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)