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Citadel News Service
6 May 2006

General Peter Pace: Commencement address 2006

Audio of Gen. Pace's speech

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. General Rosa, and to all the distinguished individuals who have already been introduced today, it is my distinct honor to be here with you here at The Citadel for this graduation day.

I remember as a second lieutenant in 1968 at Quantico, Virginia, attending a leadership class where we were talking about properly recognizing our Marines and giving them awards. And I remember Second Lieutenant Peter Pace saying very emphatically that I would never accept an award that I had not earned.

In the ensuing 39 years I've had to modify my position. I now say I would never accept an award that somebody hadn't earned. And, therefore, this great honor today afforded me by The Citadel I accept on behalf of 2.4 million incredible young men and women who serve in our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Active Guard and Reserve, and especially to those wonderful leaders and mentors of mine who I know let me learn from my mistakes and let me learn by their example and it made it possible for me to stand before you today as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today's a great day.

We were in the tank yesterday with the Joint Chiefs, and I told them I was coming down here to do this this morning, and I said, “What do you think I should say?”

And one of the unnamed chiefs said, “Just tell them you love them, shut up and sit down.”

I thought that was pretty good advice, but I'd be remiss if I didn't say a few more words than that.

First, to the faculty that's already been recognized, thank you for what you do. This incredible institution since 1842 here in this beautiful city, and since 1922 on this campus, has been turning out America's leaders, and it's thanks to the teaching and the mentoring of individuals like you on this faculty that young men and women who walk through the sally port for the first time as knobs and find their way to graduation days like today are able to do so because of your mentoring and your teaching, and we thank you for doing that.

To the parents and family members that are here, especially the parents, congratulations to you. I know that today is an extremely proud day for all of you. And probably it has a tinge of financial relief as well. But I know as moms and dads and guardians and brothers and sisters that when you look down on these young folks in uniform that you must have enormous pride in what you have done to make today possible for them. Families are fundamental, so fundamental in my belief that when I walk into my morning meeting every morning to the 15 or 20 individuals who are there to help me get the day started, I always say, “Cheery good morning, family.”

Because to me family is what it's all about. And I hope each of you here today… and if you do the math, there's about 400 graduates and about 5,000 family members and friends here—that speaks volumes about the communities from which these graduates come and from the families from which they have learned the basic values of life. I hope, and I know that everyone here in uniform will join me in thanking their families for your support.

Now for the Class of 2006, congratulations. You have—yes, go ahead if you'd like [applause]. You have worked hard, and you have absolutely earned the right to start at the bottom.... There's nothing wrong with that. I'll guarantee you every single admiral and general on active duty today, and a lot of the retired guys too, would switch places with any lieutenant or ensign today. Why? Because what you are about to do, those of you who are taking your commissions, is simply going to be one heck of a ride, and those of us who have walked that path before you would do it again in a heartbeat.

But this institution graduates more than those who select to join the military. This institution graduates leaders, leaders from many walks of life. And, therefore, there are a couple of things I'd like to say to you no matter what you have decided as your path forward.

First: Grow where you are planted. Some of you are going to go to jobs that were not your first choice. Some of you in the military will go into specialties that were not your first choice. I guarantee you that wherever you go there are individuals who deserve caring leadership. And if you will go to that job or that profession and give it your very best, I promise you that you will find it fulfilling and that you will continue to get promoted because there are more good jobs than there are good people. And those of you who tackle whatever is given you with all your strength and all your heart will shine and will get the next good job.

Second: Check your moral compass frequently. I have seen it both in combat and in peace. If you do not know who you are walking into a situation, you may not like who you are when you're done. When I was a lieutenant in Vietnam, I lost Lance Corporal Guido Ferranaro from Bethpage, New York, a 19-year-old Marine, to a sniper—the first Marine I'd ever lost in combat. I was filled with rage, and I called in an artillery strike on the village from which the sniper fired. Between the time that I called in the strike and the rounds were fired, my platoon sergeant didn't say a word, he just looked at me. And I realized I was doing the wrong thing, and I called off the artillery strike, and we did what we should've done, which was to sweep through the village. And all we found in that village were women and children.

I do not know how I could live with myself today if I had carried that first instinct forward. The time to decide who you are and what you will let yourself do is not when somebody gets shot, it is not when your wingman gets shot down, it is before you get in that situation so you have an anchor to hold on to. This applies elsewhere.

I have had the great privilege of watching and knowing real heroes in combat. I have also had the great privilege of watching and knowing great heroes around conference tables where the discussion amongst many very senior leaders—each very powerful in their own right, each very articulate in their own right—was going in one direction, and somebody in that room says, I see it a little bit differently and speaks their mind. That takes an enormous amount of courage. If you're wrong in combat, you may die. If you're wrong in a situation like I just described where your reputation is on the line, you have to live with it. So when you walk into a room like that, it is well to have thought through who you are and what your fundamental beliefs are. Where is your moral compass? So that when the situation and the discussion starts going one way, you have already decided where you are and the person who walks out of that room is the person you wanted to be the person walking into that room.

Third: Make decisions. In Vietnam after we spent a couple of months in Hue City during the Tet of ’68, my company went on a patrol, and my platoon had the lead point on the patrol. I remember getting to the first decision point and calling back on the radio to my company commander and saying, “You want to go left or go right?”

And he said, “Go left.”

I called a second time a little while later and said, “You want me to go left or go right?”

He said, “Go right.”

I called a third time and asked him what he wanted me to do, and I got the butt chewing of my life over the radio. And basically when you take out the curse words what my company commander said to me was, “Lieutenant, you are in charge—you make the decision.”

I handed the radio back to my radio operator, Corporal Irvin, and I said, “If the company commander calls, tell him I'm not here because I'm going to go start making some decisions.”

And I promised myself that day—38 years ago now—that if I was going to get in trouble again, it was going to be for going too far. And I have gotten in trouble again, and it has been for going too far, and I've had a hard time explaining to my bosses, who were chewing me out, why I was smiling. And I was smiling because I did what I promised myself I would do. I was making decisions.

Fundamentally it is true whether you're in civilian life or the military. It is easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission. Just go do it. That's why you're getting paid, that's why you're there. Make decisions.

Fourth and last, and this is the most basic: Take care of those in your charge. Whether you're fortunate to have one or a hundred or a thousand or whatever number of individuals it is who are looking to you for leadership. Do all in your power to understand what their needs are and as best you can to provide it for them. You will not be able to do everything. You will not know everything. But if your subordinates know that you want to know what their problems are, that you do want to try to help, even if you can't get it right, your organization will bind together as a team better than you could ever demand, and they will freely give to you more than you could ever demand simply by doing the right thing, which is take care of those in your charge.

I would like to say just a few words to those of you who are accepting your commissions today. Thank you. Your country needs you. We are at war. I promise you when you put your hand in the air and take that oath that you will never regret having done so. Whether you spend four years or 40 years in uniform, you will serve this country in a great time of need. And your children and your grandchildren when you look upon them, you will know what you have done, and they will know what you have done. This is a wonderful country. This institution has provided some of our best leaders, military and civilian. I congratulate you today.

For those of us on the stage who are getting closer to the end of our active lives than you are, it is great to look out on this sea of faces and to know you are ready to take on the challenges that lie ahead. Class of 2006, God bless you, congratulations.

Achieving excellence in the education and development of principled leaders
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