Home : Media : Speeches

Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the Arizona State University Class of 2013 Undergraduate Commencement

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.
Thanks. Thank you. Thanks very much. (Applause.)

I usually warn people, you really ought to wait till you hear what I have to say before you stand up like that. (Laughter.) But I accept the applause on behalf of the roughly 1.4 million men in uniform serving around the world who – (applause) – who have earned the gratitude of the American people. (Applause.)

But I also want you to know that we don’t take it for granted. We know that we’ve got to earn it and re-earn it every day. And so thanks, thanks for the applause, and I will be sure as I travel around the world meeting military members and their families that I’ll them that they are connected to Arizona State University, and good evening, Sun Devil Nation! (Applause.)

I did – I spent a great day today at the university, and President Crow, for again for the hospitality. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to learn about your adaptive learning program, this new American university. You have a lot to be proud of, graduating from this institution, what it’s done, and what I think it has the potential to do. And speaking of potential, that’s what we’re really looking to you for, is a better potential.

So distinguished faculty, friends, family members, and most importantly, the Class of 2013, I really do feel privileged to share this evening with you. And thank you for inviting me to this wonderful university.

Now I did learned a few things about the Sun Devil nation as I was preparing for this occasion …

Apparently, if you haven’t gotten up at 7 o’clock in the morning to tailgate at lot 59, you haven’t really lived. (Applause, cheers.)

So I’m hoping that the little surprise the president has for me is a couple of football tickets or something.

I also learned that the Sun Devils know more than one way to insult the enemy—of course the enemy is the “other” school down the road in Tucson. (Applause, cheers.)

And importantly, I learned this: never … ever … ever mess with Sparky.

Now, Sparky, if you’re out there somewhere, I’m sure your makeover will turn out just fine … even if it looks a little like Mr. Potato Head.

I enjoy these ceremonies because it’s a time to reflect on not only where you’ve been, but where you’re going. And it’s the time when you get to move that little tassel of your cap from one side to the other signifying, as you know, that before you weren’t smart and now you’re really smart. (Laughter.)

As rightfully proud as you are today of reaching this milestone, I want to align myself with the earlier comments about thanking your families because—you know this—your success here today is based on some really hard work by some men and women in the stands around who raised you and are extraordinarily proud of you today. And I can tell you for a fact, as the President mentioned, that my high school sweetheart is sitting right over here. She’ll give me a grade on my remarks at the end of this ceremony, but I will tell you categorically that being a parent is the most important and noble profession on the planet, so give them another round of applause. (Applause, cheers.)

By the way, Sunday is Mother’s Day so when you hug your mom, and that’s good, don’t forget Mother’s Day.

And Parents, I know how proud and happy you are today. These graduates reflect your commitment to family, but also to your country because I can tell you that for a fact, that education is the true foundation of democracy, and your commitment to ensuring that your children are educated not only makes them more capable and more ready to earn a living, but it makes them better citizens, so thanks for that. (Applause.)

I also want to take a moment to recognize the 43 ROTC graduates who I commissioned yesterday from Arizona State University. Fine men and women who are joining the ranks of the most capable and the most respected military in the world.

Now I know that there are some reservists and veterans among the graduating class and elsewhere in the audience and I can understand why you’re here. Arizona State University and the ASU family has an especially good reputation for taking care of our veterans. And I personally want to thank you for all of that.

Right now it’s about 7:30 in the morning in Afghanistan. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and even a few Coast Guardsmen are coming in from their night’s mission. And others are getting ready to go out.

They’re performing their final checks—they’re loading their weapons, they’re testing their radio frequencies, they’re going over their patrol routes … then they’ll give one more thought of home then cross the wire.

We’re all proud of what those young men and women are doing, not just in Afghanistan, but all over the world trying to be a global force for good and the sacrifices they and their families make on our behalf, for all of us.

So, if I could ask anyone in the audience who is serving or has ever served in uniform or who is about to go out and serve in uniform to please stand so we can recognize and thank you. (Applause. Cheers.)

You know, as I look out at you, graduates, I’ll confess that I’m a bit envious because I’m very much aware that I’m at the dusk of my career, while you’re at the dawn of yours. The years ahead holds the promise of incredible possibilities and opportunities for each of you, the fact to which you can’t even imagine today.

So as I was preparing for this commencement address, I asked myself what’s the one thing I wish I’d known at my graduation? What would I go back today and tell my 22 year-old self getting ready to plunge into the world in 1974? And I got it. Invest in Apple. (Laughter.) I wish I had something more for you, but you get my point.

By the way, when I graduated, I actually was feeling pretty good about myself. I’d done fairly well academically, I had the love of my life and my high school sweetheart, Deanie, at my side, and we were heading overseas to Germany to become a scout platoon leader – the land of fast cars and good beer – as a new Second Lieutenant in the Army.

I thought I—yeah, I’m with you brother. (Laughter.) I thought I had a decent understanding of the world (laughter, cheers) – I think I started something (laughter.) And I was entering with a reasonable idea of what I thought the future would play out.

But deep down inside, I now admit, I had an enduring sense of uncertainty. And you know, if there are any closet fans of the Weather Channel out there, you probably know that we're on the cusp now of hurricane season.

Now obviously, hurricanes aren’t a big factor here in Tempe … or for that matter, clouds … or really, anything else other than blue skies.

But you've got to feel for the East Coast. Miami, New Orleans, and up and down the coast where those hurricanes hit from time to time and where the weathermen struggle mightily to predict especially with people's lives hanging in the balance.

You've probably seen how as they begin to forecast the hurricane, they’ll put this "cone of uncertainty" in front of the storm. That's because the atmosphere, like life, is an incredibly complex and uncertain phenomenon. So as it goes, the farther they project into the future, the wider the cone of uncertainty becomes because the greater the uncertainty becomes.

The analogy here is probably fairly transparent to you, if not, you should probably sign back up for a few English courses. But I suggest to you that the challenge the weather man faces is analogous to the challenges of life, your personal and professional life. It’s also analogous to the challenges that our Nation faces in a complex, rapidly changing world.

In other settings with other audiences, I’ve suggested that to make it in this competitive age, the formula for success is to be curious and creative. You know, to find new ways of doing things and solving problems. I actually think that’s one of ASU’s greatest strengths, is that they arm you for your future. I really hope you’re passionate about both.

By the way, by curious and creative, I don’t necessarily mean to find news of getting mom and dad to keep paying the bills after you graduate. (Laughter.)

I suggest to you there’s another quality as you go forward that’s just as important ... maybe even more important … and that’s resilience. Life will call on you to be resilient. Think Chumbawumba. (Laughter.) When things don’t work the first, the second time, or the tenth or eleventh time, when there are setbacks and there are hardships, you have to persevere and you have to learn.

You keep going and you keep growing.

I suggest that resilience is the indispensable tool you must have in your toolbox for a successful, happy life … no matter what profession you choose.

Resilient individuals and institutions are both better prepared for an uncertain future, and they’re able to shape the future to a better one.

I’m not suggesting that resilience is easy, by the way. Citizens of our great nation have always understood that when we’re challenged, when things like 9/11 occur, when Hurricane Katrina hits, or Boston strikes … we pick ourselves up, and we get back at it. It’s who we are as Americans. (Applause. Cheers.) We learn, we rebuild and we grow. It’s not easy, but it’s what we do.

In some ways, we are not – neither as individuals nor as a nation – as resilient as we could be. Some give in and give up when their values are challenged, or when success is elusive, or when life just seems too hard.

Our men and women in uniform and their families are resilient. They’re part of the 9/11 generation that’s weathered more than a decade of war. Resilience is actually what defines them.

As your generation blazes into an uncertain future, I suggest to you that resilience ought to be a big part of what defines your generation.

We’ve learned in the military that resiliency isn’t something you have to be born with—you can actually learn, build, and train for it in the same way you train to become physically fit.

That’s because it’s not only rooted in principles and shaped by experiences … it’s rooted in the habits of the mind. Patterns of thought are something you can work to rewire, to reinforce … habits that you can change and cultivate.

But building a resilience arsenal – a battery of emotional hardiness and mental flexibility – has to happen “left of the boom” as we say in the military … or in other words, it has to happen before you know it or really need it.

That takes a dominance of courage over timidity and an appetite of adventure over the love of ease.

It takes a conspiracy of optimism and willing anticipation of opportunities to build firmness of character and strength of heart.

And it takes an acceptance of uncertainty, of adversity, and even failure—recognizing that these things are where wisdom and progress are born and can help us get to an even better place than we were before.

It’s understanding as C.S. Lewis did, that “hardships often prepare ordinary people for extraordinary destiny.”

It can also bring us to a different in how we engage with the world. A resilient mindset allows you to take risk and to reach higher than if you fear failure. I actually suggest to you that if you make it in life without failing, if you live so guardedly that there’s no risk, no stretch, then you really fail by default.

Winston Churchill expressed it this way … he said, “Success is not fatal, failure is not final: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

As I’ve said, keep going and keep growing.

By the way, Churchill once gave a famous commencement speech … you may have heard his words of wisdom or seen them, in fact, on a T-shirt at some point in your life.

He said, "Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense."

Now some have said that Churchill sat down immediately after those words “never give in” therefore making it the shortest graduation speech in history. I can see that some of you are hoping that I might follow in his footsteps. (Laughter. Cheers.)

It’s actually—you were the same guys who were with me on the beer joke! (Laughter.)

It’s actually an urban legend. Churchill went on for 45 minutes after that. But “never give in” – far and away – was what anybody remembered from that speech.

In my case, you’ll probably remember that I compared Sparky to Mr. Potato Head.

But I hope you’ll also remember this next story as I close …

I was in eastern Afghanistan about a month ago in Paktika Province, which is right up on the border of Pakistan. Many consider it one of the toughest neighborhoods in Afghanistan, and maybe even in the world.

Seven years ago, we established a small, rugged Forward Operating Base – a FOB, as we call it – along one of the main routes insurgents used to cross the border.

This particular FOB looked across over a couple of mountain peaks. Although the mountain peaks were quite beautiful, the troops nicknamed them "Big Ugly" and "Big Nasty" for the hotbed of enemy action that occurred on their slopes.

The presence of this FOB in that part of Afghanistan was very significant, but very costly. Over time, it helped establish an environment where young Afghan boys and girls could go to school … where the local government and economy are beginning to stand on their own … and where Afghan security forces are today able to defend and secure their own people.

In fact, with all the progress, we were recently able to close that FOB and a soccer field stands there now and kids are already playing on it. And we’ll be able to return other FOBs in Paktika Province in Afghanistan back to the people by year’s end.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the Forward Operating Base I’m speaking of is FOB Tillman—a name you know well. (Cheers. Applause.) A name that’s synonymous with courage, with passion, and with resilience.

So let me leave you with these final thoughts ...

I suggest that a truly meaningful life demands resilience.

I suggest that life takes on meaning only as the principles to which you attach yourself have meaning …

I suggest that the greatest value in life is to have the courage to spend it for something bigger than yourself …

And in the end you, become who you are through the causes to which you attach yourself.

Pat Tillman once said, “Our voice leads us in a direction of the person we wish to become, but it is up to us to decide whether or not to follow.”

Graduates, ASU has put you on a path to be both successful and resilient. You’ve already proven that by getting to today. Go out there and have a great life.

Reach high for yourself and for those around you and for your country. Keep going and keep growing.

The Sun Devil nation is behind you all the way … and so am I.