Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
Georgia Military College June 2011 Commencement
June 10, 2011
President Boylan—Thank you for that generous introduction and for inviting me here to Georgia Military College. My thanks to Senators Isaakson and Chambliss and Commissioner Wheeler for encouraging me to accept the special privilege of standing at this podium, where so many important voices have spoken in the past. I am honored to be here.
- Congressman John Barrow;
- Powell Moore, former Assistant Secretary of Defense;
- General Max Noah;
- State Senator Johnny Grant, and Georgia Representative Rusty Kidd;
- Mayor Richard Bentley;
- Other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen;
- And, most importantly, graduates of GMC’s Class of 2011, your families, and your friends;
Let me begin by offering congratulations to this distinguished class of 2011 on one of the more important days of your lives. Let me also acknowledge the unwavering support of your families and friends in helping you achieve this milestone. I hope you know that this is a monumental achievement—we are very proud of each of you.
Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college because life’s crises, though always unanticipated, are particularly harsh when visited upon the young. Yet through hard work and determination, they both grew up to be successful business people in my hometown—but, oh, how they would have loved being in your shoes tonight.
They always felt that their lives were somehow incomplete. Nothing this son could say about their triumphs mattered—how, in spite of their educational handicaps, they had prevailed. I could never soften this one regret about their lives. By their standards, and frankly by ours, they were essentially uneducated people—not illiterate, not incapable … just not well educated. Throughout their lives, they emphasized the importance of education because it held so much potential to improve the lot of our family—whatever other cliché you choose, education changes the course of family histories. Hence, going to college was a given for my siblings and me—just a matter of where and when, not whether. My parents would have loved being where you sit this evening.
Special congratulations to the 20 new second lieutenants who were commissioned earlier today. There’s a great Army out there awaiting your leadership. It thrives when led by those who willingly serve something greater than self.
I also commend your distinguished graduates—Blaine Valentini, from the Columbus campus, and Joshua Rogers, from the Milledgeville campus. Blaine devoted herself to improving the lives of those around her and encouraging her peers to join her in serving the needs of the Milledgeville community. Sergeant Joshua Rogers, United States Marine Corps, served in combat in Iraq. We all know the level of his commitment and sacrifice. Thank you both for reminding us all that the spirit of service to Nation, to community, to fellow man continues today in this generation of young Americans. It did not end with the Greatest Generation or any of the ones which followed.
GMC enjoys a unique reputation and a rich history of producing graduates who have gone on to teach all of us about the moral dimensions of leadership, about character, and about civility.
The lands surrounding this wonderful college—where Georgia’s old capitol building still stands on the highest point in Milledgeville—have resonated with the cadence of Soldiers marching off to every war since 1812. In the years since, GMC graduates have served the Nation with great honor and distinction—and some of them are in the audience this evening.
I come to this podium modestly as a Soldier. I served in the United States Army for 38 years. I first donned a military uniform when I took the oath of allegiance as a teenager on the Plain at West Point, New York, more than 50 years ago. And while I no longer wear a Soldier’s uniform, I will always be a Soldier.
I was privileged to serve at senior levels in the United States Army, but the real honor of my life was the opportunity to have spent every day of those 38 years as a Soldier. The work was often difficult—physically and intellectually demanding. The risks were sometimes high, on occasion extremely so. Much was demanded from all of us and our families, and we lost good Soldiers and dear friends along the way.
American Soldiers, and their service counterparts, were and are some of the most inspiring, dedicated, selfless, and courageous people I’ve ever met. I am sometimes still asked whether I miss any of my old jobs, especially some of the more senior ones—I say “no.” But I do miss the company of Soldiers.
Fifty years ago, I heard the words of the West Point Cadet Prayer for the first time. I was required to memorize it then, and though I can no longer recite the entire prayer from memory, I have always remembered the initial impact these words had on me. They remain some of the finest cues on leadership I have ever heard. In part, the prayer implores:
“Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretense ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service. Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer.”
For those who listen, these imperatives drum an insistent cadence. The banners that grace your parade ground here are embroidered with the motto—“Duty, Honor, Country”—which happen to be the same noble ideals that were stitched into me at West Point. The Cadet Prayer seemed a fitting counterpoint to this evening’s celebration.
This is an exciting time, the fulfillment of many dreams. No doubt, today is one of the most joyful days in your lives—and with good reason. The work is done, the degree is in the bag, the post-graduation party is planned—and now, the only question facing you is, “How long will this guy talk?”
Not long, I promise—just three bits of advice, which I hope you’ll consider.
Number one: Don’t let today be the end of your quest for knowledge. What you have achieved here at GMC is just the beginning of lifelong learning, growth, and wisdom.
Stay curious. Whether you continue on to attain more advanced degrees, or enter the workforce, keep asking questions about the things you don’t know or understand. Keep challenging the explanations people often give to make the complex appear simple. Most of the time, life simply isn’t that way. Grapple with the complex—do your own simplifying. In the process, challenge all the assumptions. As you do so, you will encounter opportunities for change.
Someone once observed that, “You can have change without progress, but you cannot have progress without change.” The same philosopher also said people “would not have attained the possible unless, time and again, [they] had reached out for the impossible.”
Make education the lifelong journey that it should be for all of us—don’t hesitate being an agent of change in the organizations you serve—doing so will keep life from becoming boring.
Number two: No one gets this far alone. Take time today to thank those who helped you get here—special professors and key members of the staff, close friends and classmates, moms and dads, husbands and wives, and guardian angels. You will never quite gather this way again, so savor this moment and these relationships that will grow in fondness with the passage of time.
And when you’ve finished saying thanks, pat yourselves on the back. You committed to this big goal in life; you stayed the course; and now you have succeeded. This took determination, and determination has a value all its own when dealing with life’s challenges. Determination is why my parents succeeded in business with such educational handicaps.
In short, you must be determined to succeed. You must be willing to prepare—lay the groundwork for success. As I’ve said in the past, “Luck plays a role in every operation, but luck favors those who plan best.”
My last bit of advice: Listen to the voice inside you that nags as you are trying to divine the right path in the midst of crisis. Be willing to choose “the harder right” instead of “the easier wrong.”
GMC has prepared you for a life in leadership—for some of you, leadership in the military; for others, leadership in business, government, education, religion, other callings. But core principles remain the same. Values—moral and ethical—are non-negotiable, whether you wear a uniform, a business suit, or running gear. If you are not trusted, you will never be able to lead effectively.
As you achieve success in your role as a leader, find ways to share that success with those less fortunate. One of life’s greatest gifts is the privilege of sharing one’s own blessings with others.
And I’m talking about more than just “random acts of kindness” here. Random acts of kindness are important, but they are not enough—the world does not thrive that way. What is most needed are unselfish people who are regularly, habitually, and deliberately kind—people who make caring for others a personal devotion, a part of their everyday lives. That’s what’s really needed—people who are willing to serve the needs of others.
America needs great people—people who will be citizens, not spectators; people who will build and enliven their communities; people with courage; and people with character. GMC has done its part to arm you with these instincts.
You are our hope for the future. Aspire to greatness—and encourage greatness in others.
You have it in your power to change the future for the better. Your shoulders have become broader thanks to the education you received. They will become broader still as you take on new challenges, as you bear the new responsibilities of citizenship in this great country, and as you open your hearts and minds in service to others.
Congratulations, and God bless each and every one of you. May God bless the men and women who serve and have served in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.