Home : Media : Speeches

Gen. Dempsey's Commencement Speech at Norwich University

By General Martin E. Dempsey
Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont —
GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: Thanks very much. Before I start my prepared remarks, let me just tell you, this is my first visit to Norwich. Deeply honored to be here. But those of you that have been here or have been around Norwich for your lives, many of you, maybe you’d like the observation of an outsider.
And that observation is this: This is a special place. It’s a special place because it’s not just about cranking out graduates or issuing degrees. These people here at Norwich – and I know your families, for sure – really care what happens to you. There’s a certain passion. In fact, I might have noted a bit of passion and emotion in your president as he was speaking about what it means to be part of this Norwich family, because that’s what it is.
So that’s my outside observation. The other thing I’ll tell you – and congratulations for that, by the way. Just as common sense isn’t all that common, neither is that kind of genuine commitment to our young men and women who are – who we’re going to turn the future over to here, like, later on today. (Laughter.)
The other thing you need to know is what do your old guys talk about when they’re waiting in the back of the room to march on? No, not the weather. Oh no, and not our ailments either, by the way. (Laughter.) It’s really – the conversation was, hey, do you remember who your commencement speaker was? And almost to a man or woman, we said, no, not really. I just have no idea who spoke at my commencement. Not even sure what they talked about. So I’m – I want you to know that, because I’m aware that I’m kind of like the corpse at an Irish wake, you know. (Laughter, applause.) You know that story. It’s important that you have one, but you shouldn’t really expect too much out of them. (Laughter.)
But I really am – I am deeply honored to be here. And I do have a few thoughts to share with you. And if you were to ask me, OK, if you know they’re not going to remember, why do you keep doing it? Well, someday somebody is going to remember something, and I’m hoping that today is the day.
So distinguished visitors, proud families and friends, and of course the class of 2012: It is genuinely a privilege to share this day with you. President Schneider, thanks again for the invitation. And General Sullivan, thanks so much for the kind words. But these two men have made a lifelong commitment to this university. In fact, President Schneider, several people mentioned to me that you’re one of the best leaders they’ve ever come across. And I put a great deal of stock in leadership.
So I thank you for all you’ve done to set this particular group and many others, men and women – (inaudible) – before them, on a course to contribute to and to serve our nation, because that – the message in your remarks came out loud and clear. And of course your influence as a result reaches far beyond this campus and well beyond today.
I’d also like to recognize the faculty and staff, some of whom – maybe even all of whom – have already been recognized. But I want to especially point out their great support for our Guard and Reserve students, whether it’s from accommodating early finals when they need to report for duty or helping them reunite with their studies and their communities when they return home. Thanks very much for that.
And General Sullivan, of course, I as always appreciate your kind words. You’re the leader that I’ve always looked up to and respected, someone I’ve always wanted to be like. In fact, truth be known, I don’t know of any general officer in the ranks today who doesn’t want to be Gordon Sullivan, a visionary, a pathfinder. He transformed the Army as its chief, paving the way for guys like me. He led the team that transformed our Army following the Cold War in the early ’90s. He’s a lifelong student of leadership, a gifted change agent.
He’s humble to a fault, and he’s really, really stubborn. (Laughter.) That’s a quality that’s not all that bad when you’re trying to change things. (Laughter.) His wife, Gay, may disagree, but the way I see it, he only has one flaw. It’s sad, but he has one: he is – his shameless affinity for the Boston Red Sox. (Laughter, applause.) Now as a Yankee fan, I consider that a really big flaw. (Cheers, applause.) So there it went. That’s probably the thing you’re going to remember. (Laughter.)
The truth is, we all have flaws, and oftentimes we’re not able to see them by ourselves. And as we all know, none of us get to where we are without somebody else helping us along the way. So as rightly proud as you graduates are today of your individual accomplishments and of reaching this milestone, it’s important at every opportunity to remember the people whose love and support helped you get here. So I’d like to ask all the family members of the class of 2012 to stand up so we can give you a round of applause. (Applause.)
There is that little moment of when you realize you’ve written your last tuition check as well – (inaudible, laughter). And for you graduates, don’t forget to give your moms, as mentioned, a extra-special hug today as part of the celebration.
Now by the competing looks of fatigue and relief on your faces, I am aware that I’m the only thing standing between you and the rest of your lives. (Laughter.) But I am the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and pretty much can do whatever I want. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) But for those of you in the front, I mean, who have this weird look on your face, I would encourage you to relax. The Rustic isn’t open yet. (Laughter, applause.) On the other hand, the Naughty Shamrock opened at – or opens at 11:30. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) And I – (inaudible) – and so I will be brief. (Laughter.)
But I do need to share a couple of perspectives with you. And I just ask you to consider them, whether you’re headed to the boardroom or to the battlefield. Now some of you may know that I have a passionate curiosity for literature and for history. So on this date in history 372 years ago, on May 13th, 1640, an early settler to the Northeast by the name of Edmund Rice was designated a freeman. And he went on to become a prominent leader of his community.
Two centuries later, in 1856, one of Edmund Rice’s descendants who went by the same name came here to Norwich. In fact, this was a guy with real courage and mettle. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg. He was captured in Spotsylvania but escaped and walked nearly 400 miles to get back to federal lines. Actually that makes the 50-mile legacy march look a little tame, doesn’t it? (Laughter.) He was seriously wounded three times to include getting shot in the leg with artillery fire during the Battle of Antietam.
And it’s Antietam that I want to connect to here with you for a moment. Antietam was the bloodiest day in American military history: 23,000 casualties in a single eight-hour period fought on a space not much larger than the Upper Parade Ground. At Antietam Cemetery, there’s a monument to the individual private soldiers – actually one of the few monuments to a private soldier in all of our statuary related to our wars. The locals at Antietam call it Old Simon. At the base of Old Simon there are a few – a few simple words that speak to the men over whom he stands and with whom he will forever share that field. And those words are these: “Not for themselves, but for their country.”
Not for themselves, but for their country. Twenty-three thousand young Americans. I’d ask you to feel what those words mean, not just try to understand them. Feel what they mean: not for – not for yourselves, but for your country. And keep them in the back of your mind, whether you go from here into the public sector or into the private sector or into the uniformed services. That’s my first challenge to you today, one of three.
My second challenge is to ask you to seek to lead an uncommon life. By choosing to come to Norwich, you’re already on that path. But it’s more than just coming to this unique campus. Realize it or not, you have already internalized Norwich’s values of courage and honesty and temperance and wisdom, guideposts that will serve you as you lead our nation into the future. And you have inherited the qualities from the core of the Norwich experience: discipline, integrity, confidence, loyalty and honor – timeless traits shared among the best leaders in any profession.
Norwich isn’t about elitism. It’s not about its long and influential legacy. It’s not even about being one of the nation’s best leader-development institutions. Certainly it’s some of all of those things. But Norwich would be little more than a beautiful monument to the past glory of its – of American leaders if it weren’t for you, the next generation of leaders; where you go from here, and those things you bring with you when you leave the hill.
President Schneider once said it this way: “A school is nothing but a building with four walls and a roof and the future inside.” And I love what he said next: “Norwich is in the futures business.” These things – this unique family, the friends you’ve made and the range of opportunities you’ve experienced – will empower your future in ways that you can’t even understand for now.
But there is a part B to living an uncommon life that has to do with delivering outcomes and making an impact. When I was a graduate student at Duke University, I studied a bit of William Blake because I was intrigued by the way that he wove the written word with his illuminated manuscripts. And I suppose I wanted to be considered a Renaissance man of some stature. I spent one entire semester working on what I thought was an incredibly thought-provoking, doctoral-quality thesis paper. I pretty much decided that I had William Blake all figured out until I got the C back – (laughter) – at the end of the semester. And it really rocked me back, to tell you the truth.
So I went to the professor and I said, hey, look, I really worked hard on that paper. Where’s the reward here in all of that? And I’ll never forget what that professor told me. He said, yeah, I’m sure you did work hard on that – on that work. But we don’t reward you for the effort, actually. We reward you for the outcome. And I’ll tell you, that was a real moment – an important moment for you – for me in my life, because frankly I’d pretty much mastered most of what I had touched up to that point. And for the first time it became clear to me that hard work wasn’t just what it’s all about. It’s part of it.
But at the end of the day, if you aspire to lead an uncommon life, you also have to deliver. You have to have an impact. You’ve got to achieve in whatever line of work you choose, or you won’t succeed. This is true in my job now, and it will be in yours. And here’s the message: from the first day. This is not something you can back your way into. You’ve got to start delivering from day one. The last – by the way, you’re going to do that. This is not a bridge too far for you. But I do want you to remember that your work is really just beginning, especially for those of you dressed like you – like you’re dressed.
The last challenge that I’ll speak to you about – and some of you are really excited that I just said “last” – (laughter) – is creating relationships based in trust. And I heard the president speak about that a moment ago as well. It doesn’t get any more fundamental for us than trust. It’s one of the pillars of the strength of our nation. At every level, it’s trust that wins. It starts with trusting yourself.
Some of you have goals and dreams that you’ve had your entire life. And some of you are going to achieve those goals. Others aren’t even going to come close. Life will kind of reach up and happen, and some of you will have to adjust and develop a whole new set of goals and dreams. But even there I trust that you’ll exceed beyond your wildest expectations, because you have that kind of trust in yourself.
Trust is built with relationships and confidence in each other. There has to be shoulder-to-shoulder trust relationship between citizen and soldier. Norwich’s founder, Captain Partridge, understood that intuitively, understood why he developed this institution in the way that he did. There’s a broader trust between citizen and nation, and nation to nation with our allies and partners.
President Eisenhower, standing on this very campus, said it this way: “Progress constantly integrates society more closely. Interdependence of man upon man and nation upon nation is the growing characteristic of our times.” And I’ll add to that that no clear-cut lines distinguish America’s pursuits any longer. Our security commitments cut across lines of diplomacy, intelligence, economics and social progress. It demands the support of an array of professions and skills, as well as alliances, international systems and even voluntary organizations. And it requires the best from each of us and from all of us.
You set a powerful example last fall when so many of you volunteered to help your Vermont neighbors recover from Tropical Storm Irene. And the group of you that spent winter break building a community kitchen in a – in a rural village in Thailand completed the circle of trust that was begun by your fellow students two years prior.
The enduring challenge for us all is to do what’s right for ourselves, our family and for our nation. Winston Churchill said it his way: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” As you put Norwich in your rearview mirror, I ask you – actually I urge you – to be leaders of character, as so many of your Norwich graduates before have become. Live an uncommon life with consequence. Build trust in every relationship and in everything you do, not for yourselves but for your country.
Good luck to each of you.  I admire and I salute your accomplishments. Thanks in advance for what you’re going to do, because I trust you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MR.     : Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. What an awesome speaker, huh? What a great leader. So we have a small gift of appreciation – token of our esteem for you. And we’ll be watching your chairmanship very closely from the hills of Vermont. But this is a shako that our Corps of Cadets Color Guard wear, which is the Color Guard of the state of Vermont. And we’d like to present it to you as a remembrance of your time with us today. Thank you, sir. (Applause.) (Cheers.)