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Gen. Dempsey's Commencement Address at Virginia Military Institute

By General Martin E. Dempsey
Lexington, Va. —

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Wow, you all must be so proud to have two spokesmen to represent your class who not only have I think inspired you, but who have inspired the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Well done to both of you. Now I got to find something to put in my hat. (Applause).

Nice job, by the way, to the regimental band on that National Anthem. How many times you think you’ve heard the National Anthem in your life? You know, two or three hundred. Remember this one today. Just remember this one. I think you’ll find that you’re not going to remember much about today, frankly. Remember that. Because you’ve made it a commitment to it, unlike the commitment that maybe other men and women around the country are making right now.

Well thanks to the two cadets, members of the Board of Visitors, family members, faculty, friends of this institute, and there are many. Deanie and I are deeply honored to share this day with all of you. 

I’ve been to VMI many times, actually, throughout my career. However the last time I was here was exactly four years ago to attend the Marshall Awards during your Rat Year.   

Now you probably had a few other things on your mind at that point.  Maybe you were enjoying your first, and for some of you by the looks of you here – your only free weekend. Or perhaps you were marching penalty tours.

I’m glad to be back, and I’m sure you’re glad to be leaving. (Laughter). I’m also mindful of the fact that you’ve waited four years for this moment, so I won’t prolong your wait for very much longer. 

But I do want to tell you a little story. It’s about a lieutenant, a general, and a sergeant. And they were captured and they about to be executed … and the executioner said to them, “I’ll grant you a single wish before we execute you.”

And so the lieutenant went first and said what you’d expect a lieutenant to say, “I’d like a steak dinner, a beer, and one more night with my fiancé.”

The general said, “I’d like to give one more speech because I still have things left to say, and so you got to grab a bunch of young Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coastguardsmen, gather them around because I want to give just one more speech.” 

And then they said to the sergeant, “What do you want as your last wish?”

And he said, “I’m begging you please—just execute me before that general’s speech.” (Laughter).

And General Peay, that’s no reflection on you, by the way. (Laughter). I’m sure they come from miles around when they hear you’re going to speak. (Laughter, applause).

You know, graduates, this is your day, but I was really heartened, not surprised, when General Peay recognized the family members and the faculty, because look, we don’t get through anything in life alone.  And it’s always nice to remember that in times like this.

Yesterday, you commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market – an extraordinary day in the history of Virginia Military Institute. Let me take—I’m not a graduate—but let me take just a minute or two to explain why I think it’s an important historical date, an event.

Oh and don’t get worried, your predecessors in that New Market fight were pinned down by cannon fire for only twenty minutes. And I’m only hurling words at ya, and I’m not going to take nearly that long. And besides, The Palms isn’t even open yet.  (Laughter).

New Market is important because it was a day when cadets not very different from you took their place beside combat veterans along a split rail fence, and proved themselves in battle in a wheat field. 

It was a day, as was mentioned, when 257 boys left their childhoods behind.

One Cadet, George Lee, recalled the feeling of “crossing that fence” into the wheat field. He remembered that a profound eagerness to get at it came over his spirit. All thought of danger around passed away, and he realized that he could recall more distinctly what passed thereafter than anything that had occurred before that time. 

Get at it.  I like that as a touchstone of what we expect of you.

You are poised today like that group at the split-rail fence at Bushong farm, and what lies ahead for each of you is some other great wheat field.

When I sat as you do today forty years ago, I was ready to get at it. 

I was also wondered whether I would measure up. 

Imagine what it must have felt like to leave the fence line. It’s precisely the same worry that young men and women experience today in leaving forward operation bases, or airfields, or ports in places like Afghanistan, or Al Udeid, or Bahrain. Some powerful combination of courage and fear, confidence and uncertainty; whether they’ll measure up.

What overcomes all of that is the power of trust—trust in the man or woman to your left and right, trust in your leaders, trust in this institution, and trust in our exceptional nation. 

We can’t do the things we do as a military without trust.  It binds us together and without it, our profession is nothing. 

143 of you commissioned out of this class, but all 317 of you will serve, lead, and carry the VMI brand out into the world.

Some of you – but not many of you – will lead exactly the life you expect to lead.  The rest of you will be surprised. 

Though you may not realize it right now, you are well armed for the future, come what may.

Of all the great gifts of Virginia Military Institute, the greatest of all is that you’ve experienced “true north”. You’ve calibrated your personal moral compass—the values which you’ve developed as graduates of this institute, and which, whether you realize it or not, now define you as a person.

In a world that is changing all around us, this magnificent institute has set the headings for your moral compass -- patriotism, discipline, courage, integrity, resilience, and of course, trust. 

A moral compass as reliable today as it was to those New Market cadets 150 years ago, and one that will help you make the right choices today and tomorrow.

I hope that you realize that once you leave Limits Gates, how truly unique you will be in a world that is desperate for, and longing for leadership.

VMI has always produced leaders of consequence. The world is eager for your leadership, for you to get at it.

The world is changing at a pace that can bring us together, but too often actually sharpens our differences.  It’s a world that seemingly highlights our individuality, challenges our humanity, and sometimes lures us into anonymity. 

But not here, and not today.

The night before the Battle of New Market in a conversation with his classmates, Private “Bev” Stanard asked the question that was on everyone’s mind, “What’s going to happen tomorrow?” 

As I address you today, service men and women just like you are also asking, “What’s going to happen tomorrow?”  And yet, they’ll “leave the fence” and face uncertainty in defense of something greater than themselves.

Two cadets among you, Michael Nowakowski and Johnny McDonald represent the hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coastguardsman, who have asked this question over the last 13 years.  

They’ll tell you it’s not the fact that there’s uncertainty—there’s always been uncertainty.

In fact, in 1920 General John “Black Jack” Pershing told VMI graduates at their commencement, “a great unrest exists in the world, and important problems confront not only this nation, but other nations that will require leaders of character and leaders of ability for their solution.”

It’s actually what you’ve honed here—that moral compass, your character, your ability, that binds you not just to each other or graduates across generations, but to your sense of duty.           

In the hundreds of journals and letters of the New Market Cadets, there’s one word that appears more often than complaints about the bad food at the time or the perennial pleas to parents for money, and that one word is “duty.”

And as you wade into your wheat field, whether you become a baron of industry or lead an infantry battalion, you’ll live that sense of duty. 

Moses Ezekiel, Class of 1866, understood his duty was to honor his fallen New Market comrades, but even Ezekiel had a sense of uncertainty at graduation.  

Robert E. Lee asked him, “What are you going to do after graduation?” 

Ezekiel told Lee that he wanted to be an artist, but wasn’t sure if he could do it. 

Lee said, “I hope you will be an artist; it seems that you are cut out to be one.” 

Ezekiel’s monument – Virginia Mourning Her Dead – watches over the six cadets buried here at VMI. 

And while you honored the New Market Cadets here yesterday, VMI alumni honored other New Market Cadets buried throughout the country to include Ezekiel himself who’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
He rests at the base of a monument that he sculpted with an inscription that expresses what we need of you.  It reads in part:

“Not for fame or reward
Not for place nor for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men Suffered all - Sacrificed All – and Dared all”

Graduates of Virginia Military Institute, the wheat field of life is waiting for you.  It’s uphill and strewn with rocks and boulders. 

All of you will be challenged - some of you will probably lose your shoes, but you’ll always have VMI, you’ll have each other, and you’ll have your moral compass.   

It’s now your duty to get at it. I trust that you will.

I wish you good luck and God Speed. 

Thank you for the privilege of addressing you today. Thank you. (Applause).