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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the West Point Graduation

By Gen. Martin Dempsey

DEMPSEY: Thank you very much. [Cheers]. It’s great to see you again. I told you I’d be back and I hope you did what I told you which was use sunblock, chapstick, and hydrate. It’s a spectacular day here in the Hudson Valley in this sacred place and with this national treasure. This national treasure to which I refer are these 994 young men and women in front of us who today will  join  in the endeavor to keep our nation safe and allow us to live our lives the way we want to live them. I’ll say more about that in just a moment. (Cheers).

I want to—with the opportunity—I want to thank the Chief of Staff of the Army Ray Odierno, his wife Linda who’s across the way there, our Secretary of the Army John McHugh. Ray Odierno and Linda have led this Army of ours through some extraordinarily challenging times over the last four years. And he and I will end our tours of duty at about the same time, and Ray, I just want to tell you how much I admire what you have done as the Chief of Staff of our Army. Thank you very much. [Applause].

And Secretary McHugh, we were battle buddies for eh 149 days or so, but he’s been at this for six years, so everything I just said about the Chief of Staff, add two years to that and you’ll know the kind of heavy lifting that Secretary McHugh has done on behalf of our Army. Sir, God bless you and thanks very much. [Applause].

And to the Caslens and the Thomsons and the Trainors and their beautiful wives, your leadership is evidenced everywhere in this great institution, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and I couldn’t be prouder of the job you do on behalf of all of us who have—who count so much on the young men and women that come out of this Academy. So to the Academy’s leadership, how about giving them a round of applause?  (Applause, cheers).

You see? I practice what I preach. [Laughs, cheers].

I’m gonna go back to the podium, but before I do, I want to make sure you’re actually ready to graduate and it’s not entirely clear to me, so I’m going to test, I’m going to test my theory here.

So I’m going to sing—the, this is New York, right? We’re in New York state, I think? [Laughter].

And of course, if you’re in New York state, you gotta know the song “New York, New York”. And the first line is “Start spreadin’ the news” and the next line is “I’m leaving today”. So I’ll gauge whether you’re actually ready to go as follows. I’ll sing the first line, you’ll sing the second. It would be very clever of you if you sang it together (laughter). You ready?

[SING] “Start spreadin’ the news…”

[CLASS OF 2015] “I’m leaving today.” (Laughter, cheers)

Now somebody over here got—somebody right ver here got way ahead of everybody. (Laughter). So you just wait ‘til I point, okay?

[SING] “Start spreadin’ the news…”

[CLASS OF 2015] “I’m leaving today.”

All right! You’re ready. [Cheers, applause].

Okay, so I can see it now. 20 years from now, two decades, at your twentieth reunion, somebody will ask, “Do you remember who spoke at our graduation?” And because of that little exchange right there the Class Goat will be the one to remember, and he will speak up loudly and confidently and say, “Yeah, it was Sinatra!”

It’s, ya know, I’ve been really privileged to address some of our nation’s most prestigious universities over the past four years, but today obviously has very special meaning for me. I enjoy—I hope—a special relationship with this class. We have shared a four year journey on behalf of our country. So as the guy who currently occupies one end of the Long Grey Line speaking to you who are about to lengthen it with your graduation, I offer you the highest and simplest complement of our profession: well done.

Let me begin by reminding myself, but also you that we get nowhere without help.

If you look around the stadium today and think back to your days in high school, Academy leaders, staff, faculty, coaches, parents, grandparents, sponsors, friends and relatives—each of them have brought you to this day and should share in that accomplishment. They are as proud of you as I am of you, and I’m also proud of them.

You know, one of West Point’s great lessons—if, or when we recognize it, is that we don’t accomplish anything by ourselves and that’s as true of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as it is for you. So today is an opportunity for you to recall how many people have shaped your life and to think about how you will always find time in your future to say ‘thank you’ for those who  support you, to include the young men and women who will serve under your leadership.

Now, three moments today will continue to shape your life but in ways you just can’t imagine yet: your graduation, your commissioning, and your first salute. And let me say a word about each.

Graduation. Today, you demonstrate that you actually were good enough to graduate. From the pre-eminent leadership university on the planet. [Applause].

You now own the West Point brand. Today, as the superintendent said, you join the remarkable classes if 1915 and 1965 who left West Point 100 years ago and 50 years ago, respectively, and marched into history during periods of great complexity and danger.

Now begins your time, another period of complexity and danger. History does not repeat, but it does rhyme. History may or may not find you. It may find some of you or it may find all of you. You can’t know, so you just have to be ready. And I realize that you’ve got a lot going on in your mind today and you may not be able to appreciate that.

So I’ll provide you a phrase that will help you remember that in the future, and that phrase is “Don’t believe me, just watch.” Or, as you may have heard it, [sings] “Don’t believe me, just watch!” [Laughter].

And yes, for those of you who are listening carefully, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs just rocked Bruno Mars at your graduation. [Laughter, applause].

Actually, as far as I’m concerned, you can forget Bruno Mars, but remember this. History awaits you. We need you to be exceptional even among the graduating classes who are already out there across the globe serving and protecting us today. We don’t expect you to be super-human, but we expect you to try.

Let me say something about your commissioning. Soon after your hats hit the ground, you’re going to take an oath. Not to a sovereign ruler or to a political party, but to a set of ideas embodied in our Constitution. This is one of the things  about the United States military that sets it apart from all other militaries across the world. Second lieutenant bars weigh only  a few ounces, but the weight of what they represent is profound.

Very soon, America will trust its sons and daughters to your care. They’re out there, even now, awaiting your leadership. As you take your commission, you take ownership of our profession. You have to commit to the team, lead with the soul of a servant, win no matter what stands in your way, because our way of life depends on it.

And then a word about the first salute. Immediately following your commission, you’ll accept your first salute as an officer. It’s symbolic of the respect and trust that exists between leader and led within our profession. In return, you will give the individual who salutes you a dollar indicating that they can count on you to earn their trust, not just today, but everyday throughout your career.

I want to show you something. I want to show you something.  Hello? There we go. I want to show you something.

Back in June, well let me start with the background of this story. When I graduated 41 years ago, I asked Master Sergeant Bernie Henderson who was a noncommissioned officer in the Department of Military Instruction to take my first salute. He had been a mentor of mine as part of third class armored training at Knox. And through my cadet career, he was the one I always went to ask about what it means to have a relationship with noncommissioned officers.

He took my first salute, I handed, I signed a dollar bill and handed it to him. Last June, I got a package in the mail. By the way, we went our separate ways and I lost track of him. Last June, I got a package in the mail,  in that package was this frame with this dollar bill with my signature on it, and a note. And the note said, "Dear General Dempsey, I told you I told you I would return this to you when you made general. Sorry it took me so long to send it back you. Sincerely, Bernie Henderson.” [Applause].

That was his way of letting me know that I had earned his trust. Among the many awards and citations and gifts I’ve received throughout my career, it is one of  my most treasured possessions.

I came here today to deliver to you the simplest, but the most important message you will ever receive while wearing the uniform of our Army.

We trust you.

We trust you to win our nation’s wars, to be leaders of character and competence and consequence.

We trust you to leave our profession better than you find it.

As I shake your hand on this stage today, I’ll give you each a dollar bill that I’ll have signed. In the years ahead, as you confront the challenges ahead, I hope you’ll remember not who gave it to you, but what it means.

God bless the West Point class of 2015, our Army, and this great country.