Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno received an honorary doctorate in military science from Norwich University on May 14, 2016, after which he delivered the 2016 Norwich University Commencement Address. A copy of his prepared remarks follow.
President Schneider, thank you for that very kind introduction and your incredible leadership and stewardship of this great university. I’m excited and inspired for our nations future as a look out upon the men and women of the class of 2016.
And it’s such a pleasure to be back at this beautiful campus. Every time I come here I’m struck by what a perfect setting this is to develop and educate young men and women to be future leaders. An Incredible setting with incredible people creates the right atmosphere for learning
Today is the day to celebrate the hard work and awesome achievements of the class of 2016. First, I want to thank the Faculty and Staff who invested so heavily in every student’s development. Your steadfast commitment and dedication has contributed greatly to every student who will receive their coveted diploma today. To all the family members and friends here today. You have supported your students for the last 4 years and for some maybe a bit longer. I will not mention any names. Your love and support allowed each of these men and women to grow and mature and realize their goal. You should be very proud of your son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, brother, sister, niece or nephew. They have demonstrated endurance, resilience, dedication and selflessness. We all can agree they are very different from the young men and women who entered Norwich in 2012. Students lets give the Faculty and staff and all your friends and family members a round of applause.
Before I go any further, I’ll just say that I’ve learned over the years that being a good Keynote speaker is the art of saying a lot without talking a lot. I remember the message from a young school boy who had to give a report on Julius Caesar. “Julius Caesar was born a long time ago,” The boy began. “He was a great General. He won some important battles. He made a long speech. They killed him.” So today today with many anxious graduates and families I’ll try not to earn Caesars fate.
Norwich is a special place that has had an outsized influence on our military and our society. Of course, as the birthplace of ROTC, you’ve produced thousands of military leaders for our nation, including well over a hundred general officers and flag officers who played key roles in our forces. One of those, General Gordon Sullivan, graduated from this school in 1959 and went on to be one of the most consequential chiefs of staff our Army has ever had.
But beyond those accomplishments, for two centuries you’ve also been a model for the entire American higher education system. And for more than four decades you’ve been a place where the military and the civilian worlds come together in the classroom and on the campus in a way that is as unusual as it is valuable. There are many military colleges and academies around the world, but to find one that has military and civilian students fully integrated, side by side, as they are here, is exceedingly rare, and each of you has gotten a rare grounding in both worlds as a result of that.
And that cross-grounding is so important. Everyone here has the opportunity to choose your own destiny. It is my belief that No one’s destiny is predetermined. You will define yourself by your choices and actions. There is no greater gift then the one of selfless service to the betterment of human kind.
We, all of us, had the good fortune to be born in or to immigrate to a country that lives on the principle of serving others and the greater good. As you leave here, I’d charge you to dedicate yourselves to doing your part in the life of your nation through service of your own, whether it’s by taking up military commissions; or by seeking careers in teaching or healing or civil service; or maybe by doing local volunteer work as you pursue careers in the private sector. Whatever your walk of life, the future of the nation is going to depend on people like you making the choice of selfless service. Of course, that’s a choice that Norwich graduates have always made, just as your distinguished fellow alumnus General Gordon Sullivan did. He not only served 36 years in the Army, but for the past 18 years he has served as the President of the Association of the US Army, an organization dedicated solely to the welfare of our soldiers. More than half a century of service to his country and its Army…believe me when I say that Gordon Sullivan could have had any job and commanded any salary he wished, but he chose a lifetime of service to his country and his fellow service members. In my book, that’s the epitome of selfless service, and just like you, he started that journey right here at Norwich.
As Americans, we choose to selflessly serve our country not simply because it’s the place we’re from. America is not just a place; it’s an idea, one that is unique in human history. When we are in service to our country, we are in service to the uniquely American idea that individuals have the right and the ability to choose. Never forget that your own actions, hard work, and everyday experiences are the things that will determine what you become in life, and not what someone else has predetermined you will become.
You’ve heard it said many times that our country is the land of opportunity, and it’s true. I say that as the son of first-generation Italian-American parents (who are unfortunately no longer with us) and who, if they had been here to see it, would no doubt have been surprised to see their son as the Chief of Staff of the Army, considering my family’s somewhat humble beginnings in the lower East Side of New York. But as people who left the old world to come to a new one, I think they would’ve instinctively understood that this is a country where anything is possible for anyone. Where the place in which you begin your life doesn’t dictate how you live it or where you end up.
The right to make your own path in life is a precious gift that you and I have received, one that most of the world doesn’t share. Think of how many people are born, live, and die on this earth without experiencing that kind of freedom, or how many people have been willing to die just to give their children a small chance at it. I urge you to cherish this gift and not to let a day go by without making the most of it.
I’m sure for many of you the thought that the rest of the road ahead of you isn’t already defined is a bit daunting. But don’t let this deter you. Embrace it and have confidence that no one knows what you want to accomplish in your own life better than you do.
The world today is a dynamic, complex and exciting, but unfortunately it is also a dangerous place. The military graduates among you are entering the profession of arms at a time of uncertainty and unpredictability, in which our country and its allies face a challenging economic, security, and political environment around the world.
We once again find ourselves in a national dialogue regarding our national security priorities and what the future U.S. role should be around the world. It is an important discussion that will shape our future. The American way in the past has been to dangerously draw down our military forces after a prolonged conflict like the world wars, Vietnam, or the post-9/11 wars. It’s understandable; we are a peace-loving people who for most of our history have been protected by the two oceans that physically separate us from much of the rest of the world. But we have to face the fact that in the modern era, whenever we have decided to withdraw from the world, we have only made ourselves and our way of life less safe. We can’t afford to make that same mistake again now.
Almost everyday on the news we are reminded of the growing instability around the world. Failed and failing states are causing shockwaves through the post-World War II order that the United States and its allies created, an order that was designed to prevent the recurrence of world wars. The velocity of instability around the world is greater than at any other time in my life, driven partly by the proliferation of technology and digitization of information, which have created new capabilities that both friendly and enemy entities can use.
The US will be involved in resolving conflicts arising from the diffusion of state power and contests among a rising number of regional powers and social movements. Hostile nation states are likely to use non-state actors as their surrogates, and our adversaries will fight in networks across regions to create instability and insurgencies that will affect our country’s interests, and to which we will have to respond. We can already see across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific a level of instability that is unprecedented, and with it a clear threat to the homeland.
Steering our nation safely through this kind of environment in the coming decades is going to require strong, capable leadership at all levels, and in all forms. It will require Competent Committed leaders of Character both civilian and Military whether it be in business, education, engineering and the sciences, or throughout our government. In other words, we need great leaders in every facet of society. We need all of you graduating today to take up the mantle of leadership no matter what field you choose to work. Follow the example of great Norwich leaders of the past such as General Sullivan, Robert McDermott former CEO of USAA and Emily Caruso national champion in Air rifle and a member of 2 Olympic teams.
They each earned the trust of their superiors, subordinates and peers by performing their duties with competence, displaying commitment to the mission, and demonstrating character in their decisions and actions. Effective leaders also have a physical and mental toughness to get themselves and their team through difficult conditions, as well as moral courage to handle the difficult choices that will inevitably present themselves. And they set and enforce high standards of performance for themselves and their subordinates.
Once they’ve established this kind of foundation, the best leaders in the future will be the ones who can constantly learn and adapt, because as you are quickly going to find out, there are no predetermined solutions to the problems you’re going to face. And the pace of change is only going to increase as time passes. Being successful will require an adaptive and innovative mind, a willingness to accept prudent risk in unfamiliar or rapidly changing situations, and a flexibility to adjust based on continuous assessment.
The reason these traits are so important is that the weight of leadership is going to fall upon your shoulders right away. For the soon-to-be military officers among you, you are going to have to make decisions that have real consequences for other people, and you’re going to have to do it right out of the starting blocks. For all of you, within just months you’re going to find yourselves with expectant faces gathered around you, probably many of them older than you, awaiting your guidance, asking you, “What should we do? That’s the responsibility of leadership. It’s daunting, but embrace it.
As you cross the stage today and receive your well deserved diploma celebrate your accomplishments. But, I also want each of you to commit yourselves to a lifetime of service to others. Choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. Each generation has the responsibility to build on the success of previous generations. That is what has made this country Great!
I have mentioned the importance of character a few times already. I emphatically suggest that each and everyone of us is defined by our character. Your character will be tested and it will be the most important test you ever take. Stand up for what is right, don’t be afraid to make tough decisions and treat everyone with dignity and respect, this will earn you the respect of your fellow employers.
Great leaders inspire ordinary men and women to be extraordinary and to achieve what was believed to be unachievable. That is what this country has been built on.
I’ve had the chance to live and work all around the world, and the one thing that is very clear is that there is no nation like the United States of America. There is no other nation that allows each individual to rise and perform to the best of their abilities and provides them the opportunities to do whatever they want. However, it is your choice. I challenge you to make the best use of that choice.
Norwich is a special place I have watched them put their arms around their own during the most difficult times. Be proud of this great university and all it stands for. You will carry its legacy wherever you go or whatever you do.
Congratulations for your accomplishment on this special day. It is time for all you to change the world each in your own way. I wish you nothing but the best of luck and great success in the future. Thank you very much, and God Bless America.