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U.S. Naval Academy Commencement

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Annapolis, Maryland, Friday, May 23, 2014

Admiral, thank you. And good morning to all of you. I am deeply grateful for an opportunity to share this day with all of you, and I mean that. I know these kinds of events and ceremonies come with the job. One of the more attractive features of this business, to participate in this kind of inspirational, uplifting event. As has been noted, you begin a new chapter in your lives, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of this day, that will be part of your lives forever.

As has been noted by Admiral Miller, my affiliation with the Army, with the state of Nebraska – land-locked state of Nebraska – might puzzle some of you as to why, or put it another way, would he be worthy enough, this Army sergeant from Nebraska, to address the U.S. Naval Academy Commencement?

And I would respond – aside from the fact that I am Secretary of Defense – with explaining to you that, maybe something that you don’t know, Nebraska does have a Navy. It doesn’t do much. But it is a ceremonial Navy that began about 100 years ago, and I am an admiral. I know the standards are low. But nonetheless, I am an admiral in… the Nebraska Navy. So, therefore, based on that authority, I hereby grant amnesty to all midshipmen who are on restriction for minor conduct offenses. There you are. Some of you, you look more relieved than others. The parents are sure as hell relieved. If anyone objects, take it up with the Secretary of Defense.

To the Class of 2014, and your families: congratulations on this tremendous, tremendous achievement. We’re all very proud of you.

Today, the pinnacle of your Naval Academy experience, comes at a time of historic change, transformational change – as the world is reshaping, redefining as a new world order is being built. And it’s also a time of transition in this country, the country that you will serve. As you conclude your four years of education and experience and training on the Yard, our nation is concluding 13 years of war – the longest in our history.

As you just heard from Vice Admiral Miller, you will soon be presented with great 21st century challenges and opportunities. Meeting those challenges, seizing the opportunities, and managing through this period of uncertainty and transition will require exceptional leadership. Exceptional leadership.

As new ensigns and new second lieutenants, you will be charged with helping lead America’s sailors and Marines through this defining time. That’s a heavy responsibility.

So, how will you lead? How will you lead these men and women that you will be responsible for? How will you earn their trust and their confidence and their respect?

I have three suggestions that may help you succeed. They’re not just my ideas… they’re what enlisted sailors and Marines tell me all the time. It’s what I believed as an enlisted infantryman in 1968.

First, you must connect with the people that you lead on a personal level. When you do, you’re forging a bond that you can rely on, years down the road and under difficult circumstances. Having built close relationships on the Yard, you will do so across the fleet. But with new technologies and social media making our relationships sometimes seem less relevant, it is more important than ever to be personally invested in your people and build relationships face-to-face. Take the time to ask them about themselves. Get to know them. Listen. Listen to them. That earns respect.

The value you place on building relationships shows the kind of leader you are. That’s important, because, as I recently heard from one enlisted Marine, and she said, “You don’t choose who you lead. They choose you.” That’s wise advice.

Second, try to understand perspectives that are different from yours. From the diverse group of people you’ll serve with, to the allied partner forces you’ll interact and partner with, being able to see the world through their eyes – through the eyes of others –will be critically important.

Right now, there’s a sailor going through the training pipeline who expects his officers to be learning officers – “learning leaders.” Learning, even struggling to understand backgrounds and careers and lives outside your own – whether they’re enlisted, other officers, or civilians – this will help you not only in the military, but everywhere, all the time in your personal lives. Seek out allies and partners and opportunities to build relationships and engage in the world. Understanding the intentions and experiences of other militaries is a skill that’s vital to our national security and America’s future.

My third suggestion – very simple, very clear – be humble. Stay humble. By virtue of your unique experience here at the Naval Academy, you have much, much to be proud of and confident about. But if confidence gives way to arrogance, both your superiors and subordinates will respond. And it won’t come out well for you. Nor should it.

Humility is about respect – respect for others. Give credit to others, and remember, you will never ever know enough. You’ll never know enough or be as smart or as good as you think you are. Someone else will always have something to teach you. In the words of one petty officer, “Lots of enlisted have a lot of pride in [what they do, and] a little bit of humility on the officer’s part, to be able to say, [every now and then,] ‘I don’t know,’” [or] “what do you think?” goes a long way.

These three tools – personal interaction, understanding, humility – they’ll all help you both personally and professionally. But always remember that the first principle of leadership is accountability. The first principle of leadership is accountability. You’ve been taught that. You know that. You’ve been raised that way. You will now practice it. Accountability to those above you, to those under your command, and to yourself – and maybe most importantly to yourself.

Once you take up your duty stations and the responsibility of leadership, you will find yourselves often under tremendous pressures you’ve never experienced before. At times, you’ll be pressured to succeed at any cost. When that happens, it sometimes clouds the internal compass that we each have that helps us distinguish right from wrong.

Some people regularly check that compass. Some do not. And those who do not, often find themselves drifting into, and resulting in, ethical, moral, or professional lapses that stain our force’s honor, damage our institution’s credibility, and harm our nation’s security. We’ve seen all too often that small actions can reverberate in large ways – whether it’s sharing answers on a test, looking the other way when someone denigrates another human being, or taking advantage of the trappings of your office.

Remember – your actions will define you. Your actions will define you in the eyes of everyone around you. It’s not just what you do, but how you do it. Actions and inaction have consequences. As a leader, you are a role model – maybe your biggest responsibility of all – and you have the power to inspire and encourage others to do the right thing.

For example, you will all be counted on to lead in helping eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault of your sisters and brothers in uniform. You’ve seen what these crimes do to the survivors, their families, institutions, and communities. You know how they tear people and units apart, how they destroy the bonds of confidence and trust that lie at the very core, the center, the heart of our military.

Take this knowledge and do whatever you can to make sure everyone – everyone – is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. We’re all accountable. From new recruits to four-star admirals and generals, from second lieutenants to the Secretary of Defense, we all have to step up and take action when we see something that hurts our people and our values.

On a personal level, I, a few months ago, found my brother’s and my commanding officer in Vietnam in 1968, a Lieutenant Jerome Johnson. I talked with him for the first time since late 1968 a few months ago. He’s in Chicago. I want to use him, very briefly, as an example of what I’m talking about.

In 1968, first, that was the worst year for America in Vietnam. We sent home over 16,000 dead Americans in one year from that war. We had racial differences. Discipline issues. The Army was in trouble in 1968. Our country was in trouble in 1968.

This young African American, our lieutenant – a lieutenant out of Chicago – came to our unit, and he stepped into the middle of this. And he brought everybody together – African Americans, whites, Hispanics. And he said, “No more of this. We’re in this together. We’re Americans first. We’re gonna work together. We’re gonna get along. We’re gonna fight together. And we’re gonna fight together. And we’re gonna take care of each other. No more segregated tents. We’re together.”

And the force of this one young second lieutenant – African American, in a majority white unit – brought that unit together, that company together, like nothing I’d ever seen.

That’s leadership. That’s stepping up. That’s doing the right thing. I have admired Lieutenant Johnson, as my brother has, since 1968. And I want to acknowledge Lieutenant Johnson today for what he did for all of us.

And just to further the point on humility, his wife of 40 years, and his children and grandchildren, never knew that he received the Silver Star in Vietnam, because he was too humble to even tell his family that he had received that tremendous honor. Now, that’s an individual who lived something pretty special.

That’s what leaders do. We face challenges straight up and head on, with strength of heart, strength of will, no matter how tough the test is.

You’re ready for those tests ahead – not only because of your education and your training, but because of the way you’ve banded together and pressed on in the face of tragedy.

I know that as we mark this wonderful celebratory day – recognizing accomplishments and those who helped you through your life and get you to this point – with all of that, I know that today, our thoughts are also turning to three midshipmen that the Naval Academy family lost earlier this year.

We remember Will McKamey, Class of 2017. We remember Hans Loewen, Class of 2016. We remember Max Allen, Class of 2014. And we also remember Nick Tarr, Class of 2014, who passed away two years ago.

This community will always remember their enthusiasm and compassion that brightened the lives of all who knew them. I knew Hans Loewen, and I know his wonderful family. His sister is here among you today. His sister, Zatha, will be commissioned today as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of all these midshipmen and their friends here at the academy.

This sense of loss will be familiar to some of the sailors and Marines that you will all soon command. You will lead people who may have lost friends to combat, accidents, or suicide. You’ll lead people who may be struggling with their own challenges, like stress, mental health, or drug and alcohol abuse. When they come to you for help, it doesn’t mean they’re weak. It means they’re strong. Because asking for help when you need it takes courage and strength.

What we need to remember – what our entire country needs to remember – is that these brave individuals don’t need to be avoided or stigmatized. They need to be embraced. They need to be helped. They need leaders, leaders with compassion and humility – leaders they know and trust, and will go the extra mile for them. They need leaders like the parents, the friends, the instructors, the mentors here today that helped you all along your life – people who never squandered a moment or missed an opportunity to help make the world a better place, who use every fiber of their being to lift up everyone around them all the time.

You will be that kind of leader. You will be the ones who lead from the bottom up, who will help bring about a renewed sense of our collective responsibilities to take care of each other, watch out for each other.

If you stand together and face your challenges head on together, you and your fellow sailors and Marines will always be a force for good throughout the world. As your class motto declares, “Where there is unity, there is victory.”

A few minutes ago, I told you that periods of transition require great leadership. And in this particular time of change, the leadership we need can’t just come from people in positions like those of us on the stage today. It has to come from you.

As small-unit leaders, you will have within your grasp the opportunity to do more for your people on a personal level than anyone else in the military. Now, you must seize that special, unique, privileged opportunity. That is what your sailors and Marines expect from you.

I recently spoke with a petty officer who helps launch and recover aircraft from flight deck of the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his words, “When you come to sea, there’ll [always] be [sorts and sorts and sorts and different] sorts of challenges. Every day is a different day. Some days will be good. Other days, not. But all days, you need to be there for them.” The officers and leaders need to be there for them.

So go forth, Class of 2014. Connect with people. Understand different perspectives. Stay humble. Be there for your people and their families. And may you always be officers worthy not only of the people you lead, but the nation you serve. Work hard, but have some fun. Have some fun, too.

Thank you on this wonderful, glorious day of achievement and accomplishment for what you’ve done and what you will do for our country.

God bless you all. Thank you.

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