SecDef Lloyd J. Austin III
U.S. Military Academy Commencement Address
delivered 22 May 2021, West Point, New York
SecDef Lloyd Austin: Thank you so much, General Williams, and thank you for that warm introduction. You know, it's always tough to spend behind General Williams. He's such a -- such a great speaker. Every time I come back here it feels like I'm coming home. By the way, General, what do you call this group of fine men and women that I see assemble on the field in front of us?
General Anthony Williams, Superintendent of West Point: Call 'em warriors, Mr. Secretary.
SecDef Austin: okay. “Soup” says he calls you warriors. I'm going to call you Lieutenants. Is that okay with you?
This is a big deal guys. I want your Secretary of Defense to be the first to call you Lieutenant. So -- Hooah.
It is great to see Senator Reid and his classmates from the class of 1971. Congressman Womack, Acting Secretary Whitley, General McConville and so many others of the supporters of this -- this exceptional academy. And let me again thank General Williams and Sergeant Major Coffey and all the faculty and staff here at West Point for all that you do and all that you have done to uphold the traditions of this extraordinary place and for all that you have done for the newest officers in our United States Army, and that brings me to the Class of 2021. You know, the next time that I see your Commander-in-Chief -- and I see him often -- I will report to him some very good news and that good news is that reinforcements are on their way.
Let me give a shout -- a quick shout out to your First Captain, Lieutenant Reilly McGinnis.
I am particularly proud that this year senior cadets from West Point, the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy are all women.
Lieutenants, I hope that you're feeling proud of yourself because we are certainly proud of you. Your graduating under exceptionally tough circumstances but you fought through from R-day to today and you fought through to take your place in the "Long Gray Line" so congratulations.
You know this isn't just your day. It also belongs to the families and loved ones who have done so much to get you here. Amid the pandemic when so many families have suffered aching losses, it's particularly powerful to have all of you here with us today. Your families have worried and sacrificed and told you to call your mother. They're not going to stop worrying about you now but they're also not going to stop being proud of you. They've given their love and been your biggest cheerleader so let's take a second to turn that around. Everyone, let's give it up for your families.
See some proud families up there waving and you should be waving. You've done well. Lieutenants it doesn't seem like that long ago that I was sitting where you're sitting. So I'm congratulating you not just as the Secretary of Defense but also as a member of the Class of 1975. You know, I think it's finally safe to -- to admit that for much of high school I never really considered West Point, and still my family has a strong tradition of military service. My father served proudly in World War II as a truck drive in the Army Air Corps, and I can still remember seeing pictures of him in his uniform as a young Corporal. And one of my uncles was the first African-American Green Beret that I ever saw. You know, he came home wearing that green beret.
Yes, he came home wearing that green beret and those jump boots and I said, you know, I -- I got to do that. I got have some of that. So -- So I grew up wanting to serve at some point. But I also grew up being Catholic and fascinated with the idea of going to Notre Dame and joining the Fighting Irish. And I wound up getting into Notre Dame on a scholarship as well as being offered a place at West Point. So my father called me in one day and he said, "Let's talk our way through this. This is a pretty important decision." He said,
So we talked some more and then my dad asked me, he said, "Okay, so son, what do you want to do?" I said, "That's easy dad. I want to go to Notre Dame." And he said, "Okay son, let's try this conversation again tomorrow."
And I guess you can tell how that played out. You know, dad's looking pretty smart about right now. I'd never set foot on West Point when I started out here. I'd never been to the state of New York. In fact, the furthest that I'd ever been, north I had ever been was north Georgia. I paid for my own flight to get here from Georgia and -- and it was the first airplane that I ever flew on. I landed in New York City in 1971 and let me tell you, it wasn't just different from my hometowns in Georgia and Alabama. It was another planet. And so the next day I got on a bus and I headed up here and this academy on the Hudson looked like my second new planet in two days.
It was unlike any place that I've ever seen in my life. The grounds were perfectly groomed and they seemed to be filled with perfect people. You know, I still remember the rising seniors who gave us our first instructions. They were athletic and brilliant. They spoke flawlessly with no pauses or stumbles. I don't think they ever even blinked. So they made quite a first impression on us, and I found myself thinking, there is no way that I can ever be that good. And like many of you, my goal was just to make it through the first day and then to the next day and the next week and the next month. I sometimes wondered what good could possibly come out of all of this intensity, and I remembered being given just a few minutes to read the newspaper in the morning and then being prepared to discuss the items in the newspaper with the upperclassmen.
And I thought, "How does that matter?" "How can that possibly make me a better officer?" And now, as Secretary of Defense, I find myself with a stack of intelligence assessments and -- and international news clippings that I race through every morning and as I do I think of West Point and I chuckle. That's just one of the skills that I learned here and it turned out, by the way, that the upperclassmen who gave us such a fine impression on that first day had actually been rehearsing for weeks. And that taught me a lifelong lesson in the importance of serious preparation. I learned the -- I learned that focus and discipline are really important. I learned the importance of mastering your trade, and above all I learned the importance of being -- of becoming a team member.
Lieutenants, on challenging -- challenging deployments, you will have to work together with your teams to survive and succeed, and this institution excels at instilling exactly that spirit. You've learned how to follow with loyalty. You've learned how to lead with honor. You've learned how to question with rigor. You know, looking out at all of you I see the vanguard of a generation. I see patriotic, committed young people coming of age at a hinge in history, who grew up never knowing anything other than a nation at war. And, so now, you're about to graduate into a changing country and a changing world where many of the old ways of doing business don't hold up anymore. You're seeing raw divisions at home and the painful aftermath of the pandemic.
You may also have heard some of America's competitors claim that the future belongs to a model that promises wealth as it stamps out freedom. You're watching as America's longest war winds down, and you're seeing technology change the character of war itself. And even as big and rising powers jostle and compete, you're seeing new threats from pandemics to terrorism, to cyber weapons, and you're seeing those threats race across borders like a gale. You know, I might -- I just might have a bit of insight into what you're facing: a democracy under strain, economic fall out, painful issues of racism and discrimination, social tensions and the end of a long and controversial war. Well, that all sounds pretty familiar to those of us from the Class of 1975.
So let me assure you of something, and this is from very personal experience. No matter how strong the headwinds, West Point will keep you on course. It worked for my class and it will work for yours. Some things change, but the skill set taught here is made to last because it teaches you to adapt. It teaches you to stick with it as your class model says until the battle is won. Lieutenants you -- Lieutenants, you are ready. In this young century, adaptation is the name of the game. Leadership is the name of the game, and West Point has given you what you need to tackle any whether channel -- challenge to embrace any honorable mission. So yes, you are graduating in extraordinary circumstances but let's be clear, extraordinary circumstances are what the United States Army does.
On the face of it, there may -- may -- may seem not to be much in common between the forces that George Washington led along the Hudson and between the units that I've led in the Middle East. But when we are at our best, we are true to our founding values and we don't fight for a tribe or for a political leader or for conquest or for plunder. No, when we're at our best, we fight to defend our republic. We fight to defend our democratic ideals.
We fight to defend human rights, human dignity, human liberty.
Take it from someone who spent 41 years in an Army uniform. I've seen the problems but just like the nation it defends, the United States military strives to be a more perfect version of itself. And I will take that over our competitors any day.
You know, you serve a country that sees the use of force as a last resort. You serve a country that loves liberty. You serve a country that rejects bullying and aggression and that seeks a world rooted in rules that favor the advance of freedom. That stands for democracy and decency at home or abroad. You serve a country that works hand and hand with our old allies and new partners. That cherishes the rich tapestry of the backgrounds of its citizens. That strives to grow and to man and to reach the better angels of our nature. You serve a country that knows, as our president has said, that we are strongest when the power of our example matters more than the example of our power.
So since becoming Secretary of Defense, I've worked hard with my team to put those principles into place. We're working urgently to help bring this global pandemic -- help bring this global pandemic to an end. We've focused on the security challenges presented by China. We're working hand and hand with our allies and partners to strengthen a rules-based international order that advances a cause of human freedom. And we are driving hard to ensure that we have the right capabilities and the right operational concepts and weaving them together in new and network ways to produce a truly integrated 21st century vision of deterrence. And we're doing all of this while making sure that we take care of all of our people, to grow and to develop the talent that we need for the -- for the future and to ensure that everyone who serves can do so in an environment that's free of hate and harassment and discrimination.
And that ladies and gentlemen is not just a matter of national principle; it is a matter of national security. And I -- You know, I learned all of this at this great institution. This great engine of leadership and I kept learning from West Point long after I graduated. I lived through a lot between my last day here and my first day as a general officer but there wasn't a day when I didn't draw on my years here at West Point. And your time here will serve you incredibly well over the decades to come as well. You know, most of all, I still -- I still depend on the values that I learned at West Point. I still believe that leadership demands character. I still believe in telling the truth. I still believe in treating people with dignity and respect. I still believe in serving your country and I still believe in the tenets of our democracy and the words of our Constitution.
Those -- Those values are the lasting -- lasting legacy of West Point. They are the guideposts that will steer you right when you face the hardest decisions of your lives and some of you 2nd Lieutenants will have to -- will have to make life and death calls. Those values will see you through. Those values will guide you home. And you know what? You're prepared to make those decisions. You may not know it yet, but you are ready to be leaders. The values that we uphold are the values that will hold us up, and the Department of Defense is committed to doing everything in its power to support you when you serve and when you deploy and when you come back. And we're also to help your families on the home front because we know that when a soldier deploys their loved ones are on the front lines too.
Now, one word of advice. Hold on to your academy friends. They're a huge part of what you'll carry forward. My West Point buddies and I still remember going into New -- into New York City on the very few weekends that we could get off post. Back in those disco days of 1975, we were surrounded by bell bottoms and big hair and wide collars. And I can tell you up front, just for the record, that I never wore any of those.
Obviously, just kidding. We still laugh about those times but there was plenty that we didn't laugh about. We didn't laugh about the struggles of getting through ranger school or airborne school or the strains on the home front of a life of serving your country.
But through it all, we always knew that the friends that we made here were the kinds of people that you'd want to be in a fox hole with, and I can promise you that we're going to need your courage and your commitment in the future. You know when I graduated, Vietnam ended and my classmates and I went for a long time, which -- in which many of us weren't involved in any kind of a major conflict. But after September 2001, this country found itself in a continuous fight for almost 20 years and I wound up commanding troops in combat at the one star, two star, three star and four star levels. Now, America's goal is to always lead with diplomacy and to deter conflict whenever we can, but if we are forced to defend ourselves, we will win and we will win decisively.
Lieutenants, our job is to fight and win our nation's wars and that means that nothing that you have learned here is solely academic. Because I can pretty much guarantee you that something that we're not anticipating is going to happen -- happen on your watch because we live in an imperfect world. One in which patriotic young men and women still learn the ways of war and volunteer proudly to keep their fellow citizens safe, and we're grateful to all of you for standing up and standing tall. Now we don't get to choose our times but we do get to shape our times. And in our democracy, that isn't just a job for those at the top, it is the responsibility for every citizen and it is a mission for every soldier in the United States Army.
Lieutenants, your hour will come and when it does the eyes of the nation will turn again to the men and women of West Point and our entire military. In the course of the republic and the depth of our security will be shaped again by you and by your teammates in the other services until the battle is won.
Yes. Those who came before you are so proud to see you sitting here today and we believe in you, in each and every one of you. And we know that you will prevail and we know that you will make us proud for democracy, for liberty, for the Constitution and for duty, for honor, for country.
Thank you and congratulations again Class of 2021.
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