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Sherri Tombarge
Editorial Services
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111 Smith Hall
Lexington, VA 24450

VMI Commencement - Admiral Michael Mullen

CHAIRMAN OF 

THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF (CJCS)  

VMI COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS  

REMARKS BY  

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN,  

CHAIRMAN, 

JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF 

 

MONDAY, MAY 16, 2011 

LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA 

 

Transcript by 

Federal News Service 

Washington, D.C. 

 

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN:  Good morning.  It’s great to be here with you.  And just to remind the class this is VMI; it is Monday; it is graduation day.  And I’m wondering when the last time you slept was.  (Laughter.)

Days like this showcase why VMI is such a special place, and why this institution is so fortunate to have General Peay at the helm.  General, thank you for your hospitality, your leadership and for the invitation today.

To our faculty, friends, alumni, citizen-soldiers and all those who love VMI, I truly am honored to be here.  I’ll also extend a special welcome to our graduates from Canada, the People’s Republic of China and Thailand.  You represent three great nations with superb military traditions of their own.  And you remind all of us that we live in a connected, interdependent world – serendipitously, I host my counterpart from China this week; he just arrived last night – and thank each of you for making this experience richer for everyone. 

VMI is renowned for building leaders for walks of life, while remaining a crown jewel of Virginia’s public university system.  And you have the accolades to prove it.  Ranked among the top three liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News and World Reports, a top-20 engineering program, you were even ranked among the nation’s best educational bargains.  Although, the corps would be quick to tell you that money is not the only way you pay your dues around here – (laughter) – particularly if you’re measuring it by the pushup.

In fact, the cadets graduating today have experienced hand-to-hand combat, suffered extreme deprivation and trained in conflict across the military spectrum.  And that was just to find a parking spot.  (Laughter.) 

There are a lot of smiles out there among the class of 2011, but deep down inside I know you already are missing this place, perhaps even tearing up a little bit about the things you’ll miss:  No more marching on the parade deck; no more CTT; no more sumptuous dining at the Club Crozet (ph) – (laughter) – although I did hear the paninis are pretty good – (laughter) – and most of all, no more running the block. 

Now, mom and dad and other family members are wondering what all this has to do with the hard work, discipline and sacrifice they’ve been hearing about these past four years.  But as the father of two sons who graduated from a military school, my wife Deborah and I recognize that turning your child over to an institution with this kind of tradition represents a journey all its own for parents.

As one mom in the audience said, it is so hard knowing that your children are going through something difficult without you being there, but the journey is worth it.  And Jo Ann Redmond should know, because as the mother of Angela, Stephen and Thomas, the first triplets to graduate from VMI in its history, she and her husband, Gary, have had more than their fare share of fun on this journey.  I can only imagine what laundry day is going to look like tomorrow at the Redmond house.  (Laughter.)

Of course, every parent, grandparent and family member here deserves great credit.  You’ve weathered the long drives to Lexington, the tough phone calls back home and the far more limited time with your daughter or son than their friends at civilian schools.  You’ve even picked up a completely new language – learning terms like “rat line,” “rat mass,” “rat” this, “rat” that – (laughter) – “status check,” and a myriad of other phrases and acronyms that were all but indecipherable back in the fall of 2007.

And as you look upon these exceptional young women and men, it may be hard to imagine that the little boys or girls you once held are now the accomplished adults you see before you.  Although I know at least one mom who lamented, we still can’t get him to clean up his own room back home.  (Laughter.)  I’ll see if I can’t do something about that problem before I leave.  (Laughter.)  But based on memories of my sons’ rooms, I can tell you there are real limits to a four-star admiral’s power.  (Laughter.)

So moms and dads, savor this moment.  Now you can empty out all those closets full of old action figures and grade school trophies, hold a garage sale, turn their bedrooms into that office you always wanted – (laughter) – and for the first time in 22 years, finally go on vacation alone.  (Laughter.)

Of course, the journey we truly celebrate today is the one taken and about to be taken by the class of 2011.  You stood your last formation, walked your last penalty tour, and even completed your last Taps Challenge – (laughter).  And this speech remains the only thing between you and the next chapter of your lives.  Well, I can say in a – all I can say is, strap in and hold on.  They told me I could talk as long as I want.  (Laughter.)

Some of the guys in the front row are not laughing.  (Laughter.)  You don’t need to look so worried; Macado’s isn’t even open yet.  (Laughter, applause.)

Yet as we smile about milestones met and celebrations soon to unfold, I think it’s important to remember that a world away there are more than 200,000 young women and men deployed defending us.  The reality is that since September 11, 2001, this has been a tough fight, and we’ve lost some tremendous young men and women.  VMI is no stranger to the sacrifice; nearly 1500 graduates have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 13 of whom rendered the ultimate sacrifice. 

Just two weeks ago, Deborah and I were in Dover to witness the return of one of your own, Captain Charles Ransom, class of 2001 – one of nine Americans killed in a tragic shooting at Kabul International Airport.  Charles served as vice president of his class year, and left an indelible mark on those who knew him.  In their tribute to Charles, his classmates remembered that after breakout in 1998, he promised he would be a fighter for all, that he was – “the great love of our class swells for Charles and his family.  You will be so greatly missed, Brother Rat.”

Captain Ransom was in Afghanistan training his Afghan counterparts to serve their country, as he was his.  We will never forget his sacrifice; we will never forget his sacrifice.  His story reminds us that this generation has been profoundly tested, and that VMI has risen to the challenge.  From Colonel Dan Caine, class of 1990, an F-16 pilot who was among the first to take to the air to protect the Capitol following the attacks of 9/11, to Marine Colonel Mike Shupp, VMI class of 1981, who commanded the main effort during the battle of Fallujah in 2005, to your classmate Daniel Jones who is participating in this ceremony today, men and women of VMI have bravely stepped forward during this decade at war.

Dan, who graduates today, was wounded by an IED on a dismounted patrol in the Helmand province in Afghanistan.  He almost lost his leg, but imbued with an exceptional drive and resilience, he will be walking across this stage with the rest of his classmates today.  (Applause.)

And there is Nick Harrelson, who was recently told he will be deploying for a second time to Iraq.  Nick has been allowed to participate in the graduation ceremonies so he can receive the diploma that he worked so hard for, but leaves shortly to begin preparations for his next deployment with the 29th Infantry Division.

Yesterday, 150 of you stepped forward to join Charles, Dan, Nick in commissioned service to our nation.  That this commissioning rate is the highest in 20 years stands as a testament to the sense of duty here and the culture of service General Peay and his staff have created at this storied institution.  But if you’re anything like me when I received my commission in 1960-whatever – (laughter) – you may be wondering what awaits you out there in the real world, and if you will really know what to do.

Many of those answers reside right here in what you’ve learned as both citizen and soldier in the finest tradition of VMI.  One young man who heeded those answers, George Catlett Marshall, the class of 1901, more than a century later has come literally to define them.  Now, I realize that I’m among a fellowship here that appreciates this remarkable American more than most.  But for me, particularly during these last four years advising two presidents with our nation at war, General Marshall’s qualities and his values have resonated all the more.  His decency, his competence and character rightfully make him a man who Winston Churchill called “the noblest Roman of them all.” 

Equally important, Marshall, from his earliest days both offered and welcomed loyal dissent.  In World War I, he was famed for being the only major on the Western front to stand up to Angry “Black Jack” Pershing.  Despite predictions that Major Marshall was finished, General Pershing sought out that independent-minded major, and would become a towering figure in the life of the younger officer who had the courage to tell it to him straight.

This quality will serve any graduate well, but in the military, it is vital.  Right from the start, your leaders need your best military advice, even if she or he graduated from The Citadel – (laughter).

In short order, you will be making decisions, caring for your troops and offering your advice up the chain of command, just as surely as you will receive it.  Few things are more vital to an organization than a leader who has the moral courage to question the direction at which the organization is headed, and the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made.  That’s real loyalty, and it only gets more important the higher you rise in the ranks.

But perhaps the greatest of all Marshall’s hallmarks was his selflessness.  This is not to say that Marshall was not ambitious; he wanted to command and lead at the highest level.  It’s a desire I hope many of you possess, as well.  But this desire must be balanced with the understanding that if there is ever a choice between personal advancement and what is best for the institution, you are expected to – you must – choose against your own self-interest.  General Marshall understood this intuitively.

As the architect of the plan for Operation Overlord, the job to lead the Allied invasion of Normandy was his for the asking.  Who but Marshall deserved it more?  The premier soldier of his peer group, Marshall kept faith in an Army facing the most austere times in modern history, spending 14 years as a lieutenant, a decade as a lieutenant colonel, and waiting 15 years for promotion to the colonel – to colonel after first wearing that rank in World War I.

As a student of military history, Marshall knew the man who led the Allied effort would be a leader for the ages.  But knowing he was needed most at President Roosevelt’s side, he demurred, allowing a younger Dwight Eisenhower the opportunity of a lifetime.  We are fortunate that those close to the scene recognized that true greatness also resided in the measured and courtly general from VMI.

Secretary of Defense Stimson, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, told Marshall, I want to acknowledge my great personal debt to you, sir, in common with the entire country.  No one who was thinking of himself can rise to true heights.  You have never thought of yourself.

By giving up what he most desired, General Marshall served where his nation benefitted most.  Today, I would like to think General Marshall would be proud of the service rendered by so many Americans in an out of uniform around the globe today.  For almost 10 years, members of our military and our intelligence community, and many other public servants, have worked silently and selflessly to support our operations.  They embody a culture of persistence, of working together, and remembering that when it comes to serving our nation, it can’t be about you.

 

But our work is not done.  Our country faces many challenges at home and abroad, and even if we wished to, we cannot shrink from our responsibilities.  Quite simply, the stakes are too high.  Whether we consider the successful transition of responsibilities in Iraq, our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan, or the hope and potential of the Arab Spring, we must remain engaged if we wish to pursue the world that our children, our grandchildren deserve. 

That is why I travel so often to see things through others’ eyes, why I visited my counterpart in Pakistan 23 or 24 times.  And as challenging as engaging others with different views may be, the alternative of abandoning these partners and these regions is far worse.  We have gone down that road before, and it’s one that leads to isolation and resentment, ultimately making our nation less secure as we deceive ourselves into believing that ignoring these challenges will somehow make them go away.

In my four decades of service, I have learned that it is hard to predict the future.  But of this, I am sure – there will always be challenges to face, and we will always need young women and men like you.  We look for leaders of courage and integrity willing to step forward in the military, in government and in society to help America meet our greatest needs.

And we stay true to the principles and spirit of the institution, of our nation and leaders like General George Marshall.  Their memories, the ghosts of greatness so ever present here in Lexington, now look down upon you, class of 2011.  And all of us are counting on you, cheering you on and eternally grateful for who you are and all that you will do in service to our nation.

Thank you.  God bless, and go VMI.  (Applause.)