four years, the United
States Military Academy has taken them on a
journey through the crucible of the most
demanding academic, physical, and military
curriculum in the world. Your sons and daughters
have met the highest standards of learning, living, and performance.

As they leave West Point today, know that they
are well prepared to meet the challenges of their future missions and commands.

Today they join the best led, best trained and
best equipped Army on the face of the earth. And
they are ready to be leaders in that extraordinary Army.

For these remarkable men and women, the Class of
2008, “no mission too great,” is more than a motto.

And now I will speak to them, the cadets of the
Class of 2008. You who will extend the Long Gray
Line another generation into our Nation’s
future-a Long Gray Line that stretches back to
1802, to, “Those cadets of an earlier day,”
sinewy threads that are woven throughout the rich
tapestry of our Republic’s history, giving it
strength, character, and resilience, in times of peace and war.

As our fledgling democracy sought to explore,
survey, and subdue a vast continent, West Point officers led the way.

West Pointers harnessed the awesome power and
bounty of our continent. They tamed rivers with
dams and levees. Built our nation’s roads,
canals, harbors, bridges, and railroads. From the
Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Erie Canal to
the Panama Canal, you see the great peace-time
handiwork of West Point graduates– Goethals,
Bonneville, and Young to name a few– some
famous, some forgotten–the Long Gray Line has shaped the destiny of America.

In time of war, West Point graduates have filled
our history books and our national consciousness.
As we survey the halls, grounds, monuments and
statues around us, we cannot escape their history nor their gaze.

Much of the history you studied here was made by
those who studied here before you: Grant, Lee,
Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, today Petraeus,
Odierno, Cody, Austin, and Rodriguez–the honor roll will go on forever.

Today you join their ranks.

Now, no graduation speech would be complete if I
did not attempt to leave a few lessons behind.
You enter our Army at a dynamic period in the
history of our service-in the history of
warfare–policy, doctrine, training and equipping
are adapting rapidly to a constantly changing
threat–an environment where our Soldiers must
hold and build, as well as they clear. You have
learned how to “eat soup with a knife” and other
important lessons about leadership in your 21st Century Army.

For the lessons I want to leave with you, I will
borrow heavily from a man who has spoken here
before, as I could not improve on his prose and I
share his vision for your service. He summed up
succinctly a day in the life of an American
Soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan today. He told your predecessors:

“Your military responsibilities will require a
versatility and an adaptability never before
required in either war or in peace.”

They will “involve the command of more
traditional forces, but in less traditional roles
… risking their lives, not as combatants, but as instructors or advisors.”

“This is another type of war, …– war by
guerillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins.
War by ambush instead of by combat … seeking
victory by eroding and exhausting [us] instead of engaging [us].”

“The non-military problems which you will face
will be most demanding: diplomatic, political and economic.”

“You will serve as advisors to … foreign governments.”

“You will need to … understand the foreign
policy of the United States [and] the foreign
policy of countries … that 20 years ago were the most distant names to us.”

“You will need to give orders in different tongues;” “You will be involved in economic judgments
which most economists would hesitate to make.”

“You will need to understand the importance of
military power and also the limits of military power…”

Perhaps most importantly, he told your predecessors:

“Your posture and performance will provide the
local population with the only evidence of what our country is really like.” And, in closing he said:

“[Y]ou have one satisfaction, however difficult
[your] your days may be: When you are asked by
the president of the United States or by any
other American what you are doing for your
country, no man’s answers will be clearer than your own.”

History does rhyme. These words were spoken 46
years ago by President Kennedy, standing here,
speaking to the graduating Class of 1962.

Let me add a duty or two to President Kennedy’s list.

Creighton Abrams, Class of 1936, told us that
people are not in the Army, people are the Army.
And your Army is different today than any Army in
our history or any Army so long at war. It is an
All Volunteer Force–and over half are
married–with over 700,000 children in the Army
families–Volunteer Soldiers–Volunteer Families.

The all volunteer force is a national treasure, but it can be squandered.

To sustain our Army, we must provide Army
families a quality of life equal to the quality
of their service. As Army leaders, you must take
care of Army families–must make Army families a priority in your service.

And one more–most importantly: Before the sun
sets today, you will take the oath of a second
lieutenant–regardless of how long you wear the
uniform, one thing never will change–you are a
leader and the well-being of Soldiers will be in
your hands. You will be judged by how you
discharge that duty–for if you strip away
everything else about your Army, at its core,
that is what the Army is all about, Soldiers take
care of Soldiers–in the barracks, on the
battlefield, or in the hospital. That is what Soldiers do.

You should count your career a success if you
never earn more than the single gold bar you will
get this afternoon, if one of your soldiers
writes a letter about you like the one I am about
to read from a Soldier somewhere in Europe in 1945:

“Dear Mrs. Troby,
…the gents that I speak of down here are
usually known but to a few – and ask no
publicity. [They] are some of the officers and
NCOs who live down there in hell – just a few
miles from here – and they stay there days,
weeks, and months … There are just a few. They
teach men, feed them, protect them, and lead them …
These men are loved with a kind of love that
exists no place but on the battlefield – and it
is never talked about. [They] go for days without
sleep, give away their clothes, go without food,
keep going when they are sick, perform miraculous
feats when they are wounded, and take the
suicidal details rather than ask someone else to do it.
They are never afraid, they are never cold, they
never complain, and they spend all of their time
trying to think of ways to help their men – and to save them.
I don’t know if they are happy – but if it isn’t
selflessness I never hope to see it.
Surely they must be God’s people…. I’m sure
they swore and drank and did a lot of other
things – but I am sure God got them when they went away…” Signed, “Whitney.”

Soldiers take care of Soldiers.

We are here to celebrate with the Class of 2008,
but it is fitting that we stop and remember the
sacrifices of those who have gone before.

Over the past year, since you gathered here last
May, 11 West Point graduates have given their lives for their country.

There is always a personal cost in your
profession of arms. It is your willingness to
bear that cost that ennobles you, your calling, and this gathering.

Earlier this year, Captain Andrew Pearson, Class
of 2001, serving in Baghdad, joined the ranks of
the fallen. Captain Pearson began his career as
an enlisted man before entering West Point. In
his year book, he chose this quote from President
Kennedy to accompany his photo:

“In the long history of the world, only a few
generations have been granted the role of
defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.
I do not shrink from the responsibility-I welcome it.”

Captain Pearson’s ashes now rest in Arlington
Cemetery. His father summed up Captain Pearson’s life and legacy:

“He believed in what he was doing and gave his all for America.”

So moving in their simple dignity, these words
are an inspiration for the living as well as an epitaph for the fallen.

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.” –Laurence Binyon

When I went to work for the Secretary of Defense
now nearly seven years ago, my office looked to
the northeast across the Potomac River, to the Capitol and the National Mall.

In the summer months, the sun comes up directly
behind the Jefferson Memorial. And just as the
sun edges past the memorial into the morning sky,
for the briefest moment, a sliver of golden light crowns the graceful dome.

There were days when the early sun would burn
through the morning clouds and wash the Capitol
and Washington Monument in shades of pink, purple and gold.

You could not look away until the color drained from the sky. To the west, beyond my view, stands the Lincoln
Memorial, serving as a bookend for the Mall, just
up from the Memorial Bridge, leading to Arlington Cemetery.

For me, at that time, and for most Americans I
suppose, the landmarks that frame our Mall tell
the story of the foundation of our Nation.

But when I came to the Army in 2006, my view changed.

Out my window I now face Arlington National
Cemetery, and the waves of chalk white headstones
that line the rolling hills and mark the graves
of generations of Americans who have served our nation in peace and war.

Out my window, every day, horse drawn and flag
draped caissons carry our Nations’ heroes to their final resting place.

The Custis-Lee mansion, home of Robert E. Lee,
Class of 1829, stands a commanding presence on
the ridge line. It was built with slave labor by
Martha Washington’s grandson, and serves as a
constant reminder of the contradictions and
cross-currents that tormented our young republic,
and of the strife that gave birth to Arlington
National Cemetery and filled the first and so many of its graves.

A short distance to the south along the ridge,
Soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknowns every
single day and around the clock. Arlington is a
place where the dead find their final resting
place, but where the animating spirit of America lives.

Historian Rick Atkinson captured the spirit of
Arlington. It is, he told us, “…a shrine to
valor and sacrifice, to service and fidelity.
Those interred here tell a story not just of the
Republic in war and in peace, but also of a
transcendent ideal, conceived in liberty and
reconsecrated with every new grave dug, every
benediction murmured, every commitment into the hallowed ground.” “A transcendent ideal.”

Since coming to the Army, it has dawned on me
that it is Arlington, not the Mall’s monuments
and memorials that tells the story of our great
nation. Were it not for that “transcendent ideal”
– that has inspired the American Soldier, “on
many a weary march from dripping dusk to
drizzling dawn,” there would be no monuments, no Capitol, and no Mall.

Today we gather to honor young men and women who
in a moment will swear an oath to defend the
Constitution of the United States against all
enemies – not defend our shores, not defend our
people, but defend our Constitution – defend a
transcendent ideal – against all enemies- “from
dripping dusk to drizzling dawn” – a
revolutionary ideal that calls out to people the
world over who yearn to be free.

A transcendent ideal that led these men and women
of the Class of 2008 to choose to be Soldiers,
American Soldiers, with America at war.

Class of 2008, take pride in your record here at
West Point. Take great heart in your bright
future, and take competent and compassionate hold
of the responsibility that awaits in your service
to Soldiers, to their Families, and to the
Nation. Our Nation needs you. We salute you and
your families for your collective courage and
commitment, and we wish you Godspeed in your
journey- for duty, honor and country.

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And you said, “Here am I. Send me.”

Thank you. God Bless you

May 31, 2008


Secretary of the Army Pete Geren

May 31, 2008

West Point Commencement Remarks

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