By Mike Strasser, U.S. Military Academy Public AffairsMay 25, 2013
WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 25, 2013) -- More than one thousand hats flew into the air at Michie Stadium here, today, and jubilation followed for the U.S. Military Academy's Class of 2013.
For West Point's 215th graduating class and the Army's newest group of second lieutenants, this was, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described it in his commencement address, "an important and historic occasion."
"Like every man and woman who has stepped forward to serve in uniform you made a courageous decision to offer yourself for a very purposeful life," Hagel said. "This institution has educated, trained and inspired you to help shoulder the weight in defense of our nation."
Hagel, who served in the 9th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War, said his time in the Army shaped him forever. Though tactics, training and technology have changed over time, he said the basic principles of Soldiering and leadership is constant.
"Character and courage are still the indispensable requisites of both life and leadership," Hagel said. "In Vietnam I learned that combat is a furnace that can consume you, or it can forge you into something better and stronger than you were before. But it requires leaders who help bring out the best in all of us."
He said leaders know when to act and when not to, are not intimidated by failure or mistakes but can take responsibility for their actions.
"Leaders don't cut corners," Hagel said. "You're faced with difficult decisions and you always know that the right thing to do is the right thing to do. Do it. Listen to yourselves and be guided by what you believe is right."
The Class of 2013 will be responsible for helping shape and lead a new Army, one that is returning to garrison with fewer people and large budget constraints. The Armed Forces is also dealing with the realities of suicide and mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual assault and harassment which threatens the health and readiness among its ranks.
"You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious and destructive forces, but rather you must be the generation of leaders that stop it," Hagel said. "This will require your complete commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity for every member of the military society."
Hagel described sexual assault in the military as a profound betrayal of the sacred oaths and trust among military members.
"This scourge must be stamped out," Hagel said. "We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring this happens. We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other and we cannot fail the men and women who we lead."
Hagel told the graduating class they will be charged with the responsibility for ensuring the Army is prepared for the future the same way the academy has prepared them to be leaders of character.
"The Army you enter today is emerging, and in many ways, recovering from more than decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during what has been the longest period of sustained combat in American history," Hagel said.
Hagel said the military is entering a time of historic transformation which will call for greater leadership and engagement.
"The only thing we can predict is that wars are unpredictable and they remain a fundamentally human endeavor," Hagel said. "These great uncertainties have implications for the kinds of thinkers and leaders the Army and America will need you to be."
Among the 1,007 graduates ready to take on this mantle of leadership was 2nd Lt. Bryan Robbins.
"It's a lifetime dream come true," Robbins said. "I've wanted to graduate from West Point since I was little, and finally being able to not only fulfills a lifelong goal but shows that if you keep pushing yourself through the hard times and the good times you can do anything."
It's the people he's met along the way that helped him achieve this goal.
"All the friends that I've made and the mentors I've gained have made all the difference for me," Robbins said.
The greatest impact, he said, came from the tactical officers and noncommissioned officers that oversee the Corps of Cadets during their 47 months at the academy.
"Being a military brat, I grew up around officers from all the different services so that was nothing new to me at West Point," Robbins said. "But interacting daily with our TACS and the Garrison NCOs and the other units who helped during summer training has been the most rewarding experience for me. It taught me what they expect to see from us as leaders, and then I had to work toward those expectations."
Another experience Robbins will not soon forget was being a member of the West Point Paintball Club. He rose the ranks of leadership positions, eventually overseeing the entire operation of the biannual Combat Classic. Being responsible for the safety and satisfaction of hundreds of demanding paintball fans is no easy task, but one Robbins--and the rest of the club, for that matter, embrace for the unique opportunities it presents.
"The Paintball Club has definitely been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I've had," Robbins said. "It taught me a lot about operational capacity and the importance of logistics and teamwork. And the camaraderie among the club members all four years has been amazing."
As much as he'll miss his teammates, he looks forward to opportunities to reunite with some of the former members currently serving in the Army and maybe returning to West Point one day to see how the younger members are faring.
"It's kind of been a brotherhood within a brotherhood," he said.
After the ceremony concluded, Robbins returned to the Plain where just a day ago the Class of 2013 conducted its final parade. At the Superintendent's Box, his father and grandfather -- both retired Army -- read the oath of office and commissioning orders. Robbins' mother and grandmother placed the second lieutenant rank on his shoulder boards.
"There's a lot of family history involved with the bar pinning," Robbins said. "The greatest feeling I'm having right now is the excitement of finally being able to go out there and lead troops. Now I can really prove that I can do that, not only to myself but my family and friends."
In the days leading up to graduation, Second Lt. Kevan O'Rear said the realization he would be leaving West Point hadn't quite sunk, especially given the flurry of activities keeping those thoughts at bay. Receptions, banquets, awards ceremonies and parades mark the buildup of Graduation Week at West Point before the commencement ceremony.
Still, he said he was excited and ready to take the oath and receive his second lieutenant bars and begin to "do what I've been training and studying to do these past four years."
O'Rear, a Portuguese and human geography major, commissioned as a Military Intelligence second lieutenant and will be stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.
"I'm going to remember most all the friends I've made and all the time we've spent together," he said.
Second Lt. Timothy Berry, the class president, addressed his classmates May 24, during their last evening meal at the cavernous, elegant dining hall at Washington Hall among hundreds of family members and guests.
"But before we depart, we must remember one lesson that can never leave us," Berry said. "We didn't learn it from a field exercise at Buckner or a classroom in Thayer or Bartlett Hall. The greatest lesson we learned from one another is 'cooperate to graduate.' These words brought us here today."
Berry said it was the camaraderie among classmates and the willingness to share, teach and lead that defines this class.
"For when you did not know how to finish that integral, your roommate taught you. Or when your roommate did not know how to take a punch in plebe boxing, so you taught him," Berry said. "Once we leave these gates, our responsibility to each other will ensure that our bond remains strong."