As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Lexington. VA, Friday, May 16, 2008
Superintendent Peay, thank you very much. Cadet Burnette, I appreciated your remarks. And to Cadet Webb, thank you for the kind introduction, and for inviting me to speak at commencement.
Members of the faculty, proud parents, distinguished guests, and, most of all, distinguished members of the Class of 2008: it is an honor to join with you in celebration as 246 young men and women take their place among the generations of graduates of Virginia Military Institute.
Congratulations to all of you. You have made it from the "Rat Line" to the finish line. And it was undoubtedly hard--not just a demanding curriculum, but all the things that you had to do that students at other places don't.
On a lot of campuses, bricks covered with ivy are a nice architectural feature, but you had to "stand on the bricks," in formation, and get to know your upperclassmen.
Keeping students on their toes, elsewhere, might have meant assigning a low classroom grade or giving a pop quiz. For you, it was more literal: penalty tours, push-ups, buddy carries, running up and down stadium stairs without end.
And just when you thought you were at that finish line that I mentioned, one more hurdle pops up: that would be my speech.
To the parents: you must be welling up with pride at the achievements of your children. Having put two children through college, I know there are many sighs of relief as well. You are probably already planning how to spend your newly re-acquired disposable income. Forget it. Trust me on this. If you think you've written your last check to your son or daughter, dream on. The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open.
I guess I am supposed to give you graduates the secret to success in life. I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered advice on how to get rich. He said, "Rise early, work late, strike oil." Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who said, "There's nothing to winning, really. That is if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever."
Well, instead of those messages, let me substitute the advice of two great women. First, opera star Beverly Sills, who said, "There are no short cuts to anyplace worth going." And second, Katharine Hepburn, who wrote: "Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don't do that by sitting around wondering about yourself."
Presiding over 39 commencement ceremonies as president of Texas A&M taught me well the importance of brevity on these occasions. George Bernard Shaw once told a speaker he had 15 minutes. The speaker asked, "How can I possibly tell them all I know in 15 minutes?" Shaw replied, "I advise you to speak very slowly." I'll try to speak quickly.
For generations, VMI has graduated young people ready to raise their right hand and defend their homeland. This is something to be grateful for in any time period, but never more so than in a time of war. During the past four years, the percentage of VMI first-year cadets taking a military commission has risen, and is now more than half of the class of 2008. What a tribute to this institution, to the values it instills, to the men and women who are drawn to its rigors and to its duties.
Each of you are being sent out into the world to pursue a wide range of callings and careers. Whatever path you choose, the common denominator is that here at VMI you have learned the importance of public service and duty to your fellow citizens.
Such service has never been in higher demand, or those duties more daunting. It has now been six-and-a-half years since the attacks of September 11th, and we just marked the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. For America, this has been the second-longest war in our history since the Revolution, and the first since then to be fought throughout with an all-volunteer force. …