I am most honored to be here to help commission these young officers who are beginning their service to our Nation. The journeys they are about to take will change them for the better, whether they remain in uniform for long or choose to dedicate their lives in other ways. But change they will.
This group of young men and women are as diverse as they are accomplished, receiving degrees in Biology and Business, Criminal Justice and Computer Science, History and Physics, English and Psychology, Spanish and Nursing and Political Science—and one master’s degree in Religious Studies. One has opted to serve in the National Guard in order to pursue a medical degree. The class has two prior service combat Veterans, and let me thank them for their service and mention them by name—Ashley Scott and Joshua Eslinger. Distinguished military graduate, or DMG, honors are reserved for the top 20 percent of cadets nationally. Thirty-six percent of this class are DMGs, nearly twice the national standard. One of them was ranked 22nd in the entire Nation on the national order of merit list, among almost 5,000 competitors. And, as a group, this class scored in the top ten percent in almost every rated category during the Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC). They are a truly remarkable group of cadets.
This ceremony takes me back to my own commissioning at West Point in June 1965. I had no idea, then, that the Army would become my life’s calling. As we prepared to graduate, we knew that military actions were underway in a far off place called Vietnam—an advisory effort—but since none of us were being assigned there immediately following graduation, thoughts turned elsewhere.
What we didn’t know, then, was that secret plans to expand the advisory mission would soon surge U.S. presence in-country from less than 20,000 to over 500,000 troops. By January 1966, seven months after our commissioning, members of my graduating class were among early deploying units flowing into Vietnam. Things had changed quickly for us.
Shortly, most of you will be attending your branch officer basic courses. Many of us, in 1965, were not able to attend those courses because units had been alerted and were deploying so rapidly. Following Airborne and Ranger training, I joined my division, which had already been alerted, and was deploying to war by troop ship—serendipity. That 12-day cruise gave me the great, good fortune to be trained by Sergeant Ernie Kingcade, a superb noncommissioned officer to whom I credit my success in combat and many of the successes which followed.
During the two weeks we spent aboard ship, Sergeant Kingcade took on schooling me on the fundamentals I would have learned in officer basic. In his words, “speed and accuracy, Sir, that’s what counts in combat.” By the time we docked in Vietnam, Ernie had declared me competent and ready for battle—it made all the difference in how things turned out. Noncommissioned officers who knew their jobs, cared for their Soldiers, and took time to develop their young officers, made us the magnificent Army we were then, and that we are today.
Our NCOs are the envy of every other army in the world, and I wish each of you the same good fortune to draw an Ernie Kingcade, as I did. Listen closely to them, learn from them, earn their respect, develop their trust—but command your units. You are the accountable officer for all that your unit does or fails to do. Train your Soldiers well and grow them into leaders. Competence defines our strongest leaders. Find out what tasks you are responsible for, and become fully competent in them. Find out what tasks your subordinates are responsible for, and become as competent in their key tasks as you are in your own. Only in this way can you train your units to standard. Do this well, and your credibility and their trust in your leadership will grow.
Credibility is crucial. If you lack it, you lack the means to inspire and motivate. You will not be able to lead as effectively.
You are about to embark on an intense period of learning. Being a lieutenant in the United States Army is an immersion experience in leadership and responsibility. What you learn will stay with you for the rest of your lives, whether or not you choose to remain in uniform.
Find the time to read, professionally, and certainly to re-read two things: We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young by LTG Hal Moore and Joe Galloway. Read it for what it says about in extremis leadership and the crucial relationship between officers and NCOs in combat—for what it says about courage, trust, and determination, especially when the day is long, the enemy is lethal, and the situation dire. Think about the mental and physical toughness and the courage it takes to lead Soldiers in battle. On the toughest of days, what will count is the trust you and your Soldiers have in one another. Your Soldiers will count on you to lead them. Use your time at the basic course to prepare yourselves well.
Then read pages 39 to 40 in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great and aspire to level 5 leadership. You will be privileged to command American Soldiers, but there is a difference between command and leadership. As I have encouraged others, approach your duties with a sense of reverence, trust, and the willingness to sacrifice for your Soldiers. You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. You can certainly command your platoons without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it; and without leadership, command is a hollow experience. Aspire to Collins’ level 5 leadership.
Congratulations for all that you have achieved in arriving here today. And dedicate yourselves, individually and collectively, to a lifetime of service.
There’s a great Army out there awaiting your leadership. We are always in need of leaders of character who are willing to serve something greater than self. We are counting on you.
Our thanks to your families for sharing you with us. I did not join the Army to make a career of it, but if I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely make two decisions exactly as I did 46 years ago; I would marry the same woman, and I’d join the United States Army.
Best wishes to each of you; I wish you a Soldier’s good fortune as you begin your journeys in this best Army in the world with the privilege of commanding the best Soldiers on the face of the earth. Be up to their expectations of you. It’s been an honor being with you today.