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Gen. Dempsey's Commencement Address at Duke University

By As Delivered by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey


GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY:  You got that right, Mr. President.  I am a proud Duke alumni.  Just to get the energy level up here a little bit, how about you join me in the following chant that I wouldn’t mind if they could hear it down on Franklin Street.  Here we go.

(Chanting.)  Let’s go Duke!  Let’s go Duke! Let’s go Duke! Let’s go Duke! Let’s go Duke!

AUDIENCE MEMBERS:  (Chanting.)  Let’s go Duke!  Let’s go Duke!

GEN. DEMPSEY:  All right.  Way to go, 2014.  (Applause.)  You know, I’m a keen observer of my surroundings.  And you all look great, honest to God.  I mean, you’ve – normally I’m – if I’m at a commencement, there’s beach balls – I’m not giving you any ideas here, by the way – champagne bottles and things flying to and fro.

But I really want to mention the folks in the stands around you, those who have given you the opportunity to be here today, the parents and children who walked around the campus a bit yesterday, and really remarkable to be back, to feel the energy and to feel the – really to feel the love that you all share for and with each other.  And so for those of you on the field, how about we give them in the stands a round of applause.  (Cheers, applause.)  And I mentioned I’m a keen observer of my surroundings.  Some of you in the back may not hear this, but I know that the folks on the stage are aware of the fact that a family of birds has moved into your architecture here.  (Laughter.)  And I think – I never did study birds, actually, when I was here.  Sometimes I felt like I may have been studying birds, but it turned out to be poetry.  But – (laughter) – these particular birds appear to me to be Chapel Hill warblers – (laughter) – best known for whining about referees in basketball games.  (Laughter, applause.)

OK, now that I’ve got that off my chest – and I know this is probably being live video streamed someplace away from here – let me tell you what I really came here to talk to you about today.

First of all, nice job, Jennifer.  You have nothing to worry about.  Really impressive words.  (Cheers, applause.)  And the most impressive part of it, by the way, was that there was obvious passion behind them.  You’ve set the bar very high here today for anyone that has the misfortune of following you in speaking.

Class of 2014, as I said, I really do share in your excitement and in your pride today, you at leaving and me at returning here to Duke.  It probably won’t surprise you to know that as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there are things that I’ve got to do, and then there are things that I get to do.  So thank you for the privilege of addressing you here today.

It’s terrific to see so many international students among the student body.  I trust, I hope, I expect that you’ve formed relationships and friendships that will help us all manage an increasingly complex and, in some cases, dangerous world.

I’m very proud of my Duke education, and I often speak of how it shaped me.  I’m also proud of the many friendships I’ve forged through the years with your professors, with your athletes, with your coaches, on the topic of leadership.  My compliments to you, the faculty, the coaches, the staff of this wonderful university as another class moves out into the world to carry the Duke brand.  And students, how about you join me in a round of applause for your faculty.  (Applause.)

I will – there’s always curious moments that happen just before you give a commencement address, and I try to capture some of them.  One of them happened to me last night at dinner.  I was sitting – I’ve famously spoken about getting a C on an English paper that I’d labored over for six months and completely unsettled me, you know, the – I – somehow I thought effort’s really what mattered, and output, you know, didn’t have any part to play.  But I did have a professor here who made that clear to me.  So last night I’m sitting with him – I think they sat him next to me to taunt me, frankly, but – (laughter) – I was sitting next to him.  I won’t name him because I didn’t ask permission to do so.  But he sat there for a good bit of the evening encouraging me to write a book.  And I said – (chuckles) – and I said, Professor, you got to be kidding; you know, I’m the guy that, when I was your student, you actually asked me to please stop writing your answers and we’ll do it orally because I can’t stand the way you write.  (Laughter.)  So what goes around comes around.  Now he wants me to write a book.  Who knew?  (Laughter.)

Got a lot of great leaders on the field today, and some who have already manifested that, some of whom will manifest that.  Yesterday I was privileged, really, to welcome 11 newly commissioned ensigns and lieutenants into the armed forces, our next generation of military leaders.  How about you stand up so we can recognize you.  (Cheers, applause.)

And let’s not forget today is Mother’s Day, so I also salute those of you who have nursed, nudged, nurtured and nervously watched these terrific young men and women grow up.  You’ll still watch them nervously, but thanks for what you’ve done to bring them to this day in their lives.  And again, please join me in a special round of applause for those of you honored with the noble title of mother.  (Cheers, applause.)

My wife of 38 years and mother of our three children, Deanie, is with me here today to celebrate with you.  She’s the one who keeps me grounded.  Following this commencement address, she, along with the editors of the Chronicle, will be grading my work.  (Laughter.)  You know, when I first made brigadier general 12 years ago, I was, I was a bit – maybe I would describe it as full of myself for making general.  And Deanie and I took a trip back to visit some relatives in upstate New York.  It happened that I needed gas in the car, and so I pulled into a gas station, and out of the gas station walked one of Deanie’s ex-boyfriends to fill the tank full of gas.  And so his name was Bobby.  Great guy.  Turned out he also owned the thing.  But he was pumping gas, you know?  So the gas tank was filled, we got back in the car, we’re driving away.  You know, I’m kind of – I’m kind of flexing and – (laughter) – Deanie said, what are you doing?  And I said, well, you know, you’ve got to feel pretty good about the choice you made – (laughter) – those many years ago.  You know, I mean, look, you know, Bobby’s pumping gas, I’m a general.  And she said, listen, pal, if I’d have married Bobby, he’d have been the general and you’d have been pumping gas.  (Laughter, applause.)  I’m OK with that.  (Laughter.)  Choose wisely, men and women in the audience.

It’s 30 years since I stood tall in this stadium and received my master’s degree with my wife and three children, then aged 5, 4 and 1, looking on approvingly.  I’d come to Duke a confident young Army Captain with eight years of military service and really with little idea of what would become of me.  My Irish Catholic mother worried that I was matriculating at a Methodist university.  As the product of a Catholic education and West Point, I’d actually never had to dress myself, and so my wife worried that I would embarrass both of us by dressing too conservatively.  And me, I worried about Duke basketball, pretty much.  That’s – that was the sum total of my worries in those days.

There were moments, though, when I wasn’t sure I would make it through Duke.  But instinctively, I knew I had to keep trying and I had to keep learning. Not so much in support of any particular plan I had, but perhaps in support of exactly the opposite of a well-crafted plan, a sense that in my chosen profession, history might actually find me and that I’d better be ready.  Looking out – looking back at it, it turns out that those years of the mid-’80s were actually among the most stable of my now 40-year military career.  And history did find me about 20 years after I left this beautiful campus.

As you prepared to embark on your own careers, you’re probably wondering if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is worried about the future.  Well, of course I’m worried about the future.  I worry about big nations becoming more aggressive, about little nations developing weapons of mass destruction, about religious extremism and what it creates, about the collapse of governance along the Mideast and North Africa, about criminal networks that move drugs and illegal immigrants and arms to and across our borders.  I worry about a pervasive and growing weakness in national and international institutions and structures that have for decades held together our sense of order and well-being.  And yet when I look carefully and thoughtfully at all of this, I see more opportunity than vulnerability.  I remain encouraged, not least because of the young men and women that I find poised to lead us.

A few things do seem clear to me.  We will have to think our way, not bludgeon our way, into the future.  There will be more options, but also more ambiguity in dealing with the challenges we face.  You will need to find, fix and remain true to your moral compass, or you’ll find yourself paralyzed.  Now, I don’t have time to address each of these, and even if I did, I would be doing you a disservice.  You have to find your own way.  You leave Duke with the intellectual tools to accomplish whatever lies ahead of you, but that’s only half of what you need, and only you can measure the other half.

Let me explain.  I’m sure you’re all familiar with the popular television commercial in which Samuel L. Jackson works hard to convince you to sign up for the Capital One credit card.  You’ve heard it, right?  This is the fastest, easiest, most reliable bank card on the planet.  It’s the drive it into the end zone, knock it out of the ballpark, take it down the lane, slam-dunk bank card.  And then he asks, “what’s in your wallet?”  And by the way, for the parents in the audience, having paid for a Duke tuition for the past four years, I know the answer to that.  (Laughter.)  But after four years of hard work, you young men and women on the field have in fact crossed your academic goal line.  You’ve hit it out of the park.  You’ve taken it to the rack and thrown it down with a vengeance that would rock Cameron Indoor Stadium.  But what’s in your heart?

You’re all going to lead something.  The Duke graduate is a leader of consequence, the university’s pamphlet proclaims.  I know your resume, but what’s in your heart?  My real worry is that you and your – and some of your peers across the country won’t confront that question.  You’ll quickly become too busy to give each moment the value it deserves, too driven to lead personally, too confident to be inquisitive, too certain to be approachable.

I had a mentor suggest to me once that from time to time I ought to ask myself a very simple question:  When is the last time I allowed someone to change my mind about something?  The more responsibility you get, the more important that question becomes.

So let me be clear:  America needs you.  It needs each of you if it hopes to remain what it is and what it needs to be.  We are and have it within us to remain exceptional.  But you’ve got to make this wonderful education you’ve just consumed matter.  Make it matter.

On my desk in the Pentagon sits a small wooden box, and in it are 129 small laminated cards, and on each card is a picture of a soldier that I’ve lost under my command in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.  And I carry three others in my pocket at all times.  On that box in the Pentagon on my desk are three simple words:  Make it matter.

Someone once told me that hope is not a method.  Nevertheless, here’s what I hope for you on this important day.  I hope you believe in yourselves as much as we sitting up here and those sitting around you believe in you.  I hope you believe in each other.  The class of 2014 really could be extraordinary.  I hope you genuinely believe in the greatness and in the exceptionalism of this country.  Encourage it.  Criticize it.  Participate in it.  But above all, believe in it.

I hope you understand and believe in action over admiration.  The Duke pamphlet is right.  We need leaders of consequence, no mediocrity, no bystanders, no ambivalence.  Both by your own work and by your family’s sacrifices, you’ve been given the greatest gift of all:  an education.  Make it matter.

It’s sunset right now in Afghanistan.  Thousands of young men and women your age are either completing their day’s work or just about to begin it.  They do what they do because they trust each other and because they sense that they should give something back for the opportunities that they enjoy in this country.  So they put on their rucksacks, they march out of their base camps and into an uncertain future.  That’s their way of making it matter.  I hope you find your own.

And now I’m reminded of the baseball manager and what he said to the pitcher during a late-inning visit to the mound.  The manager says, “time to hit the shower.”  Pitcher:  “I’m not tired.”  Manager:  “Maybe not, but the outfielders are.”  (Laughter.)

So I’ll end by channeling young Jenny up here.  She congratulated you on an education well-earned and a life, to this point, well-lived.  I add to that my hope that you make it matter.

Good luck, Godspeed, and fight, Blue Devils, fight.  Thank you.  (Cheers, applause.)