WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took his message of public service to graduates of North Dakota State University today and University of Oklahoma yesterday, urging young people to “consider a life of service.”
“I say to each of you, as someone who started out just another kid from the plains, that you, too, can shape history,” Gates said in prepared remarks to the Oklahoma graduates. The secretary, a Kansas native, has announced he will retire this summer, ending four decades of public service.
“I’ve served eight presidents and been around the world more times than I can count,” he said. “Most recently, I’ve held the great trust, my greatest honor since entering public service, … of guiding and looking out for those who defend us. They fight to protect the freedoms and opportunities that all Americans enjoy — freedoms and opportunities that can take any one of you wherever you choose to go.”
Quoting from President Barack Obama, Gates said in his prepared statement that graduates can go wherever they choose, but only “if you have the courage to put your foot firmly into the course of history.”
Gates said he was honored to commission graduating ROTC cadets — 10 in Oklahoma, nine in North Dakota — into the Army, Navy and Air Force. “You join an American military that has been fighting multiple wars at an incredible tempo over the past decade,” he said. “This is the true patriotism of the deed.”
The secretary urged the graduates to “keep the faith” of the ideals and beliefs America was founded on. “I see that faith every day in the faces of the young men and women of the military who have volunteered to serve this great nation,” he said. “Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of young Americans in uniform have volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend us — to set aside their dreams so you can fulfill your dreams.”
Gates also told them to not be afraid to pursue their own idealism, something best done through public service. “If you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve — no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical — are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can improve the lives of others, that we can better the future of this country and of the world.”
The secretary warned against some public sentiments that the United States should scale back its global leadership role in light of record deficits and 10 years of war. “The lessons of history tell us we must not allow our frustrations to cause us to withdraw from the world or diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon,” he said.
Gates quoted President Theodore Roosevelt in saying that a nation that absolves itself from duties around the world forfeits its place “among the peoples that shape the destiny of mankind.”
“Are we, as a nation, willing to forfeit our place to shape not only our own future, but the future of this world with which we all are so intrinsically linked?” the secretary said. “It falls on us as Americans to lead, to shape the course of world events, to face challenges, to make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests.”
For America to continue to be a force for good in the world, “the most able and idealistic of its young people — of you — must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service,” Gates said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)