By Brandon O'Connor
Pointer View Assistant Editor

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta may not have graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, but he has spent his entire adult living out the academy's motto of "Duty, Honor, Country."

First as an Army officer and then as a Representative, Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense, Panetta has committed his life to public service. He will be honored for that lifelong dedication to the ethos of West Point today as the 2018 recipient of the Sylvanus Thayer Award.

Previous recipients of the award include President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who received the award before it was changed to honor commitment to duty, honor, country by non-West Point graduates, as well as Neil Armstrong, Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, the 2017 recipient.

The award is presented annually by the West Point Association of Graduates to a citizen of the United States whose character and accomplishments uphold the motto of "Duty, Honor, Country."

"As a former Army officer and former Secretary of Defense who had the responsibility to deploy our warriors into harm's way, the Thayer Award to me is one of the most important honors of my life," Panetta said. "It is very humbling to join that list that includes not only Eisenhower, but so many of our great statesmen and military heroes in our history. For me, it is a very humbling experience to receive that award."

Panetta served as an Army Intelligence officer from 1964-66 before serving in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993. He also served as President Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff before holding the positions of Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama.

As Director of the CIA, Panetta oversaw the operation that led to the discovery and death of Osama Bin Laden following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Public service is about making a difference in the lives of others," Panetta said. "I have had the opportunity in all of my public service jobs to have had some impact on other's lives. But, the pre-eminent accomplishment I think was as Director of the CIA and the planning and overseeing of the mission that brought Bin Laden to justice."

Panetta said as they began that day, they had no way of being certain Bin Laden was at the complex, but they trusted the work of the intelligence officers and the Special Forces team on the ground to go forward and see the mission through.

"We felt, and certainly I felt, that we had enough evidence that we should proceed with the mission, and thank God the president felt the same way," Panetta said. "I can tell you, when we got the code word Geronimo that they had gotten Bin Laden, there was a tremendous relief amongst all those who worked on it and we felt suddenly that all of the work and all of the sacrifice involved was worthwhile."

While at the CIA and Department of Defense, Panetta helped enact changes to policies that made the groups he was overseeing more diverse and opened the doors for more people to serve.
This included overseeing the repealing of "Don't ask, Don't Tell," which applied to LGBTQ members of the military.

"I think everyone should have the opportunity to serve. My experience has proven that everyone has the ability to serve effectively and honorably for this country," Panetta said. "I really believe that our country is much better when we allow everyone the opportunity to serve in uniform. We all owe it to our country and the strength of our country is based on the respect of the dignity of every individual. To have those individuals represented in our military force I think is a very important message to the rest of the world about what the United States of America is really about."

Panetta will be honored with the Thayer Award during a dinner in his honor tonight in the Cadet Mess Hall. During the dinner, he will address the assembled Corps of Cadets who upon graduation will work to uphold that motto of "Duty, Honor, Country" in their own lives of service.

"I have looked into their eyes on the battlefield of Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere throughout the world," Panetta said of West Point graduates. "What I saw was a total devotion to the service of their country. Duty, Honor, Country, I think is more than a motto. It is their lives. They are putting their lives on the line in order to protect their country. I have always been greatly impressed by that total commitment to our nation.

"Basic to the ability to do the job has been a respect for Duty, Honor and Country. If those values are there, I think our country will always not only survive, but thrive in the future," he added.

A Brigade Review will be held on The Plain at 5 p.m. today and the Thayer Award dinner will be begin at 6:30 p.m.