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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Commencement, Florida State University (FSU)
Florida State University, Florida
May 4, 2013

Good afternoon, everyone.

President Barron—thank you for that generous introduction, and my thanks to you and your board of trustees for your hospitality and warm welcome to FSU.

Let me also acknowledge the deans of the Schools of Business, Education, Music, Nursing, and Social Work—thank you for making FSU a welcoming and productive place of study. And most importantly—the graduates of this great Seminole Class of 2013, your spouses, your parents and families, and your friends—congratulations:

I am honored to have been asked to share a few words—with emphasis on "a few"—with our graduates on this very special and important day. I'm told that speaking at a commencement exercise is a lot like singing the National Anthem at the World Series. Absolutely no one came to hear you sing, and the game won't begin until you're done. So, let me be brief.

I have enormous respect and admiration for the men and women, who serve in our Armed Forces and who go into harm's way for all of us. Let me ask our graduating Veterans—wearing the red, white, and blue cords presented to them by President Barron—to stand if you are able, or to wave a hand, if not, so we can honor you. Let me now invite all the Veterans in the audience to stand, so we can recognize your service as well. Thank you all very much.

To all our graduates—you have achieved a marvelous milestone in your lives. This is an exciting time for you and for your families. Let me suggest just a few things.

First, that curiosity is the human condition. It stimulates our search for knowledge, enabling intellectual growth for all of us. Do not let your search for knowledge end today. Remain curious about the things you don't know or understand. Make education the lifelong journey that it should be for all of us. And I guarantee—you won't be bored.

Next, whatever you end up doing, apply yourself to your tasks. Become expert in them, and then, be willing to challenge all the assumptions about how those tasks are accomplished in your work. Beware the "musts," the "always," and the "onlys"—as in "we must do it this way," or "we've always done it this way before," or "the only problem with what you are saying is …." These are all mostly shorthand for "no new ideas, please; not interested in change."

Challenge all those assumptions! Decide how to better achieve your mission, serve your organization, and care for its clients. Now I'm not suggesting change for the sake of change. But all good organizations must be able to adjust to changing environments. As I've said on other occasions, "If you don't like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less."

Adaptation is the art of survival, even in nature. Change is a fact of life. You can either lead change or follow others. I recommend you lead. That's what your time at FSU prepared you to do.

Finally, your degrees enable you to search for and find where the passion lies for you in your chosen fields—those things that will get you up each day, eager to get to work, and make it difficult for you to turn in each night. The world needs such passion from us.

I carry with me the memory of an incredible person, an Army nurse. In 1970, she was the head trauma nurse at the amputee ward of the 95th Medical Evacuation Hospital, Da Nang, Vietnam.

I had been helicoptered there after tripping an anti-personnel landmine. My foot was severely damaged, and the wounds were still open and painful. I did not understand the extent of my injuries, nor how long recovery and rehabilitation would take, nor whether this injury would change my ability to continue serving in uniform. Like some of you, I was, then, young and invincible.

Soon after emergency surgery, this trauma nurse visited me with some sage advice. She looked at my injuries and told me that, when I returned stateside, I would probably be offered a Syme's amputation—removal of the entire foot at the ankle. She hinted that there would be pressure on me to sign the release form so that surgeons could proceed with the removal.

"They are going to give you a lot of reasons why they think this must happen," she said, "but the basic reason is that no one currently makes a prosthesis for a forefoot amputation like yours. But they do make one for the entire foot." So the preference was to fit me for the prosthesis they had in stock. She added that she had never seen any prosthesis move in the ways that an ankle moved.

She then asked whether I wanted to try saving my ankle. Without hesitation, I said, "Absolutely." She then quickly told me that I needed to rotate that ankle to keep it mobile, to keep it from freezing up. The ball of gauze wrapped around the wounds felt like sandpaper as i rotated the ankle inside of it. As she left, she added sternly, "Every time I see you, I'd better see you rotating that ankle."

Well, there was no question about who was in charge of that ward. Like all the rest of her patients, I was probably only under her care in Da Nang for three or four days before being shipped home. She never seemed to go off shift. So, every time I heard or saw her coming, I started rotating that ankle just as fast and hard as I could. Painful.

To this day, I don't know her name. Sedated, as many of us were, I don't even recall saying good-bye to her, and time has dimmed my memory of her face. But just as she predicted, after my return to the U.S., I was informed that the orthopedic surgeon would be removing my right foot at the ankle. My, "No thanks," did not sit well with the surgeon, and what followed were extended back-and-forths that led, at one point, to some stern warnings. Ultimately, however, we reached an agreement to keep my ankle and to try to fit a prosthesis to my injuries, rather than the other way around. My wounds were closed, and my therapy and rehabilitation began.

That trauma nurse was more than a nurse that day. She didn't have to do what she did. She was outside her lane, but she was expert in her task of healing human bodies and spirits—and she cared. Her advice changed my life. Had she not known, or cared enough, to make the effort to educate me so I could choose what was best, I am certain I would have taken the Syme's procedure; would have, in all likelihood, left the Army after five years instead of 38; and would probably not be walking without some form of support today.

In the future, you will be defined by the deeds you perform—by your humanity, and by your desire to make the world around you better. I can only guess at how many of us that trauma nurse helped as we passed through the 95th—hundreds, maybe thousands. I have never forgotten her.

The deeds, and the changes you bring about, will not start as monumental decisions or epic actions. They will start in your daily interactions with those with whom you work, lead, and care for. Do this well. We used to say, "People don't care what you know, until they know that you care."

Congratulations, once again.

God bless each and every one of you, and your families. God bless the men and women, who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.