The core of the U.S. Army is its responsibility to take care of its soldiers, Army Secretary Pete Geren told the graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., today (May 31, 2008).
Geren spoke to the 972 members of the West Point Class of 2008 at Michie Stadium in the academy's 210th graduation since its founding in 1802.
"Regardless of how long you wear the uniform, one thing will never change. You are a leader and the well-being of soldiers will be in your hands," Geren said. "You'll be judged by how you discharge that duty. For if you strip away everything else about the Army, at its core, that's what the Army is all about: soldiers taking care of soldiers."
Geren called today's Army different from any other in history. It is an all-volunteer force, more than half of its soldiers are married, and there are 700,000 children within its military family ranks.
"The all-volunteer force is a national treasure, but it can't be squandered. To sustain our Army, we must provide Army families with a quality of life equal to their service," the secretary said. "As Army leaders, you must take care of Army families."
Geren borrowed from the writings of former U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy to parallel the threats facing the country today and to outline the challenges the graduating cadets will face in their careers.
He said Jefferson -- the founder of West Point, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and staunch supporter of religious freedom -- would understand the threat posed today by tyranny in the name of religion. Jefferson devoted much of his work to the advancement of liberty and religious freedom and considered his contributions to the cause of religious freedom among his greatest accomplishments.
"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," Geren said. "Your sons and daughters, our soldiers, stand against a threat to liberty and life that is as old as civilization and a cause that shaped the foundation of our nation."
Geren said the cadets are entering a dynamic period of service and warfare. He borrowed from a 1962 speech by Kennedy to graduates at West Point. His comments, made as America was being drawn into the war in Vietnam, mirror the challenges troops face now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Your military responsibilities will require a versatility and an adaptability never before required in either war or peace,'" Geren read from Kennedy's speech. "This is another type of war -- war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, and assassins -- war by ambush instead of combat, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting us rather than engaging us."
Kennedy's speech predicted their service would include commanding traditional forces in less traditional roles, and risking their lives not as combatants, but as instructors and advisors. Their service would require an understanding of foreign policy and military power, and they would give orders in different languages.
"Your posture and your performance will provide the local population with the only evidence of what our country is really like," Geren read from the 35th president's remarks.
The secretary said the mission of the United States military, then as now, goes beyond the security of its own citizens.
"The United States has always stood as a beacon of hope for those yearning to be free," he said. In the past six years, he noted, the U.S. military has liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Geren heralded the graduates for their choice of serving in the military over attending other educational institutions and pursuing civilian careers. They could have gone into private business and on to lucrative job offers, but instead chose the path of duty, honor and country, he told the families in attendance.
"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 everywhere," Geren said. "It will change our nation, and it will change our world for the better."
Geren also pointed out the personal risk in the graduates' chosen profession. Eleven previous West Point graduates have died in the past year in combat, he noted.
"There's 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," he said.
It is in their deaths, though, that the American soldier has built the foundations for the country today, Geren said.
"It is Arlington [National Cemetery] -- not the monuments, malls and memorials -- that tells the story of our nation," he said. "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."
It is that same transcendent 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 -- for the America at war," Geren said.
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service