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Gen. Dempsey's All-Hands Call at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy


By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, New London, Conn.
FIRST CLASS CADET JOE SULLIVAN-SPRINGHETTI: Please be seated.

Good afternoon, General Dempsey, Admiral Stosz, distinguished guests, Corps of Cadets. I am First Class Joe Sullivan-Springhetti, the regimental commander. And this afternoon it is my honor to introduce the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

General Dempsey is the highest-ranking military officer in the United States Armed Forces and the principal military adviser to the president, the secretary of Defense and the National Security Council. Prior to becoming chairman, he served as the 37th chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

A New Jersey native and a career Armor officer, General Dempsey is a 1974 graduate of West Point. During more than 38 years of service, he has commanded at every echelon, from platoon to combatant command, across the United States and the globe. General Dempsey is married to his high school sweetheart, Deanie. Each of their three children – Chris, Megan and Caitlin – has served in the United States Army. He also has seven grandchildren.

Please join me in welcoming General Martin Dempsey. (Applause.)

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: OK. Let’s make sure the sound’s working. There we go. Is that – can you all hear me up there way in the back? All right. Looks like a big bedroom up there to me. (Laughter.) In that spirit – in that spirit, and to make sure you don’t need to use the time available to us today to catch any extra winks, I would like to declare late rack for tomorrow. (Cheers, applause.)

And now I’d be happy to take your questions. (Laughter.) My – look, I’m here – the late rack is legit, so – (laughter) – and I gave enough of you my card, so if the superintendent tries to ride on your back after I leave – (laughter, applause.)

I’m delighted to be here. I’ve tried to – this is my third attempt. You know, I got up to bat twice before and struck out, once because of the weather and something hideous happened in the world to keep me away the second time. But I’m really delighted to be back. I try to get around to each academy every year, actually, because I really want to make sure I stay in touch with you.

So part of me being here, by the way, is to learn from you – and we’ll get to that during the Q&A, I hope – because you’re going to lead this force, this wonderful, best military force, best-led military force we ever had in the history of our nation. There are arguments about the fact that it’s the best military force ever assembled on the face of the Earth ever. You know, whatever it is, we want to maintain it, and I want to make sure that as I run my last lap in this marathon and hand the baton off, it’s going to be to you, so I’m sure you know what we’re trying to do, and I want to hear from you what’s important to you. And so that’s why I try to get around and chat with you.

I hope you all know how much I appreciate the Coast Guard. You know, our Coast Guard doesn’t fall under the Department of Defense, but we certainly feel like you’re part of the team. In fact, on the back of my coin, as the chairman – some of you have that coin now – you’ll see that I have five crests: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. And the Coast Guard crest happens to be right in the center of it.

It’s in the center of it by happenstance; I didn’t tell the guy who cast the die to put it there, but it works out for me because you have a constant mission. Whether we’re in conflict or not, you have a mission. And then when we get into conflict, you actually participate just as significantly, with just as much risk and just as much sacrifice as your brothers and sisters in arms in the other four services.

So I really am delighted to be here, and I want to thank you for your – first and foremost, I want to thank you for your service, for raising your hand and agreeing to serve your country at a – at a challenging time. And, you know, some of that challenge will be made evident to you in my – in my remarks. Some of that challenge I think you’ll share with me when we have a Q&A opportunity here in just a few moments. But it is a very challenging time in our – for our nation. And I only make it through the day because I know there’s young men and women like you here and at West Point and Colorado Springs and in Annapolis who are willing to share the burden.

So with that in mind, let me tell you what I’m going to talk about. I’ll talk real briefly about our profession, the profession of arms. You’re part of that profession, and I want to share some thoughts about it. Secondly, I’ll talk to you a little bit about leadership. I mean, we don’t have time to do nearly what I’d like to do with you, but as I said, I hope this isn’t my last chance to visit with you.

Third, I’ll kind of lay out some national security challenges. Fourth, I’ll make – I have to glance off the budget at some point in time, just so you know what we are doing and what we’re not doing, and then we’ll do Q&A. So let’s talk about the profession.

You’re not a profession just because you say you are. You’ve got to remember that. We sometimes put that word “profession” on autopilot. You ought to be thinking about what it means, depending on where you are in your cadet career.

You know, if you’re a – if you’re a freshman, a schwab – a swab – is that – yeah, whatever they call you, you know, you are just really entering our profession. You’re kind of trying to figure out what it means, what does it mean to you personally; what does it mean institutionally, and that’s an important point. As soon as you come to the realization that a profession means that you have to account for both yourself and the institution, you’re on your way to understanding what it means to being a profession. It’s not just about you anymore. It is about you, but it’s not just about you. You have to continue your own development, both because you should, but also because of what it does for the profession. And you own the profession.

The Coast Guard will be seen as the Coast Guard because of your competence and personal conduct from the time you graduate until the time you retire. You will be building the image of the Coast Guard for the American people, and you will be maintaining contact with those people, the people of America, because they’re our clients. That’s who we exist to serve. So it’s this notion of professionalism and taking on board the fact that you’re not just a professional because you say you are; you have to earn it every day. You really do.

The second thing about a profession is special skills and expertise. You’ve got to develop them. You’ve got to be committed, deeply committed, to becoming a professional, because the skills that you bring no one else can bring. That’s another aspect of being a professional – unique skills and attributes. Nobody else can be the Coast Guard. You can’t outsource it. You can’t hire some offshore drilling conglomerate to take your place. You have to be the Coast Guard and embrace and develop and nurture and earn that distinction every day. And you’re well on the way now, but you’ve got to take it on board. Special skills.

Third thing is a professional ethos. A professional ethos. We’ve all got our creeds, we’ve all got our mottos, we’ve all got our values. Army carries a dog tag with the seven values on the back of it. They can seem to be sometimes a little abstract, they can’t be abstract for you. You’ve got to understand what it means to be committed to serve selflessly, to be courageous, to have integrity, to live up to your creed here on honor and duty. And you’ve got to develop a bond of trust like no other in any other occupation in the world. You have to trust each other; your subordinates have to trust you; you have to earn that trust, and you have to build relationships based on trust.

You don’t walk out of a forward operating base in Afghanistan unless you trust that everybody walking out the gate with you knows what they’re doing and will do it. You don’t get on an icebreaker and head up to the Arctic to bang away at, you know, 15 (feet) or 20 feet of ice unless you trust that, first of all, the captain of the ship knows what he’s doing, and secondly that everybody on that team knows what they’re doing – and that you can sleep when it’s your turn to sleep because somebody else has the watch.

That’s a bond of – and by the way, what hangs in the balance is not necessarily the ice, it’s your life, it’s the livelihood of this country, and that’s what hangs in the balance. And we trust you to do that; you have to trust each other to do it. That’s another thing about the profession.

We have to, as a profession, be committed to lifelong learning. People ask me what’s the most important thing I do as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The answer is learn. I am constantly trying to learn, constantly. And sometimes the urgency of events will try to pull you away from that, but you have to resist and – at your own pace and your own time and your own way, you have to continue to learn.

I’ve learned more in my last year about cyber. I now understand the entire cyber ecosystem. And it is an ecosystem, whether it’s the – those that produce the hardware, those that produce the software, those that do the security, the Internet service providers that provide the pipes – because cyber is going to be such an important part of our future.

I have been on a campaign of learning about parts of the world that are right now somewhat neglected. Mexico, I had a big seminar yesterday. Brought in experts, some from Mexico, some from academia, business, the International Monetary Fund, to talk to me about what’s happening on our southern flank.

The Arctic, we’ve initiated an Arctic CHODs conference – chiefs of defense. And I’ll be at an Arctics CHODs conference here in the next couple of months, because the Artic is opening up. You know that better than we. You certainly know it better than somebody that wears my uniform.

Constantly learning and constantly thinking and trying to figure out what it means to be a better leader. Let me segue into leadership. Leadership: it’s the most solemn duty of all. And just as you’re not a profession just because you say you are, you’re not a leader just because you say you are – or, for that matter, just because you wear a particular rank.

As I reflect on leadership, first of all, we are – we, the military, and I include you in that joint force – we are the pre-eminent leadership experience in America, the pre-eminent leadership experience in America, the military, including you. Nobody gives as much responsibility and authority, holds people accountable, as we do to you when you graduate – you’re 22 years old and you have the kind of responsibilities that you have. Nobody gives its young leaders as much responsibility and authority.

And that trend is continuing, by the way. We’re beginning, in a new era of security, where massed formations are no longer the norm, but rather where decentralized, syndicated, networked groups are distributed, because they know they can’t stand us – stand up to us toe-to-toe. We have to be a network in order to defeat a network. And so we’re pushing responsibility and authority to the edge, as they say.

And what does that mean? It means that young leaders have to be – frankly, have to be more ready than I was at that – when I was a second lieutenant, a first lieutenant, an ensign or a lieutenant, in your case. You have to be more ready than I – by the way, I’m not worried about you being ready. I’m just suggesting to you that in the world in which you will find yourself providing security, that that requirement for you to be more self-aware, more aware of yourself as a leader earlier, is clear. And I think we’re in great hands.

But just know that that leadership, that that leadership that you provide, it will be the most rewarding part of your lives while you remain in service. Leadership is why we get up in the morning.

And one other word about leadership. Leadership is some combination of character and competence. You have to know your job, but in our profession you have to have character. You can be – you can be the most competent man or woman, but you’re not a leader unless you have character. And that’s because – remember I said our profession is built on trust? You can’t develop trust, absent character. If you’re incredibly competent, you deliver every time, but your subordinates don’t respect, admire and want to be you when they grow up, then you’re not a leader. You’re a hell of a manager, but you’re not a leader. So keep thinking about what that means.

Let me talk to you about national security. You know, the world that I entered in 1974 when I graduated from West Point was really, when I look back on it now, was about – was just so perfectly symmetric and simple that there’s a lot of nostalgia for it, I think, almost, today. (Chuckles.) I mean, we knew our adversaries and we knew their capabilities; they knew ours, and we fundamentally practiced against a very – we trained and we educated and we practiced against a pretty clear set of requirements.

You know, I don’t know exactly what to tell you about the world you’ll enter, whether it’s this year or four years from now. I will tell you that whatever it is, it will change faster than you think. It’ll be more complex than you – than you probably appreciate when you first encounter it. It’ll be unpredictable, and it’ll be more dangerous. And that gets me sometimes into hot water when I talk about risk, when I assert that the world is actually more dangerous today than it was 10, 15 years ago. But I think I can make a pretty good case.

There are more capabilities that used to be the monopoly of nation-states in the hands of individuals and groups today around the world than ever, and that trend is only continuing. And so the unpredictability, the complexity and the danger of the world you’ll face will really require us to have a very clear understanding of our national interests. We haven’t had a knockdown, drag-out debate, even internal to the military, about our national security interests in a long time.

Let me suggest to you that there’s at least four, and they ought to be prioritized. Number one is the survival of the nation. Where does that take you? Well, it takes you to things like our nuclear capability. It takes you – things that could actually alter our way of life, survival of the nation, and that’s a set of national security interests. And by the way, I would suggest to you that you, as the Coast Guard, actually touch every one of these four in ways that should be pretty apparent to you.

The second one is – we have a requirement, because we’re a global power, to lend to the stability of the global economic system. What does that mean to you? Freedom of navigation, maritime awareness. So the second-tiered, in my view, national security interest is our contribution to the stability of the global economic system, because it’s through that global economic system that we derive the prosperity that we enjoy as Americans. So that’s clearly a national security interest.

The third one is to protect the country from a catastrophic attack. And, you know, again, this is one of those places where we will dance on the head of the pin about what climbs to the level of a catastrophe. You only really will answer that question looking back at it, not looking forward to it. But where do you come in, in that protection of the country from a catastrophic attack?

The things that could migrate into our borders are pretty clear to you, whether it’s chemicals, whether it’s – other weapons of mass destruction, nuclear materials, and even gun trafficking, human trafficking, things that over time, left unaddressed, could produce a catastrophic effect in this country are clearly in our national interest, and another place where you are prominent in the capability you provide.

And the last one is the promotion of our values. As a global power – and one who happens to be based on a system of values which are generally outlined in our Constitution but also include the rule of law – we are an example for the rest of the world. Sometimes we – you know, we get a little bashful about that, but we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be bashful about that at all.

And the way the Coast Guard is out there representing law enforcement, that kind of nexus of law enforcement and military power, the way you have your own network of different authorities, whether it’s Customs and Border Patrol, Federal Bureau of Investigation, all of the – all of the authorities that you kind of migrate back and forth in order to have that network, to promote our values and protect the country, you contribute to every one of those four national security interests in a very powerful way.

So the last thing I want to talk to you about before I get to your questions is in that – in that vein, if you will, of national security interests, just something about the role of the chairman. The chairman is the principal military adviser, as you heard Joe say, of the – of the president and secretary of Defense. And I’d add to that the National Security staff.

I have very little authority on my own. In fact, I have, the last time I checked, I had no authority on my own – what little authority I used to have, my wife usurped when we got married 36 years ago. (Laughter.) I don’t even write my own checks. I do nothing. But what I do, what I have is enormous influence, but that influence is only as good as I can be persuasive, if I can be thoughtful, if I can be trusted.

So back to this, you know, relationship inside the profession, the chairman is only of use to the president if the president trusts him and the president will only trust him if he has an understanding that this is a man or woman who is actually thinking for what’s best for the country and is willing to represent that and demonstrate moral courage in doing so.

I meet with the Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs are the chief of staff of the Army, chief of staff of the Air Force, commandant of the Marine Corps, chief of Naval Operations. The chief of the National Guard Bureau was added last year, and we always invite in the commandant of the Coast Guard Academy, because the things we do clearly influence, affect, especially in terms of personnel policies, pay scales, but also professional issues. And so we meet twice a week. We’re not always there; if we’re not there, our deputies meet. But we meet twice a week to both try to provide our best advice on strategy, but also manage the profession. We’re managing the profession.

We’re looking out to 2020, because we’re going to be there sooner than you think. The class of 2017 will show up – this is the ancient mariner telling me that the – I love that, by the way. Why don’t I have anything like that in my service? (Laughter.) But they just call me the old man. I don’t know that that’s nearly as noble as the ancient mariner. But the class of 2017 will be here, and, you know, by the time they graduate, the class of 2020 will be here.

The budget cycles we work in – as chairman, I will turn in the budget that’ll take us from fiscal year ’16 to ’20. So we’re looking out to 2020 to try to figure out, you know, where do we need to be in a really strange fiscal environment. More on that in a moment.

And then the other way that I operate as chairman is I run a series of strategic seminars where I bring in all the combatant commanders, all the service chiefs, and we toss a particular problem into the middle of a basketball court where we have a map of the world spread out, and we try to figure out what – you know, we try to balance ends, ways and means. Kind of Clausewitzian – what are you trying to accomplish, what are the resources you have to do it, how do you use those resources?

We do that, and then there’s the seminars that I run on specific topics – China, cyber, Mexico – all of which is part of this campaign of learning that then washes back into our discussions about the profession and eventually, I hope, makes it here to New London.

OK. Let me open it up for questions by telling you again, in case I forget to tell you at the end, how much I appreciate the chance to interact with you as part of my campaign of learning.

Who’s going to ask the first question? Yikes!

Q: General Dempsey, First Class Mauer (sp), Hotel Company.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah.

Q: As the U.S. continues to fight against terrorist organizations, there’ve been an increase in the use of unmanned aircrafts and vehicles, likewise, an increase in civilian casualties. Are these statistics true? If so, what is the government doing to decrease civilian casualties, and have these tactics been effective?

GEN. DEMPSEY: OK. Nothing like a little hardball right at the beginning. (Laughter.)

So first of all, on the civilian casualties, that’s actually not accurate. It was probably accurate if we’d – I think probably five, six years ago, as the technology was evolving, there were probably times when we were a little less precise than we thought we were being. Not purposefully, but just the evolution of the --

But I can tell you that the activities for which we use remotely piloted aircraft and armed remotely piloted aircraft are extraordinarily precise. The activities for which we use them are nested, a series of intelligence sources. So it’s not just full-motion video – which, by the way, is high-definition. High definition. But it’s also SIGINT. It’s imagery from other national technical means. It’s the integration of cyber and voice. So we’re extraordinarily precise.

But let me raise above the issue of drones in general to talk about our profession. Our profession is a profession because it is we who are empowered on behalf of the nation to use violence. That’s – in the absence of that, we are not a profession. That’s – the unique requirement that our profession fills for the nation is violence. And so we do have to be attuned to how we execute that responsibility, and it gets back to this character and competence thing I talked about.

I think as you migrate into the force and have access to these capabilities, you will – you should think about how we employ violence. We always try to employ violence – it’s kind of a – Kant the philosopher said it’s about intentions, outcomes and behaviors. And so, for what intention are you applying violence? Have you exhausted other means? Are there other means? And that’s where remotely piloted aircraft probably fulfills a important role, because it’s very difficult to penetrate denied space. So there are few other means available.

Secondly, what’s the – what’s the outcome? And if you have the outcome you’re intending, which is that if you’re attempting to kill a high-value target or in some way prevent an attack on the United States – which, by the way, is the standard – then it meets that law of armed conflict and law of war over history. It meets that second issue, which is outcome.

And then behavior gets to civilian casualties. Are we behaving responsibly with the tools given to us, trying to protect the nation? So the standards are actually pretty clear, whether you’re talking about a bayonet or you’re talking about remotely piloted aircraft or a nuclear weapon. And that’s a conversation that we have always, frequently, persistently, about the use of any kind of force, including remotely piloted aircraft.

Are they having the intended effect? You know, the simplistic answer to that is we haven’t been attacked in this country in 10 years. That is a simplistic answer, though. The question that it begs is whether we are – we are overcoming the ideology behind these movements that – you know, that are seeking to attack us. And that’s a harder question to answer. But I’m not sure that’s the fault of the RPAs, or the drones. That’s a – that’s a different issue.

Q: Thank you, General.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’re welcome. (Applause.) Oh, yeah. Don’t go away. (Laughter.) Yes?

Q: Good afternoon, General. Fourth Class Hayward (sp), Hotel Company. You and Secretary Panetta recently repealed the ban on women in combat. Do you foresee Congress making any changes to the selective service laws which, as of now, only require men to register for the draft?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I – (chuckles) – I never predict what Congress is going to do, I’ll tell you that. (Laughter.) By the way, though, you know, that was a little joke at their expense, but, you know, we have to be part – you probably know this. It’s not – it’s not the secretary of Defense or even the president and certainly not the chairman, it is the Congress of the United States that is chartered with raising and sustaining armed forces. So we’ve got to be partnered with them; this is a partnership. So that’s by the way, me getting out from under making fun of them.

So let me tell you what we did last week, maybe also tell you what we didn’t do, and then I’ll tell you where I think it’s going. First and foremost, the 1994 exclusion of women in combat had become embarrassing, actually -- embarrassing in the sense that it ignored the reality of the service of women in combat. And it was – it was an anachronism. It was – it was an emotional anachronism, as you’ll see play out here, I think, and if you get onto my Facebook page you’ll actually be able to see it personally. But – because there is a lot of emotion about this. But the combat exclusion was an anachronism. It just – it was – it was – we were ignoring reality.

Secondly, the presence of it was a disincentive for us to really scrutinize the standards that we need, not only in the MOSs closed to women at the time – there are 66 closed MOSs right now, MOSs and ratings across the services. There was no incentive to look at those and make sure we had the standards right, because the exclusion was there. So, you know, it was kind of wasted effort. What we’ve really done is spun the paradigm on its head, and what we’re saying now is the question isn’t should a woman serve in those MOSs, it’s why shouldn’t a woman serve in those MOSs and ratings? It’s the right question.

And we’re not – look, I am ultimately responsible for the – for two things: Readiness. I’ve got to have a force that’s ready to go and fight. And secondly, good order and discipline. I would do nothing to undermine those two responsibilities, and I – and this does not undermine those responsibilities because the standards that will be set will be gender-neutral. Will there be pressure to lower them? I’m sure there will be. But we’ll have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say we’ve got a standard that accomplishes the task, and if women can meet that standard --

And by the way, not all men can – you know, I don’t wear a Ranger tab. I’m not an infantryman; I’m an armor officer. I chose to ride to work. (Laughter.) But – no, I did! I did. It didn’t – it worked out OK for me, but I did, you know? There’s a lot of men who can’t meet the standard to be infantrymen, and a hell of a lot of men that can’t make the standard to be Rangers or SEALs or, you know, whatever these high-end forces are. So – you know, but I want to know that we’ve got a gender-neutral standard and that the playing field is level.

One other thing I mentioned a minute ago you need to take to heart, and that is that we’re trying to build the force of 2020. How many – does anybody know how many young military-age men – men in America can get into the armed forces of the United States? One out of every four can get in. The other three are disqualified educationally, health, you know, just a whole rash of issues. I think the real reason to open up our MOSs, our ratings and our skills to the entire population and see who can meet them is actually we’re going to need them as we look out to 2020.

All the indicators on education and health are going – are climbing – are declining, not inclining. So look, on the one hand, I do think it’s a more equitable way to approach the service of men and women in uniform. I got that. But there’s a very pragmatic reason for the chairman, and that is I want to understand that we’ve got the standards right; and secondly, I want to have as much talent available as I can possibly have.

Will this expand into the selective service? It might. But as you say, that’s a decision that Congress will – I mean, I could certainly make the intellectual argument, but we’ll see what they want to do with that. Thanks.

Q: Thank you, General. (Applause.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: All right, in back.

Q: Good afternoon, General. Third Class Lulu Belma (sp), Hotel Company. Yesterday I was talking to two firsties, one of which went to a leadership conference the last couple of days at the Naval Academy. And one of the questions asked of a speaker there was, in times of stress, what do you use to cope, and his answer was that he would sing the “Just Keep Swimming” song from “Finding Nemo” in order to cope. I was wondering what mechanisms you use to cope in times of stress.

GEN. DEMPSEY: (Chuckles.) Well, first of all, it won’t surprise you to know that I will admit to experiencing a certain amount of stress in this job. And it’s a different kind of stress, though, than maybe when I served in Iraq or 20 years ago in Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Different kind of stress.

The stress now is kind of the burden of trying to do what’s right for the country, trying to build the bench of leaders for the future, looking out to 2020 and accounting for all these challenges that we discussed. So that’s kind of what generates the stress for me.

I think probably there’s two things that I do to relieve it. I mean, three, really. One is your spouse, my spouse. You know, she’s a huge combat multiplier for me. She’s not here today; she’s with our grandkids. But, you know, she’s someone who, first of all, if she were here, when I walk off the stage she’d – she holds up, like, a letter grade, you know? B! And I’ll say, what the hell? Where’d I – how come I only got a B? (Laughter.) But she’s a tough grader. So she’s a source of, you know, keeping it real, kind of.

Secondly, like this – this is – you know, there are some people who hate – you know the joke about public speaking. They say that there are some people who hate public speaking so much, are so anxious about it that if they’re at a – if they’re giving a eulogy at a funeral, they’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. I’m not like that.

This kind of recharges my batteries; meeting you recharges my batteries. So honestly, this is a way for me to realize it’s going to be OK. And so I do this a lot. I try to get out, as I told you; interact with the force as frequently as I can.

And the last thing is I read. I’m a pretty voracious reader, and I try to always have one or two going at a time. And I find that when I’m reading – and it’s not just professional reading. I mean, it’s – you know it can be anything from poetry to – you know, to something about cyber that I’m trying to understand. But as I do that, I can – I can disconnect.

It’s hard to disconnect, but that’s the point, I think. I think you have to disconnect and – but you can’t disconnect for long or for very far. But I think you have to find the dime and the discipline to disconnect.

Q: Thank you, General.

GEN. DEMPSEY: By the way, don’t tell your instructors I told you that. (Laughter.) Yeah?

Q: Good afternoon, General. Fourth Class Englehart (sp), Delta Company. General, I was reading your bio last night and I noticed you got a master’s in English from Duke University.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah.

Q: I was wondering how you felt, you know, focusing on humanities prepared you for a successful career in the United States military.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. You know, I kind of backed into that decision to get a master’s in English. I was coming off of a pretty tough eight-year period. The Army wanted to give me some time back with my family, and so they offered me the chance to go to get a graduate degree and teach at West Point. The English department had an opening; I got a degree in English and off I went.

I actually think it was one of the smartest things I ever did. And look, I – just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it’ll work for you, you know? If you’re studying operational research systems analysis or you’re stuttering – stuttering is probably the right word. If you’re studying, you know, aeronautical or – whatever you’re studying, it doesn’t make it – (laughter). I’ll use a word I can pronounce: physics. (Laughter.)

As long as you have a passion for it, you’re going to – you’re going to gain something from it. And you’ll find, by the way, you’ll be a much better student as a graduate student than you are as an undergraduate. You just will. I mean, I got it that the guy that introduced me is number one in the class. Pfffth. Anybody could do – (laughter, applause.)

No, I’m kidding. That’s actually pretty damn impressive. It took 126 of him to make me, when I graduated. (Laughter.) But – that’s true, by the way.

But you’ll – you know, gain a different appreciation for education. I think what – you know, what your professors here are doing is not only giving you the basics, but they’re trying to inspire you to commit to that lifelong education that I talked about.

Why English for me? Why did it work for me? I found that I was way out of my – I got a bachelor’s degree in engineering and so it pulled me; it really pulled me out of my comfort zone, and I thought that was healthy for me. And so I became adaptable. That’s a word we throw around without really understanding what it means, but I think the more you can be adaptable in your career, the better you’ll probably be. Because most often, what we ask you to do won’t be completely cleared up. You’ll have to – you’ll have to adapt.

Secondly, it improved my vocabulary. I mean, the study of the English language generally does that. It helped me become a better writer, and the more senior you become, the more you communicate in ways other than direct verbal communication. So it all worked for me, and it’s become a lifelong passion. And as long as that was the case, then it was time well spent.

Thanks.

Q: Thank you, General.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yes, sir.

Q: Good afternoon, General. Fourth Class Finney (sp), Bravo Company. Sir, with the current financial crisis, what direction will the U.S. armed forces be taking abroad?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Did you say the budget crisis?

Q: Yes, sir.

GEN. DEMPSEY: I was afraid that’s what you said. (Laughter.)

Well, look, first of all, about the financial environment. First of all, it’s not new. It’s the worst it’s been, but it’s not new. After Vietnam – after World War II, after Vietnam, after Desert Storm, here we are again. So there is a bit of history that we can learn from.

The problem we’ve got right now is that it’s being compressed. In those periods of time that – the magnitude was significant, but we had time. In this case, the magnitude is significant, and it’s compressed. That’s going to make it really hard to absorb it.

I’m not one that says don’t you dare think about taking another dollar from the Defense budget. Look, we also have to contribute to the nation’s economic well-being, and we do have an economic crisis on our hands, including the debt ceiling. And, you know, there’s probably an economist in the room who might say, aw, the debt ceiling’s a – you know, it’s a – it’s a – it’s really not a valid concern. It feels valid to me – (laughs) – so to me, it is. And as a result of that, all these things are happening to our budget in the name of the debt ceiling, so even if it’s economically – if it’s not as bad as people say it is, it sure feels like it.

What are we going to do? Here’s what we have to do. What we have to do is we have to get three things from the Congress, and I’ve had this conversation over there. We have to have budget certainty. We can’t do this every year.

Look, we’re – the military is an enormously flexible – we embrace change. Sometimes people don’t think we do; they criticize us for not embracing change. We do embrace change; we don’t do real well with uncertainty. And we have enormous uncertainty right now, year to year to year to year. We’ve got to – we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to get a target. Just give me the target and I’ll hit it.

Secondly, I’ve got to have time. I can’t hit it – you know, I can’t take this fiscal year ’13 cut that sequestration imposes of $46 billion, and I can’t absorb it in six months, not without doing serious damage to the military. So I need time.

And the third thing is I need flexibility. I can’t – I can’t put our budget together, carry it over to Capitol Hill and then say, no, you can’t touch that base in New London. I’m just kidding. You can’t touch that base, or you can’t touch military compensation, or you can’t touch that weapons system. Because then, as – every time they deny us the ability to touch a piece of the budget, we can’t keep it in balance. And what generally pays the price then is readiness, and I can’t let readiness erode.

So that’s what we’re doing, and it’s a hell of a fight.

Q: Thank you, General.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah.

How much do they got left?

CADET SULLIVAN-STRINGHETTI: About five minutes.

GEN. DEMPSEY: OK. Go ahead.

Q: Good afternoon, General. Fourth Class Klein (sp), in Charlie Company. With changing conflicts overseas and different needs for national security and global stability, where do you see the Coast Guard’s role overseas, in either conflict or security, going?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, it’s kind of the same – it’s really not so much where do I see the Coast Guard, I think it’s where do I see the entire security apparatus of the nation. So you know we’ve talked about rebalancing to the Pacific, because over time – remember now, looking out to 2020 – most of our economic, our demographic, our security, our climate issues are trending to the Pacific. So I think – I think probably you will find your service being similarly challenged.

The Arctic is an – you know, I just – I’m just beginning to wrap my head around what it means to have an Arctic region that is open to both trade and exploration. And I think we’ve got to get – we’ve really got to come to grips with that.

Our southern flank is always going to be vulnerable because of transnational organized crime and the networks. You know, there’s so much money in transnational organized crime that, you know, they can procure a lot of the same capabilities that you can. Their budget might be bigger than yours in some particular niche areas. So I think the southern flank –

And look – and for as long as the world will be relying about – for about 25 percent of its – of its oil needs out of the Mid-East, that’s going to remain a competitive zone for us. But the question is not so much – you know, the question right now is, how do we balance the force into thirds? So we’ve got a force forward deployed. You, as well. You have some forward-deployed resources. You have some rotational resources. And you have some here in CONUS that are more or less in a readiness – you know, they’re in a training cycle.

I think we’re out of balance. I can tell you, on the active side, especially on the – in the Navy, we’ve got more of the force forward deployed or rotating than we can sustain over time. So we’re trying to figure out that balance.

So the simple way to answer your question is we’re trying to rebalance ourselves globally, which you could almost think of as laterally, you know, from a focus in the Atlantic to eventually a focus in the Pacific. Priority, not a – it’s a rebalancing. It’s not a light switch. And we’re trying to look at ourselves vertically, which is how much forward, how much rotational, how much back so that when we get the future wrong, we have the ability to surge.

OK. One more.

Q: Thank you, General.

Q: Good afternoon, General. First Class Frieval (sp), Golf Company. Sir, you mentioned that promoting our nation’s values was one of the top four national interests.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah.

Q: Sir, I thought this was interesting and was wondering if you saw us leading more by example in the international community, or if you saw us necessarily taking a more active role in promoting our nation’s values.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, there’s a bit of a political – (chuckles) – there’s a bit of a political undertone to your question, I think intentionally, there, so I’m going to – I’m going to sort of ignore that part of it. (Laughter.)

I think – I think America can lead in any number of ways. It doesn’t have to be the only – the only nation in the world organizing coalitions of the willing. I think it can – it can – it can lead by the way --

One of the things I did on this campaign of learning is I brought in the U.S. trade representative. I’ll bet you – I’ll bet there’s not 10 people in the room know who the U.S. trade representative is. But it is largely through trade that we gain the most influence in the world, not through the exertion of military power.

So I think there’s probably – there’s probably more going on in that – in that arena than we give ourselves credit for. But certainly we should find ways to nest it all together, to integrate it so that for – so if the U.S. trade rep has a particular priority for establishing trade agreements someplace, shouldn’t we also then contribute to that environment with the way we apportion military forces, you know what I mean?

So if the trade rep is trying to establish a particular relationship with Brazil – I’ll make that up – shouldn’t I then, as a priority, be trying to establish a military relationship with Brazil to augment and complement her – his or her activities? And we don’t do that very well. You know, we have these instruments of national power that we continue to try to integrate, and in some cases – by the way, you know, we do a lot better than people give us credit for. We’re doing pretty damn well, frankly.

But we can do better in the integration of instruments of power, and in so doing, I think, lead but not necessarily be accountable to be the only one that can bring together coalitions of the willing. So I know that’s a nuanced point, but I think it’s an important one.

Q: Thank you, General.

GEN. DEMPSEY: OK. The hook has been taken out, and I’ve got to go over to – across the river to take a look at one of our – one of our subs over there and actually to try to get a sense from them – that is to say, the workers – on what these budget challenges could mean.

Let me – let me encourage you to be interested in all of that, all of what you see going on in Washington and in the – in the financial arena. But we will figure this out. The senior leaders that are now representing you, we will figure this out. You’ll have your own challenges, and what I would encourage you – I don’t know even what they will – I don’t know what they’re going to be, I really don’t. And that’s why I ask you to kind of broaden yourselves, develop yourselves, build relationships, embrace the profession.

You know, the last thing I’ll share with you is people say to me sometimes, boy, it must really be an awful time to be the chairman. Well, there are moments, frankly, when I say, boy, this is really an awful time to be the chairman. (Laughter.) I mean, if there is an awful time to be the – you know, look, they’ve asked me to be the senior military leader in the land, and of the finest military on the face of the planet, so don’t feel too badly for me.

But I will tell you this. There are – it is – there are – there are times. We live in really challenging times. Saint Augustine – Google Saint Augustine and see what he said about “the times.” I won’t share the quotation with you exactly, but it’s worth reading about what Augustine said.

But let me tell you what Dempsey says. If you signed up to come here to the Coast Guard Academy because you wanted to make a difference – you know, you wanted to challenge yourself, you wanted to make a difference not only for yourself and your family, but for your country – you have arrived. You have the opportunity now to make a difference. Each and every one of you has the opportunity to make a difference. If you’ve ever wanted to lead when it makes a difference, you have found your time. Now just take advantage of it.

Thanks very much. (Applause.)

CADET SULLIVAN-SPRINGHETTI: Well, thank you very much, General. We heard a rumor that you are an avid vocalist, sir, and we thought that on your first visit to the Coast Guard Academy it would be appropriate to offer you a sea chantey, from our cadet Idlers to you. So please enjoy, sir.

GEN. DEMPSEY: I will.

(Idlers sing.) (Applause.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: All right! Well done. Thanks. Good to meet you. Well done. Are you going to do another one? (Laughter.)

CADET SULLIVAN-SPRINGHETTI: One more.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’ve got the pitch pipe; I can see it in your hand.

CADET SULLIVAN-SPRINGHETTI: Yes, sir, actually. (Chuckles.) We’d like to invite you to share in a song that is near and dear to you and your family’s hearts. If you forget the lyrics to this song, you can lip sync, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem. So – (laughter.)

(General Dempsey joins Idlers in singing “The Army Goes Rolling Along.”)

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’ve got to do “Semper Paratus” for me.

(Laughter, groans from audience.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: You’d better know the words! (Laughter.)

(General Dempsey joins Idlers and audience in singing “Semper Paratus.”) (Applause.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: All right. Thanks a lot.

CADET SULLIVAN-SPRINGHETTI: Well, General Dempsey, thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts with the Corps of Cadets today. I’d like to offer you a small gift, so –

(Cheers, applause.)

GEN. DEMPSEY: Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you again, General. Attention on deck.

GEN. DEMPSEY: And I thank you all. Enjoy the late rack tomorrow. (Cheers.) (Laughs.) All right. Thank you.

(END)