Art, thanks for those kind words, and many thanks for your good and generous works as Chairman of the Arvin Foundation. It’s good to be here with you. I’m most honored to be here this evening to join the Arvin Foundation in recognizing these six wonderfully talented high school seniors with scholarships named in honor of our West Point class’s most distinguished graduate, Bob Arvin, 1965.
The “Long Grey Line,” as we are called, more than 50,000 West Point graduates, stretches back through the decades to 1802, when the U.S. Military Academy was founded. Few bonds in life are as close or as lasting as those forged at West Point. The four intense years together in a close, competitive, but remarkably supportive environment, shapes the personality of each class, especially the wartime classes, when many go directly to combat following graduation, as ours did. The class of ’65 was a pretty unique class. it was made even more so by the presence and leadership of Bob Arvin.
I’ve heard wonderful and inspiring stories of Bob’s years here in Ypsilanti—the one attributed to Tino Lambros about how Bob would focus on his homework in the gym as Coach Waterman was shouting instructions to his hot and sweaty wrestlers. With the temperature in the 90s, Bob would be sitting in a corner, poring over his books. Or how he brought a flashlight with him on his team’s long bus rides so he could hit the books on the late-night trips home.
The quality of such dedication to excellence yielded a 4.0+ average for Bob Arvin, and a place in Ypsi High School history as one of three valedictorians in 1961. His hard work and academic talents were easily matched by his athletic prowess, the skills and conditioning that came only with hard work and dedication on the mats, and his quiet, positive leadership as co-captain led the Ypsi wrestling team to the state championship.
That kind of determination—the drive to rise to challenges, no matter what; to set ambitious goals and achieve them; and the moral and ethical conviction to choose the “harder right, instead of the easier wrong,” as the West Point Cadet Prayer came to reinforce with us, that’s the right stuff for stepping off on one’s own, out from under the care and protection of one’s family and friends, to begin one’s own journey in life. Bob Arvin had it, and because he chose to begin his journey at West Point, the men of ’65 in this room were privileged to know him and became beneficiaries of his gifts.
President John Kennedy said, “let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefits for everyone and greater strength for our Nation.” Bob Arvin did this in full measure.
This evening’s scholarship recipients have a wonderful role model in Bob Arvin. He came from this community; he walked the streets they grew up on. He chose the military as a profession. Their choices are yet to be made, and they are limitless. They will have the opportunity to choose how they want to spend this scholarship over the next several years preparing to decide on a life’s direction. It’s a wonderful moment in their lives—the freedom to choose to be whatever they want to be. That’s what distinguishes our country from most others. Those freedoms are being safeguarded tonight by young men and women, who chose the same profession that Bob Arvin chose upon graduating from West Point. The Nation is once again at war, and there are young Americans on duty tonight even as we honor these recipients.
Let me take a few minutes to talk about the profession that Bob Arvin chose and regrettably gave his life for at much too young an age. Because it was a life well-spent and not wasted. Like many Veterans in this room this evening, we followed the time honored tradition of serving the Nation in time of war. It was not about us; it was about our country and our way of life. It was to preserve all that is good and noble about being American, and it was to safeguard for youngsters, such as our awardees this evening, the freedom to choose to live their lives as they want to live them.
Shortly before we both retired in 2003, then-Secretary of the Army Tom White and I commissioned something called the “Warrior Ethos Study” to better define for us the profession of Soldiering. Out of that study came “The Soldier’s Creed,” which, in part, makes four simple, declaratory statements:
To some, these may sound like just words, which roll easily off the tongue, but, as some in this audience know, they mean much more to Soldiers. Each declaration is a promise Soldiers make to one another, promises that become the foundation for the trust that must exist between them, Soldier to Soldier, leader to led, unit to unit, the Army to the American people.
Throughout history, Soldiers have fought for one another. Trust was a sufficient bond to produce the precious few, whose acts of gallantry can never be explained by any of the rest of us. They have become the stuff of legend and have given themselves up to the ages because of their indomitable spirit, their willingness to give everything, even the last full measure of devotion, for others. They are, of course, recipients of our Nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
The award itself was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to honor those supreme acts of gallantry and intrepidity that go beyond human comprehension, acts of courage so profound that all of the rest us feel somewhat uneasy in the commonness of our own humanity. It is not possible to train for the circumstances which give rise to such extraordinary courage and sacrifice. No one is ever expected to make this kind of sacrifice, and no one would have been criticized for not having acted. Amongst the 3,467 recipients, you will the names of:
Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy, Commander, Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, for conspicuous gallantry in France, 26 January 1945, in single-handedly fighting a rear guard action for over an hour against a superior force of tanks, enabling his rifle company to displace to and prepare a subsequent battle position—from which he led their counterattack to drive the still superior enemy force from the battlefield.
Private First Class Alford McLaughlin, Company l, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, for conspicuous gallantry on the night of 4 and 5 September 1952, Korea. Having volunteered for a second continuous mission on a strategic combat outpost line far in advance of the main battle area, Private McLaughlin successfully defended his position under enemy artillery and mortar barrages by delivering devastating fires from his two machine guns and carbine on enemy forces attacking in battalion strength. Laying his weapons on the cool earth to keep them from overheating, Private McLaughlin accounted for 150 enemy killed and 50 wounded that night.
Captain “Rocky” Versace distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism during the period, 29 October 1963 to 26 September 1965, while held as a prisoner of war. Severely wounded during an attack by a heavily armed enemy battalion, Captain Versace fought until he ran out of ammunition before being taken prisoner, where he continued to resist his Viet-Cong captors for two long years—assuming command of his fellow prisoners, scorning the enemy’s brutal mistreatment of him, making three unsuccessful escape attempts. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America, his captors executed him on 26 September 1965. The last time his fellow prisoners heard his voice, Rocky Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice to rally his fellow prisoners and strengthen their resolve in resisting the enemy’s efforts to break their spirits.
Mogadishu, Somalia, 3 October 1993, two Medals of Honor were awarded to Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shugart, who volunteered to go to the aide of a downed helicopter crew, knowing they were probably not going to make it out alive. Fighting to reach the crew members, they formed a 2-man defensive perimeter around them, killing numerous enemy militia members until they ran out of ammunition. After Sergeant Shugart was mortally wounded, Master Sergeant Gordon handed his rifle with its last five rounds of ammunition to one of the pilots and wished him “good luck” before continuing to fight with his pistol until he, too, was killed.
Five Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously for actions in Afghanistan and Iraq: Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry in saving his special reconnaissance element, June 2005, Asadabad, Afghanistan; Corporal Jason Dunham, United States Marine Corps, Rifle Squad Leader, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 14 April 2004, Karbala, Iraq, for conspicuous gallantry in giving his life for members of his team; Master at Arms 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, for conspicuous gallantry in giving his life to protect members of his combined Seal and Iraqi sniper overwatch element, 29 September 2006, Ar Ramadi, Iraq; Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis, M2 .50 caliber machine gunner, Company C, 1-26th Infantry Regiment, for conspicuous gallantry on 4 December 2006, in giving his life to protect his teammates; Sergeant First Class Paul Smith, U.S. Army, for conspicuous gallantry on 4 April 2003, in repelling a company-sized attack that threatened to overrun his engineer work party.
Now, we all know that there were more, far more, heroes on those battlefields than the recipients of the Medal of Honor. We focus on these few to remind us that in our formations there have always been young Americans like these, who will rise and do the most magnificent things in the most frightening and painful moments we can imagine. They represent an ideal. They also remind us that those who are privileged to command must approach their duties with a reverence equal to the courage and selflessness of those they will lead. You see, within all formations, there are men and women like these, who, given the right circumstances, will rise to magnificence. We just don’t know who they are.
We must find ways to remember and honor the young men and women who serve us in uniform. Bob Arvin served this country with distinction. His shortened life, along with those of countless American heroes throughout the ages, purchased for all of us the freedom to choose how we would live our lives. To our outstanding young recipients of the Arvin Scholarships for 2009, congratulations, once again. Choose wisely and choose well, and live your lives in celebration and gratitude for the men and women of valor who have provided you these wonderful opportunities. Live it for them.
God bless each of you, God bless our men and women in uniform, past and present; God bless our great Nation.