WEST POINT, N.Y. -- From the halls of the Capitol to the Pentagon, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has spent his life serving the country that his Italian immigrant parents made the choice to call home.

Panetta served as a member of the House of Representatives, White House Chief of Staff, Director of the CIA, Secretary of Defense and more during his years of public service. He was honored for that lifelong commitment to service and his dedication to the U.S. Military Academy motto, "Duty, Honor, Country" on Oct. 4 as the 61st recipient of the Sylvanus Thayer Award given annually by the West Point Association of Graduates.

"I accept this award on behalf of the winner of the award 16 years ago, the American Soldier," Panetta said during his acceptance speech. "Because I know, at this very hour in a dangerous and lonely corner of the world, there are Soldiers standing and watching, ready to fight at a moment's notice to defend America's security and preserve the blessings of liberty for all of us. For more than two centuries, our democracy has survived because of the Soldiers' commitment to duty and honor and country."

Panetta spent the day at West Point interacting with cadets and served as a member of the review party during a brigade parade held in his honor. Panetta -- who oversaw the mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden while at the CIA, then enabled women to serve in combat positions and opened the doors to LGBTQ Soldiers as Secretary of Defense -- spoke to the cadets about what it takes to be a leader and the threats facing them as they prepare to begin their careers.

"You, the cadets of the Long Gray Line, follow in the long tradition of those who have been willing to fight and die for those values and for our country," Panetta said. "You are warriors who understand that your duty is not just to fight for country, but to make sure it is a country that is worth fighting for and an America that always remains true to its founding principles."

Following the parade, Panetta was presented with the Thayer Award and a cadet saber during a dinner at the Cadet Mess Hall. Panetta joins a list of Thayer Award recipients that includes four former presidents and many statesmen, journalists and military leaders.

Panetta said that during his more than 50 years of public service he had "no more solemn responsibility," than signing the deployment orders for Soldiers while Secretary of Defense. Each time he signed those orders, he said he would say a silent Hail Mary and pray that each Soldier he was sending overseas would return home safely to their families.

"Here at West Point, you are learning to lead Soldiers into battle," Panetta said. "That takes leadership. It takes trust. It takes the ability the work as a unit. You too come from across America. You reflect the rich diversity that is America. As warriors, you have to fight as one, trusting in one another, watching each other's back and never leaving a comrade behind."

Panetta called on the cadets to use those leadership abilities to fight for American democracy and values that have withstood the test of more than 200 years. He talked about the divide he has seen in Washington and the tribalism that has split the country, while encouraging the cadets who will be the future leaders of the Army to work with allies and fight for liberty throughout the world.

"In the face of these threats to our security, America must provide the essential leadership that we have provided since World War II to work together with our allies in the world," Panetta said. "We do not have to choose between whether we work with our allies or whether we protect our interests. It is the height of patriotism to protect the interests of our country by working with our allies to protect our security in the world. You don't have to make a choice between those two."

During his speech, Panetta spoke of the American dream that his parents pursued by moving from a small, poor town in Italy to California to create a better life for their family. He challenged the Corps of Cadets to be not just leaders in the military, but leaders for the country and stand for an America like the one that brought his parents halfway across the world.

"You have responded to the call of the trumpet, 'send me,' and now your duty is clear," Panetta said. "To serve America with honor and make sure it never ceases to be good. To protect that American dream of my parents and make sure we give our children a better life in this country and to keep our great country of, by and for the people safe and secure. Very frankly, none of this means a damn thing if you're not willing to fight for it."