By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 16, 2008 - America needs dedicated public servants now more than ever, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told graduates at the Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, Va., today. Gates congratulated the 246 graduates of the state military college on their accomplishments and said the institute has taught them lessons on the importance of public service and duty to their fellow citizens.
"For generations, VMI has graduated young people ready to raise their right hands and defend their homeland," the secretary said. "This is something to be grateful for in any time period, but never more so than in a time of war."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of VMI graduates taking commissions in the armed forces has risen. More than half of the class of 2008 will serve. Gates said.
"One of the strengths of America is that we have institutions like VMI, and young men and women like those sitting here today, who are answering this generation's challenge," he said. "From Kabul to Kirkuk, former VMI cadets are serving throughout the armed forces and the U.S. government in many roles: in military intelligence, organizing reconstruction efforts, building infrastructure, and commanding troops in the field."
Since 2001, 75 VMI cadets have been mobilized for active duty, and 41 have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. "More than 1,200 graduates of VMI have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since the start of the war on terror," Gates said. "Eight of them have not returned."
In Iraq and Afghanistan, initial military success has given way to stability and reconstruction campaigns against brutal and adaptive insurgents, the secretary said. "This has tested the mettle of our government, our military, and the patience of our people in ways we haven't seen in a generation," he said.
Not all graduates of the institute serve in the military, but all serve the nation in some way. Gates quoted from Gen. George C. Marshall, the most distinguished graduate of the college, who said, "Our graduates seldom amass great wealth, but just as seldom do they display weakness or indifference to their duties as citizens. They are trained to be soldiers, if there be need for soldiers. ... But what is far more important, they are trained to be good citizens."
Working as a public servant is not easy, as even Marshall found out. Following his service as the "architect of victory" in World War Two, he was pilloried by some Americans for his actions while serving as secretary of state and secretary of defense, Gates said. Benjamin Franklin called the carping critics "bugwriters," the secretary said.
Today, the United States faces many challenges at home and abroad. "We live in a time of great necessities, a time in which we cannot avoid the burdens of global leadership," he said. "The stakes are too high. And it is precisely during these times that America needs its best and brightest from all walks of life to step forward and commit to public service -- to exchange the life of ease and contentment and take on the burdens and the bugwriters."
If America is to continue to be a force for good and justice and the rule of law in the world, "if America is to exercise global leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and idealistic of today's young people must step forward and agree to serve their country with the same honor and courage and dignity that marked the service of the long line of patriots that came before them," Gates said.
"Your country asks nothing more than that you live up to the values you have learned and lived in this place for these past four years. You owe yourself nothing less."