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West Point Classes : GradSpeech99

Class of 1999

 
Commencement Speech
General Dennis J. Reimer, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, USMA Class of 1962
May 29, 1999
 
"First let me say to the Class of 2002, I got the message. (Audience laughs) General Christman, General Abizaid, General Lamkin, members of the staff and faculty of the United States Military Academy, let me thank you for the great leadership you have provided this great institution. Thank you. You do this job very, very well.
 
"Secretary Caldera, Senator Reed, Congressman Gilman, Congressman Norwood, distinguished guests all, ladies and gentlemen, and, most especially, the Class of 1999, your families and friends. It's a privilege to be here today in this beautiful setting with all this tradition and history, my alma mater. It's a great honor for me to be able to address the Class of 1999, and I thank the Superintendent, and the class, for allowing me that honor. One of the great jobs, or one of the great parts of my job, is to be able to travel around and visit soldiers everywhere in the world. I recently returned from a trip to Kuwait where I visited some of our soldiers who were living about 1,000 miles from nowhere, in the middle of the desert, and they told me the story of the training that they were conducting over there. They essentially live out there in the open.
 
"The First Sergeant and the Company Commander were completing a hard day's work and they were just about to hit the rack, and the First Sergeant turned to the Company Commander and he said "Sir, look up, and tell me what you see." The Company Commander looked up and he said, "Well, I see a beautiful sky with lots of stars and a full moon." The First Sergeant said, "What does that mean, sir?" The Company Commander thought about it for a little while and he said "Well, astronomically it means that there are millions of planets, and potentially billions of galaxies. Theologically, it means that God is great, and we are very insignificant in His sight. Meteorologically, it means that tomorrow will be another beautiful day." And he paused, and thought for a minute, and he said, "What does it mean to you, First Sergeant?" The First Sergeant said, "Sir, it means somebody stole our tent." (Audience laughs)
 
"There are many distinguished guests here this morning, and I certainly can't name them all individually. But, clearly, the most distinguished are the parents and friends, the people who got you here. You gave them a standing ovation; let's give them another round of applause. They truly deserve it. (Applause)
 
"To the Class of 1999, congratulations! As the Superintendent said, "you made it." You not only made it, but you're a great class with a great record. You've excelled in academics, sports, and leadership, and, not to mention, that in football you taught Navy the meaning of land power three out of the last four years.(Applause)
 
"I want to let the audience in on a little secret. This is a very special class, at least in my eyes. As already was alluded to, we started out together, in August of '95, with the Plebe Hike. I told them, then, that we would start together and, hopefully, we'll graduate together. And, I think, we're going to do that, although my graduation is still a few weeks off. So there's a closeness that I feel to them, and I know there's a closeness amongst them. I feel good that as I exit the Army, they will continue. The Class of '99, we're expecting great things from you, and I'll be watching you.
 
"Classmates are very important; they give you strength. And during some of my toughest hours a note from a classmate with a simple message "grip hands" gave me the strength to continue. There's a special thing about classmates, and you grow to appreciate that more as you continue along in life. West Point is a special experience, and it binds you together in a way that few things in life can. There's a certain magic about the inspiration that comes from a common experience of four tough years and the friendship that is developed from that experience. Don't ever forget that, and don't ever lose that.
 
"Thirty seven years ago, in Washington Hall, I heard General of the Army Douglas MacArthur speak. He spoke eloquently and with great clarity. And, as I reflect back on that, I conclude that his words are timeless. They were spoken in 1962, but those words were the words for the next millennium. I plan to quote liberally from that speech not because I think you don't know it; I know you do. But because, as I look back, I conclude that MacArthur's words were right, and he had it right for my class and I think it also applies to you.
 
"He spoke first to the Profession of Arms. "Yours is a Profession of Arms, the will to win, a sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed. That the very obsession of your public service must be duty, honor, country." I can't imagine a more important profession. It's a heavy load to carry, and it's a tremendous responsibility. And, just thinking about the fate of our nation, our way of life resting on anyone's shoulders is daunting. But the fact is, in this modern era, every class that has graduated from West Point has led American soldiers "in harm's way." There's no reason to think that your fate will be any different. You are indeed important. America will entrust her most precious assets, her sons and daughters, to your care. We put in your hands our safety, our security, and our future. It's also tremendously gratifying to know that when it's all over, and you have answered your nation's call, you have helped carry the load; you have been true to that trust; you have tread where they, in the Corps, have trodden. No one can predict the future. As one of the world's greatest living philosophers, Yogi Berra once said, "The future ain't what it used to be." (Audience laughs) He was correct. However, one thing is certain, you will have to deal with change.
 
"President Kennedy, in his address to our graduating class, spoke of pride, tradition, and commitment. He also predicted that "the graduates of West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Academy, in the next ten years, will have a greater opportunity for the defense of freedom than Academy graduates have ever had." These words were spoken in 1962, and by 1972, with two tours in Vietnam under my belt, I was convinced he was correct. He was also correct when he talked about the changing nature of conflict. He said "When there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, the answer is not so difficult. Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there's a long, slow struggle with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard, indeed." Very appropriate words for the situation we face today.
 
"President Kennedy's message was a message of change, and as I reflect back, after 37 years, change has often been the only constant we had to deal with. We've gone from Vietnam to the Balkans, from a draft Army to the volunteer Army and all that entails, from Desert 1 to Desert Storm, from a strategy of massive retaliation to containment and, finally, to engagement and enlargement.
 
"Today's Army is also much different than the one I joined. It's smaller by about a third. It's busier by an order of magnitude, and it's more global, with soldiers "walking point" in 70 countries, lonely, austere places, all the way from Albania to Korea. And it's more dependent on the Reserve components, with 54 percent of our total Army in the Army National Guard, and the United States Army Reserve. It's also better, better trained, better equipped, has a more realistic doctrine, has a better mix of forces, heavy, light special operating forces, high-quality people, and experienced leaders. No doubt, during my career there has been a great deal of change, but what I have experienced will pale in comparison to what you will experience. The frontier of space will be the high ground of the 21st century. You will have to occupy and control it. Increased urbanization will bring with it increased tensions. You will probably be required to deal with the fallout. How to counter asymmetrical, and transnational threats, will occupy your time, and you will still have to deal with religious and ethnic animosities that have their roots in centuries of history. No doubt these are challenges, but they are also wonderful opportunities. And the role of leadership is to turn challenges into opportunities. Opportunities for you in the Army are endless.
 
"We are in the midst of the most fundamental transformation of the Army since World War II. We are moving from an industrial age to an information age. Moving from an Army today, to an Army based upon knowledge, speed, and power. Knowledge comes from being able to leverage the tremendous capabilities associated with information-age technology. Speed has two aspects, to be able to move forces, soldiers, anywhere in the world as quickly as possible. To do what Nathan Forrest reminded us so many years ago, to "get there firstest with the mostest." And, the second aspect is to be able to have the mental agility to "think quick" and to turn inside an enemy's decision cycle and be able to checkmate him everywhere he turns. And, finally, is to be able to adapt the right force to the right situation, to be able to "mix and match" so that we can meet the mission that we've been given.
 
"Turning challenges into opportunities is easier said than done, but I will give you some good advice. And if you will follow it, I will guarantee you that you will be successful. You will be successful in the Army, and you will be successful in life. It's three little rules, very simple rules, and all you have to do is follow them.
 
"First, do what's right every day, legally and morally. You'll get a lot of advice, legally, on what is legally correct, but the moral litmus test can only come from one person. And you have to "look yourself in the mirror" every day and say "Am I doing what's right?"
 
"Second, is to "be all you can be." We've recruited a lot of great soldiers with that catchy slogan, and they have expectations, and they expect us to meet those expectations. We need to do that. We also need to challenge ourselves to "be all we can be."
 
"And, finally, is to build teams by remembering the golden rule. "Treat others as you would have them treat you." Don't ever forget your values. You came here with a solid foundation base built by your family, and friends, your communities. West Point honed those values around duty, honor, country. "Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn." Over 37 years, from Vietnam to the Pentagon, those three hallowed words, duty, honor, country, have never failed me. They won't fail you either.
 
"In the Army, we will expand your value base to loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. You can remember those because the first letters spell out the abbreviation for leadership. But we don't want you just to remember those; we want you to live them. We want you to lead from up front in all that you do. You will lead remarkable men and women, people like Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart, who, in October '93 in Mogadishu, Somalia, "fast roped to sudden death" because a fellow soldier was on the ground. He needed to go down there and help him. His widow, Stephanie, in accepting his Medal of Honor, said "It takes a remarkable person to not just read a creed, or memorize a creed, but to live a creed." Those remarkable men and women look to you for their example; don't fail them.
 
"People like Sergeant First Class Shughart we call "soldiers." What a noble title. They come in all sizes, all colors, and from different races. There is no adequate way to describe them. MacArthur did it best when he said, about the soldier, described him as one of the world's noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters but also as one of the most stainless. "His name, and fame, is the birthright of every American…. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty he gave, all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history, and has written it "in red" on his enemy's breast. But when I think of his patience in adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history…."
 
"For 37 years, everywhere I went in the continental United States, Vietnam, Korea, Germany, Bosnia, Southwest Asia, or almost in 100 other countries around the world, I saw those magnificent soldiers. They were named Gonzalez, Clayball, Mackey, Garrett, Peters, Hall. They were different from the ones that MacArthur knew, but there was a sameness about them. They did the nation's bidding. They were a "band of brothers." They sacrificed and served. They had "drained deep the chalice of courage." Some gave the last full measure of devotion. They made things better, and they made a difference. More importantly, I had the high honor to serve alongside of them, to be a part of their team, to fight with them, and to fight for them. And, at the end of the day, a simple "Thank you, sir, for caring" was priceless.
 
"You, the Class of 1999, have been given a great gift, to lead American soldiers. Nothing you ever do will surpass that high honor. You have been well trained. You should be confident in your abilities because you have the "right stuff," and that is why I have so much confidence in our future. It is in good hands.
 
"Finally, let me close with a challenge. You are a great class and to those to whom much is given, much is expected. Stephen Spielberg in his film, "Saving Private Ryan," told a compelling story of the generation that saved our world, the "greatest generation." Many of you probably had relatives who served, and sacrificed, in World War II, grandfathers or great uncles. Spielberg captured their story on film and brought it alive. It was a story filled with powerful messages. One of the most powerful was when Captain John Miller, who led a patrol of soldiers, was dying and he pulled Private James Francis Ryan, from Iowa, close to his lips, and he whispered to James Francis Ryan "Earn it." That was a personal message from Miller to Ryan, but it was also, it seems to me, a message that that great generation, that gave us these freedoms that we enjoy so much here today in this beautiful setting, was sending to all succeeding generations: "earn it."
 
"So, to the Class of 1999 United States Military Academy, my challenge to you is "earn it." Thank you, good luck, and God bless you all. (Applause)"