Deutschland/USA — Gates Imparts Advice to Kaiserslautern H.S. Graduates

KAISERSLAUTERN, Ger­many — Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates shared insights here today from his own life as a stu­dent and his decades of pub­lic ser­vice at com­mence­ment cer­e­monies for Kaiser­slautern High School’s Class of 2010.

The stu­dent body of the Depart­ment of Defense Edu­ca­tion Activ­i­ty man­aged school is com­posed most­ly of chil­dren of ser­vice­mem­bers and For­eign Ser­vice offi­cers. Gates thanked the grad­u­ates’ par­ents for their sac­ri­fices.

“You serve your coun­try here in var­i­ous capac­i­ties – mil­i­tary and civil­ian – but, most impor­tant­ly tonight, you are all proud par­ents,” he said. “I know that mov­ing your fam­i­ly to anoth­er coun­try and cul­ture can be chal­leng­ing. Many long days and nights at work com­pete with the time you would rather spend at home with your child. The dual role of par­ent and pub­lic ser­vant is not an easy one – I can attest to that myself.

“Some of the uni­formed par­ents of today’s grad­u­ates are deployed and can­not be here today,” the sec­re­tary con­tin­ued, “while some of you have just returned or are get­ting ready to leave. We’re all grate­ful for the sac­ri­fices you make on behalf of all of us.”

In com­mend­ing Kaiserslautern’s fac­ul­ty, Gates not­ed he still remem­bers the names and faces of high school teach­ers who made a dif­fer­ence in his life.

“They opened my eyes to the world and to the life of the mind, and they were role mod­els of decen­cy and char­ac­ter,” he said. “I only hope that half a cen­tu­ry from now, these grad­u­ates will look back on their time here with such fond mem­o­ries and, above all, remem­ber the role you teach­ers played in their lives.”

Call­ing the grad­u­at­ing class “a remark­able bunch,” Gates told the stu­dents he knows life has­n’t always been easy for them, as they’ve been sub­ject­ed to fre­quent moves and some­times-absent par­ents.

“Some of your par­ents have been gone over extend­ed peri­ods,” he said. “Many have moved mul­ti­ple times. New faces, new cur­ricu­lums, new teach­ers, new friends: None of this is easy. I am impressed by the way that you all, much like your par­ents, have risen to the chal­lenge and excelled.”

Despite the chal­lenges their par­ents’ careers have posed for them, the sec­re­tary told the grad­u­ates, they’ve man­aged to exceed aca­d­e­m­ic expec­ta­tions, with 90 per­cent of them going on to col­lege. In addi­tion, he said, they’ve giv­en of them­selves while mak­ing the most of their cir­cum­stances.

“Your com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice pro­grams such as Soles 4 Souls and your Haiti fundrais­ers put oth­ers before your­selves in their time of utmost need,” Gates said. “Through your trav­els and expe­ri­ences, you have learned about your host coun­try and famil­iar­ized your­selves with its cul­ture. And, the whole while, your sports teams – the Raiders – have com­pet­ed with the best of them. You’ve all come to rep­re­sent Kaiser­slautern High’s mis­sion of ‘Mod­el Cit­i­zens in a Diverse Soci­ety.’ ”

For the col­lege-bound grad­u­ates, the sec­re­tary cit­ed him­self as an exam­ple in urg­ing them to con­tin­ue work­ing hard, even if they find the adjust­ment to col­lege life to be dif­fi­cult.

“Back in Kansas,” he told them, “I had got­ten good grades in high school, so I thought I was pret­ty smart. Well, first semes­ter my fresh­man year of col­lege at William & Mary, I got a ‘D’ in cal­cu­lus. My father made a long-dis­tance call to ask how such a thing was pos­si­ble, and I told Dad, ‘The “D” was a gift.’

“Years lat­er, as pres­i­dent of Texas A&M,” he con­tin­ued, “I would tell uni­ver­si­ty fresh­men that I learned two lessons from that ‘D.’ First, even if you’re fair­ly smart, you will not suc­ceed if you don’t work hard. Sec­ond, I am stand­ing proof that you can sur­vive a ‘D’ as a fresh­man and still go on to make some­thing of your­self.”

If they find col­lege tough at first, the sec­re­tary told the grad­u­ates, they should remem­ber to work hard­er, improve their study habits, and reach out­side their com­fort zones to con­sid­er new sub­jects or try new things.

But regard­less of whether they go on to col­lege or not, Gates told the grad­u­ates, they should be pre­pared for their lives to turn in unex­pect­ed direc­tions. At a time when he thought he was going to be a his­to­ry pro­fes­sor, he said, he encoun­tered a CIA recruiter and chose that path, though he had­n’t con­sid­ered that career before.

“Now, at first, CIA tried to train me to be a spy,” Gates said. “How­ev­er, my efforts were less James Bond and more Austin Pow­ers – and I don’t mean that in a good way.” He told the grad­u­at­ing class about one of his first train­ing assign­ments, in which he and two fel­low trainees were to prac­tice secret sur­veil­lance on a woman CIA offi­cer around Rich­mond, Va.

“Our team was­n’t very stealthy, and some­one report­ed to the Rich­mond police that some dis­rep­utable-look­ing men – that would be me and my fel­low CIA trainees – were stalk­ing this poor woman,” he said. “My two col­leagues were picked up by the Rich­mond police, and the only rea­son I did­n’t get arrest­ed was because I had lost sight of her so ear­ly.”

He and his CIA supe­ri­ors agreed that field work prob­a­bly was­n’t a good fit for him, Gates said, and he became an ana­lyst for the agency in which he rose through the ranks to become direc­tor.

“So it may take you a few mis­steps, and even embar­rass­ments, before you find the thing you’re real­ly good at,” the sec­re­tary told Kaiserslautern’s grad­u­at­ing class. “But keep at it.”

In the near­ly 45 years since he joined the gov­ern­ment, Gates said, he has learned about ser­vice and lead­er­ship.

“Many of you prob­a­bly already have found oppor­tu­ni­ties, even at a young age, to exer­cise lead­er­ship in dif­fer­ent ways – in ath­let­ics, extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties, stu­dent gov­ern­ment, your church, or wher­ev­er you hap­pen to have a part-time job,” he said. “These oppor­tu­ni­ties have placed you in a posi­tion to show respon­si­bil­i­ty or influ­ence oth­ers. Above all, you are for­tu­nate to have par­ents who, in car­ry­ing out their duties in America’s mil­i­tary, pro­vide ster­ling exam­ples of lead­er­ship and ser­vice on a dai­ly basis.”

Gates said his expe­ri­ence has shown him that lead­er­ship in any career entails three impor­tant qual­i­ties.

“One of those things is integri­ty – I’m talk­ing about hon­esty, telling the truth, being straight with oth­ers and with your­self,” he said.

Courage, he told the grad­u­ates, is an impor­tant qual­i­ty because it requires going against the col­lab­o­ra­tive cul­ture in acad­e­mia, busi­ness and gov­ern­ment.

“The time like­ly will come some­day when you see some­thing going on that you know is wrong,” he explained. “You may be called to stand alone, and say, ‘I dis­agree with all of you. This can­not be allowed.’ Don’t kid your­self – that takes courage.”

The third impor­tant qual­i­ty of lead­er­ship, Gates said, is treat­ing peo­ple with com­mon decen­cy and respect.

“Too often,” he said, “those who are in charge demon­strate their pow­er by mak­ing life mis­er­able for their sub­or­di­nates, just to show they can. Pres­i­dent Tru­man had it right when he said, ‘Always be nice to all the peo­ple who can’t talk back to you.’ In Amer­i­ca today, we bad­ly need lead­ers in every walk of life with these three traits – integri­ty, courage, com­mon decen­cy. We need real lead­ers in all walks of life.”

The nation also needs peo­ple, Gates said, who step up to serve oth­ers.

“It has been the sac­ri­fice of those will­ing to step for­ward at a time of crises and con­flict – men and women like so many present here tonight – that has made it pos­si­ble for us to live free and secure, [and] to be able to make the choic­es about our own lives that I’ve been talk­ing about,” he said. “Those of you who will fol­low your par­ents into the armed forces or oth­er pub­lic ser­vice will sus­tain a noble tra­di­tion that often spans sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions.”

But serv­ing in the mil­i­tary or work­ing as a civil­ian in gov­ern­ment ser­vice aren’t the only ways to con­tribute, he added, not­ing that many of the grad­u­ates already have served oth­ers in school and in their com­mu­ni­ty.

“I think this work — ser­vice beyond self — is so impor­tant,” he said, “because when all is said and done, Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy is not just about our rights. It’s also about our respon­si­bil­i­ties and oblig­a­tions.”

Gates con­clud­ed his remarks by remind­ing the grad­u­ates how lucky they are to be Amer­i­cans.

“I’ve noticed that too often peo­ple back in the Unit­ed States get so absorbed in their own needs and their own prob­lems that they lose sight of how blessed we are as cit­i­zens of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca,” he said. “It is the good­ness and the oppor­tu­ni­ty of Amer­i­ca that made all things pos­si­ble for me — that made pos­si­ble my jour­ney from a pub­lic high school grad in Kansas to the cor­ri­dors of pow­er in Wash­ing­ton and around the world.

“It has been my priv­i­lege, and the hon­or of my life, to give some­thing back in ser­vice,” he con­tin­ued. “And so for all of you, tonight, with this grad­u­a­tion, the door to oppor­tu­ni­ty opens – for you to serve and to lead.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)