May 27, 2014 -- CSA's remarks at U.S. Military Academy graduation banquet

By Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray OdiernoMay 30, 2014

Good evening. How is everybody this evening? It is great to be here. I want to thank everyone, all the parents, families, family members, members of Congress, fellow Officers, Sergeants Major. It is great to see everyone here tonight. The introduction mentioned my wife, Linda. We were high school sweethearts. So we are part of the 1% club, I think they call it. We made it through four years at West Point, got married, and have been married for 38 years.

It is truly great to be back here to speak to the class of 2014. It is always great to come back to West Point. I did not always think that. Even now, 38 years later and a Four Star General, the Chief of Staff of the Army, I still get nervous when I come in the front gate of the United States Military Academy. In fact, today I was reminded of my time as a Cadet. I kind of got in a little late. We were driving up Palisades Parkway about 85 miles an hour in order to get here, not that any of you might have done that just to make sure you are here on Sunday evening at 7:00. It was a little different this time. I was not worried about getting arrested and getting thrown in jail and getting slugged because I had a police escort.

General Caslen, thank you for that great introduction. You have led this great Academy with energy and passion for the past year, and you, along with the class of 2014, have instilled the winning spirit here at West Point that we have known since 1802. This year for the first time, the Army won the Star Series against Navy. The Army also took the overall series 18-13, which includes other tournaments and competitions. That is the first time since 2004 or 2005. That is great work here by all of you. I know the leadership of this class led to that.

Winning and General Bob Caslen have gone hand in hand since his time as the Center of the Army football team. Bob was the first one to touch the ball on every offensive play, and he led the offensive line. Since that time, he has been leading from the front and developing others since he graduated in 1975. Personally, I do not believe we could be more fortunate to have such a great natural leader, along with his lovely wife, Corinne, here leading this great Academy. He is a great leader and scholar, and I thank you so much for conducting your leadership here, Bob.

I also want to thank General Clarke, General Trainor, and Command Sergeant Major Byers for their vision and commitment. They continue to develop and move this Academy into the future, ensuring that you receive world-class, forward-leaning education, training, and leadership.

I also want to thank the faculty and staff who invest so heavily in your academic development, as well as all of the Officers who work so hard to develop your leadership. Recently the Academy was rated the Number 2 best Liberal Arts Public College in the United States, but frankly we all know that this is the finest educational and leadership institution in the world; respected on every continent and by every nation, especially by our adversaries. This says a great deal about this Academy, about the Officers who take their field experience and come back to help teach our future leaders.

I would also like to thank our family members and friends accompanying the class of 2014 this evening. Cadets have been at West Point four years, and for some, maybe a bit longer, but I won't mention any names. This requires support from many people, but especially from your families. To the families, the discipline and values you instilled in them during the formative years, and your love and support, allowed each of these men and women to grow and mature over the last four years. I know that you are very proud of your son, daughter, nephew, niece, brother or sister. Tomorrow they will raise their right hand and swear an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There is no greater act of selflessness than swearing a duty to your country. I want to give a big round of applause to all our family members and friends who have supported you, the Cadets, through your four years here at the Academy.

I woke up this morning and thought back that it was 38 years ago since I was sitting in your seats here as I stood with my classmates. Sharing dinner with them the last time as members of the Corps of Cadets, and yet some things never change here at West Point. However, I will tell you there are differences. A week prior to my class graduation night we were treated to a concert by Bruce Springsteen. At that time the Boss was 26 years old. In 1976 there were no personal computers and calculators. We used this thing called a slide rule. I still have it, and some day I will memorialize it somewhere in my house. An apple and a blackberry were things you ate. A tweet was a noise a bird made. Doing something involving yahoo would have earned you a few hours walking the area. An I-phone was something in the basement of the barracks hung on the wall that you had to put ten cents into to call home. So things have changed quite a bit here at the United States Military Academy.

Class of 2014, Forever One Team, you have made it. Congratulations. Tomorrow you will graduate and become Officers in the United States Army. My guess is many of you never thought that this day would arrive, especially those Cadets who were stranded on Storm King Mountain during Plebe year. It seemed particularly distant during Beast Barracks when you marched back to main post to begin your academic careers. You finished that march back and all the days after. 47 months later here you sit, ready to join the Long Gray Line.

The last time I spoke with you with this past September, I discussed with you my priorities for the future of the Army. I also offered some thoughts on leadership and on some of the things to think about during your First Class year. That was right after your class persuaded John Flacco, a Stanford football player, to lead "The Rocket", an Army cheer. That is pretty impressive. You might want to rethink your fixation on the crane that is helping to rebuild Bartlett Hall. Rallying behind an engaging football player is one thing, but a crane? I am not going to think about that.

I want to take a few minutes to talk about the Army that you are about to enter. I think about the Army I entered, and how your generation faces many of the same challenges that we did. Thirty-Eight years ago I was where you are now. Our army was drawing down after a long war in Vietnam. Military priorities were less important in a time when resources were going down. People predicted that never again would our country enter a sustained conflict. Some of us felt we were coming late to the fight. Perhaps you are worried that you will not have the same opportunities to lead Soldiers in combat. Let me tell you, as a Soldier who has been involved in several conflicts over his career, I hope that it will not be necessary in yours. It would be exhilarating to me to stand up here this evening, safe in the knowledge that we are entering a new era in which armed conflicts are a thing of the past.

In fact, our Navy brothers are fond of saying 72% of the world is water and the ability to control the seas is essential to our security and stability. Yes. That is important. What I remind them of is that 100% of the people live on land. Conflict of all forms remains fundamentally a human endeavor, reaffirming it is essential for us to do our mission. That has played out in every decade since World War II.

You are entering the Army at a time when the security environment is more uncertain than I have ever known. The threats are in headlines every day, from unrest in the Ukraine and Crimea, to aggressive behavior by North Korea or Iran, to turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa. We must continue to guard against threats to our own soil. It is our responsibility to ensure no one again attacks the United States. These threats, which question the world around us, will challenge all of you during your careers. Like many others who have preceded you, it is your responsibility to hold up the lineage and proud heritage of West Point. I guarantee you; you will have the opportunity to put your mark on history. The Army that you are entering requires competent leaders of character who are committed to our Soldiers, the Army, and our Nation. It will need critical and creative thinkers who are agile and adaptive, and who understand the strategic environment within which they operate.

Let me offer an example. Four weeks ago we deployed four Companies from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. For the past four weeks, upwards of six hundred paratroopers have been conducting training exercises in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as part of the Army's Contingency Response Force to assure our allies against the concerns of Russian aggression. It occurred to me as I was watching the footage of the deployment that young company grade Officers are leading U.S. foreign policy. They are training side by side with Eastern European Armies, interacting with Chiefs of Defense and the Presidents of these nations. In that unit are five 2012 West Point graduates, such as Lieutenants Andrew Rodriquez, Thomas Johnston, John Fernandez, Daniel Zeller, and Ryan Johnson. They were sitting where you are just two years ago. Our Army will continue to be involved in critical national security missions around the world. You will do so as Lieutenants and as Captains just a short time after graduating tomorrow. You will never know when you will become the face of American commitment.

Army units in the Baltics today epitomize the Regionally Engaged, Globally Responsive Army that you are joining tomorrow. As I stand here right now, we have 148,000 Soldiers deployed or forward-stationed throughout the world, from Africa to Korea, and the Philippines to Jordan and Afghanistan. You will have the opportunity as you grow in your career to operate in many different environments. You may be called upon to protect the embassy in the Sudan, train Rangers and logisticians in Nigeria, work with the Japanese Defense Forces or the South Korean Army to deter North Korean aggression. You may conduct operations in Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, or Jordan. First and foremost, we must be prepared to decisively and effectively defeat our enemies and win our Nation's wars.

Therefore I challenge each and every one of you to learn everyday from your Non-Commissioned Officers and Officers. It is your responsibility to ensure that Soldiers are trained and ready to execute every mission asked of them by our Nation. Training and leading the Army in its operations and conflicts will be your responsibility. Soldier readiness is more critical now than at any time in the past 20 years. Soldiers, like everyone else, want to be part of a high-performing and successful organization. They want and expect high standards. They will look to you to lead with conviction, passion, and competence.

In a time of transition and downsizing and slimmer budgets, the reliance and importance of leadership at every level from Sergeant to Four Star General has never been more essential. This makes your roles as Army leaders all the more important. There are no shortcuts to training and readiness. The best thing you can do for your Soldiers is take the time to train them properly, to hold them to exacting standards, and to make sure that they are ready when called upon. Your Soldiers expect you to lead and make the difficult decisions. They will follow you anywhere. It is a great burden, but one that can be more rewarding than you can ever imagine. As our Army downsizes we need leaders with vision, who are not afraid of innovation; leaders who can quickly adapt to changing situations and environments. We need leaders at all levels that are efficient and effective.

In my opinion, these are exciting times. You will be part of evolutionary change as we create an Army that is expeditionary. The Army will be leaner and more flexible; it will be regionally and globally responsive. You will help us to develop new concepts, fueled by changing environments, and supplied by technical innovations. We may be asked to confront non-state actors, hybrid scenarios of insurgents, criminal, terrorists, and conventional forces.

Many predict in a decade the world's population will congregate in a concentrated population centers of tens of millions of people called megacities. Megacities present a unique operating environment: the scale, density, connectedness, and complexity far greater than anything the Joint Force has ever faced. With megacities projected to double in the next ten years, the likelihood that you will be asked to conduct operations in such an environment is almost assured.

How do we do that with a smaller force? We start by innovating and developing fundamental concepts. We have to dispel the myth that it takes too long for us to get anywhere. We must evolve our mind-sets and thought processes; and how we conceive of ourselves. We must organize and synchronize our movements and capabilities. The transformation to the Army of 2025 and beyond will be led by, and will depend upon, you. The future of the Army begins tomorrow, on May 28, 2014.

Today we have an Army of incredible credentials, grown from a generation of experienced, combat-tested leaders and Soldiers. These Soldiers have earned more than 16,000 Medals of Valor, to include 10 Medals of Honor, 28 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 715 Silver Stars, and these numbers continue to grow today. Despite their achievements, they remain some of the most humble individuals you will ever meet, believing that they were simply doing what Soldiers would do, their duty.

This is the Army in which you will lead. These facts should not intimidate you. They should inspire you. Within these heroics are etched the stories of many members of the Long Gray Line. They, like you, were once new Second Lieutenants reporting to their first unit. Over time, they took on the leadership responsibilities of their Platoons, Companies, Battalions, Brigades, Divisions, Corps, and Armies. They led their units with courage and integrity and inspired their Soldiers by living up to the ideals of Duty, Honor, Country.

Tomorrow, you will leave behind your Cadet gray for Army blue and formally enter the Profession of Arms. With this entry comes an expected standard of moral and ethical behavior. We are different from any other profession. We are entrusted with a greater responsibility, and with that comes greater accountability. As a professional organization, we must reinforce the ethics around trust and respect. The foundation of our Profession is centered on trust: trust between Soldiers, trust between Soldiers and leaders, trust between leaders and the Army, and trust between the Army and the American people.

Our very democracy depends on your generation to step forward and defend our values and this great country. Yes, this could entail certain hardships. Your class motto is Forever One Team, and it will take each and every one of you trusting one another, regardless of background or creed, to build a better future. As a class that never scrambled, you have already formed unique, lasting bonds that will only grow richer and stronger in the years ahead.

Long after I am gone, the Class of 2014 will be making its mark on the Army and the history of this Nation. You are prepared for the challenges ahead because of what you have done to ready yourselves at West Point. Take the values of our honored institution and live by them every day. Our Nation is counting on you to protect its values and freedoms. Finally, I want to remind you that each and every one of us are defined by our character. Your character will be tested, and it will be the most important test you ever have.

Class of 2014, it will take every measure of competence and commitment to forge ahead. Above all, it will take character: character to take care of your Soldiers; character to stand up for what is right; character to lead from the front and earn the respect of your Soldiers, ordinary men and women who have achieved extraordinary results. This is often done during the most chaotic and difficult situations. These are the men and women whose ranks you are now joining.

As I stand here today I am once again incredibly proud. All of you remind me once again that I'm incredibly proud to be a graduate of this institution. I'm incredibly proud of the Class of 2014, who will tomorrow join the Long Gray Line and forever live the values of Duty, Honor, Country. The strength of our Nation is our Army. The strength of our Army is our Soldiers. The strength of our Soldiers is our Families. That is what makes us Army Strong. God Bless all of you, and congratulations.