Transcript: Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s 2015 Norwich Commencement Address

Office of CommunicationsCommencement, News, Z2

Sen. Elizabeth Dole received an honorary doctorate in public service from Norwich University on May 9, 2015, after which she delivered the 2015 Norwich University Commencement Address (video). A copy of her prepared remarks follow.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for that wonderful warm welcome! And thank you, Dr. Schneider for your very kind words of introduction.

Commencement is a remarkable milestone for the students who have worked so hard to reach this moment, the loved ones who supported them along their journey, and the institution that is celebrating yet another generation of outstanding leaders. General Sullivan, President Schneider, distinguished guests and Class of 2015, thank you for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful occasion.

The value of any special recognition is often judged by the distinction of the institution presenting the award and those who have also received the honor. By these measures, I am humbled, indeed, to accept an honorary degree from this distinguished university. In addition to the great military and civilian leaders who have come before me, each of you graduating today makes this recognition one that I am proud to accept. Your hard work, dedication, leadership and character uphold the renowned and respected name of Norwich University, and I shall cherish my association with you all.

Now – in the spirit of Norwich’s emphasis on truth and honesty – I have to admit that when I first opened the letter inviting me to speak and to receive an honorary degree, I felt a bit of trepidation. A small, red booklet entitled, “Cadet Handbook” fell out of the folder accompanying the letter. Was this was a hint that I’d be required to follow the guidelines set out in the handbook? I decided to look through it, to see how I measured up to Norwich University’s expectations.

First – Cadets should have a strong understanding of military culture. I knew I had that down. As you may know, I share most of my time with a World War II Army Captain.

Second – Cadets must adhere to a uniform code. My alma mater may not have required a uniform, but there were certainly dress code expectations, including avoiding blue jeans and wearing hats and hosiery to church. If anything, a uniform might have even saved me some time in the morning.

Third – Cadets will demonstrate proper social standards. This didn’t scare me off either. As far as I am concerned, the “Proper Etiquette” section of the handbook could have been renamed, “growing up in Salisbury, North Carolina, my hometown.”

Fourth – Rooks may not possess more snack food than can fit in a shoebox. It was at this time that I decided to close the handbook and call President Schneider to clarify the expectations that come with an honorary degree.

I have been looking forward to this event for some time. Norwich University is one of our nation’s great institutions. It was founded on the American principle that no matter what path we choose in life, we each have the opportunity to serve our neighbor, our country and our world. I love that.

In many ways, military service is unmatched in its level of personal sacrifice. I hold those who serve in uniform, and those who care for them upon their return from war, very close to my heart. Yet I have also seen profound acts of selflessness among nonprofit volunteers, extraordinary achievements for the greater good by people in business, and a tireless determination to change the world for the better from government leaders on both sides of the aisle.

This spirit of service in every sector of society is uniquely American. It is both a value and a responsibility we accept as citizens of this great nation.

When someone asked Benjamin Franklin upon his departure from the Constitutional Convention what type of government had been created, he famously responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s cautionary note was a wise warning about the fragility of our nation, and its reliance on each of us to think and act beyond ourselves.

As you prepare to contribute your talents and ideas to the world, remember that Franklin’s words are just as relevant today as they were more than 200 hundred years ago. Our country still faces significant challenges and we need your help to solve them!

Several years ago, I came upon one such societal issue that threatened to weaken our nation. My husband, Senator Bob Dole, was admitted to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for an extended period of time. During my many visits to Walter Reed over eleven months, my eyes were opened to the incredible challenges facing the loved ones caring for our wounded warriors. I discovered that across this country, there was a quiet, untold story of profound need being overlooked…the story of the wives and husbands, moms and dads, siblings and other loved ones devoting their lives to caring for those who cared for us.

5.5 million Americans serve as military and veteran caregivers. Too often, they take on this challenge in isolation, with little or no support. Experts believe these caregivers are the most significant factor determining the well-being of our wounded, ill and injured service members. Therefore, when we neglect to support our caregivers, most of them so young, we also neglect our service members and veterans.

Upon Bob’s release from Walter Reed, I established Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. In the years since establishing the Foundation and our Coalition for Military and Veteran Caregivers, I have been fortunate to collaborate with a broad coalition of over 150 service-minded leaders. Scholars and behavioral health specialists have helped us measure the severity of the caregiver issue; private corporations have initiated hiring programs and funded caregiver services; nonprofits have offered free training programs and formed peer support networks; Congressional leaders have established a military and veteran caregivers caucus and introduced bipartisan, bicameral caregiver legislation; and faith organizations have integrated caregivers into their veteran support programs and community outreach initiatives.

Any one of these changes on its own is good. Yet together, through acts of service from every sector, they form a proportionate national response to this critical societal issue.

When I think of the work that remains to be done for military and veteran caregivers, and the many other challenges that face our nation, I take comfort knowing that another generation of bright leaders, grounded in upstanding values, is about to step out into the world ready to make a difference through fields such as math and science, engineering and architecture, accounting and computer science, politics and nursing.

I’m also inspired by how Norwich University cultivates the spirit of service not just among its student body, but among every graduate who has sat where you sit today. Choosing “service” as the theme for the first year of your bicentennial celebration demonstrates the character and commitment of this principled institution. It also emphasizes an invaluable message about giving back to your community. Service is not something you do just while in school, while in uniform, or when you have free time to give. Service is a lifelong commitment. And I can tell you from experience…Dedicating yourself to serving others is the most rewarding way to live your life.

Now, I appreciate that after four demanding years, some of you might feel like you need a break. I noted that the Cadet Handbook instructs Cadets who feel sleepy in class to stand in the back of the room rather than risk nodding off. Needless to say, I’ve been watching that back wall since I stepped up to this podium.

However, I will grant each of you a graduation gift by saying right here, in front of your parents, that you do deserve a rest. But don’t wait long to reengage with the world around you! We have a lot of work to do and we need your help.

In addition to the wonderful skills, traits and knowledge you have learned at Norwich, the time in which you came of age has shaped your perspective in a unique and profound way.

The world the rest of us are still working to understand is the world in which you have grown.

For you, there was no time before cell phones, or the Internet. There was no time before constant connectivity. There was barely any time before the attacks of September 11, 2001, which, for the rest of us, completely challenged every notion we had about the concept of borders, boundaries and the size of our world. Whether you know it or not, these experiences have had a powerful effect on your worldview.

Consider that one hundred fifty years ago, a photographer from Washington, D.C. named Alexander Gardner sparked outrage and concern over the Civil War when he produced and distributed some of the first examples of combat photography after the Battle of Gettysburg. Forty years ago, the conflict in Vietnam was dubbed “The Living Room War” as it marked the first time Americans witnessed nightly reports of the war, broadcast from field journalists. And nearly 25 years ago, CNN redefined war coverage once again, enabling Americans to watch Operation Desert Storm unfold in real time.

Today, we each carry a device in our pockets that opens this window to the world, and thankfully the content we see is broader than just war coverage. Each of us now has the ability to engage in real-time discussions about global events with people from every nation. Through video and social media, average citizens from countries on the other side of the world can bring us into their homes and show us what everyday life is like for them. Even something as simple as playing an online video game against someone in another state shapes how we think of the world and our place in it.

Your generation is the most comfortable and the savviest operating in this connected world. Where most of us see problems, you will see solutions. Where we encounter obstacles, you’ll find opportunities. It’s a unique strength that only your generation can bring to the table.

But before you text mom and dad that smiley face emoji with the smug little grin, let me caution you about the challenges presented by this constant connectivity.

A wonderful book, “Hope is Not a Method,” co-authored by Norwich’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, General Gordon Sullivan, warned leaders not to mistake our easy access to information as true knowledge. Knowledge requires us to occasionally brace ourselves against the tide of information to pause for reflection to ask “What is happening?” “What is not happening?” and “What can I do to influence the action?”

Finding high ground among the flood of headlines, emails, texts and phone calls is a challenge that seems to get harder by the day. In his book, General Sullivan reminded us that, “in the seventeenth century, it took the better part of two years to turn around a message concerning European interests in India or the Far East.” And during World War II, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were able to take time to meet in the middle of the North Atlantic, isolated from the distractions of their everyday lives, to discuss the war. I’ll add to these examples by noting that when General Sullivan wrote this book less than 20 years ago, you could just about cook Thanksgiving dinner in the amount of time it took for your computer to connect to the Internet.

Removing ourselves from constant connectivity can be a challenge. Our smart phones have a tendency to whisper, “Check me. Check me.” The consequences of our technology obsession remind me of the tale of two Vermont lumberjacks – one younger and one older. On a cool fall morning, the two lumberjacks began their day chopping wood. The younger of the two men barely broke a sweat, chopping wood for eight straight hours. The older lumberjack, on the other hand, stepped away from his work every hour or so, disappearing for 15 minutes at a time. At the end of the day, the lumberjacks stacked their wood, and the young man was astounded to find that the older lumberjack’s pile rose higher than his. “How could you have chopped more wood while taking all those breaks?” asked the young man. The older lumberjack replied, “Because each time I took a break, I sharpened my axe.”

There is one other lesson on leadership that I want to share with you today. It is the lesson that has always stood out to me during my years in public service, and it comes in the form of words written by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a distinguished leader who also received an honorary degree from your university.

On the eve of the D-day invasion, General Eisenhower drafted a message to be released to the press and the world if the invasion was a failure.

“Our landings have failed,” he wrote. “And I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine, and mine alone.”

“If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine, and mine alone.” There, in one simple sentence, is true leadership. How many of our societal problems would vanish overnight if we could just get those words right: The responsibility is mine alone.

In the final analysis, that is what great leaders do – not just in Washington, D.C., but in cities and communities all across America. They don’t pass the responsibility or blame to someone else. They stand ready to make the hard decisions, and to live with failure or success.

On that same night before the Allies took the beaches at Normandy, General Eisenhower wrote a second message. This one was sent to the troops. I think his words carried symbolic importance for you today. He wrote:

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The Eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty – loving people everywhere march with you.”

The world is indeed watching and eager to see how you will choose to serve. By reaching this moment – by making it this far – you have already demonstrated your capacity to dedicate yourselves to a cause greater than yourselves. Thanks to the tremendous faculty, staff and leadership at this magnificent institution, there is no doubt you are prepared for what is to come. So head confidently into the future. We look forward to the remarkable good you will do in this world.

Congratulations Class of 2015. May God bless each and every one of you – and God bless this great land of the free – America.