By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 19, 2014 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tied his May 16 commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington to the Battle of New Market that occurred exactly 150 years ago during the Civil War.
On May 16, 1864, 257 young VMI students stood alongside combat veterans at Bushong’s Farm facing Union forces. At the order they crossed a fence line and charged through a wheat field at the Union line. Ten of the young men were killed and 84 wounded.
“One cadet, George Lee, recalled the feeling of crossing that fence,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said. “He remembered a profound eagerness, to, ‘Get at it.’”
“‘Get at it.’ I like that as a touchstone of what we expect of you,” the general told the graduates.
A total of 143 VMI graduates were commissioned into the U.S. military, and they are poised -- like the group in 1864 -- to face new challenges and dangers. Dempsey said he understands what the new officers feel, noting that when he entered the military 40 years ago he was concerned whether he would measure up.
However, Dempsey said, he, too, was ready to “get at it.”
“Imagine what it must have felt like to leave that fence line,” he said. “It’s precisely the same worry that young men and women experience today in places like a forward operating base or airfields or ports. Some powerful combination of courage and fear, confidence and uncertainty whether they will measure up.”
Trust, he said, is the cement that holds it all together, in their fellow service members, in leaders, and in institutions.
The general told the graduates that while some will lead the life they expect to lead, most will be surprised. But that doesn’t matter, he said, because they leave VMI with a moral compass.
“Patriotism, discipline, courage, integrity, resilience and, of course, trust,” he said. “A moral compass as reliable today as it was to those New Market cadets 150 years ago.”
Dempsey said each graduate now faces their own version of the wheat field on that long-ago Civil War battlefield.
“It’s uphill, and it is strewn with rocks and boulders,” he said. “It’s now your duty to ‘Get at it.’”