On a temperate, picturesque fall evening at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker enjoyed a parade on The Plain by the U.S. Corps of Cadets and an award presentation dinner in the Cadet Mess Hall where he received the prestigious West Point Association of Graduates Sylvanus Thayer Award Oct. 1.
In a career that spanned four decades and eight presidential administrations in the U.S. Foreign Service, including 14 years as an ambassador to six countries that includes Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, Crocker spent a lifetime of work on the front lines of history serving in every corner of the Middle East in some capacity since the late 1970s.
Crocker was bestowed many honors to include President George W. Bush conferring him in 2004 the diplomatic rank of career ambassador, the highest rank in the Foreign Service, equivalent to a four-star officer in the military. He also earned the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2009.
The Thayer Award, established in honor of Col. Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of the Military Academy,” is presented to an outstanding citizen whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify the military academy’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country.” The Association of Graduates has presented the award annually since 1958.
Crocker was very humble but also a little self-deprecating about receiving the award which among the many recipients of the past include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Neil Armstrong, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger and former President George W. Bush to name a few.
“To be honest, when I was in the (Thayer Award) Room and I looked at the portraits of the other award winners, somebody made a terrible mistake,” Crocker said jokingly. “However, it’s an amazing assembly of great Americans as you look at that long line (of portraits), it’s another Long Gray Line, if you will, to match that of the academy itself.
“That also makes me feel good about our future,” he added while also talking about the current state of the country. “We’ve had great leaders, civilian and military, in the past, represented by the Thayer Award in all walks of life, and we’re going to get through this. We’ve gotten through worse and we will get through this, too.”
Crocker mentioned that his first visit to West Point was back in 1984 to speak in the Department of Social Sciences, and he returns for events about every couple of years. He said he enjoys renewing his contacts every time he revisits, but coming back to the academy always gives him hope of the future.
“Every time I come here, I always feel better when I leave than when I got here,” Crocker said. “It is not just the leading military academy in the world, it is very much the shining post on the hill — the symbol of America’s greatness and the continuity of that greatness.”
Part of that prominence is the cadets who will always be the beacon of light toward America’s future, and Crocker spoke about his message to the cadets after the parade.
“I’m going to approach this evening’s remarks with a great sense of optimism about the future of our country because I’ve just seen it during the pass and review,” Crocker said. “These are trying times for us in many respects, both at home and abroad, facing a lot of challenges. But we’re up to them because we have these great cadets committed to our country and committed to our future. We’re going to be just fine.
“Leadership out there in the real world isn’t always fun and games as there’s some tough things that come at you along the way, but it perfectly matches the slogan of this great institution — Duty, Honor, Country,” he added.
Crocker said he was also going to focus his speech to the cadets on a special community he is a part of where he lives in Washington, the Gold Star family group called Time of Remembrance.
“In my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, I stood in a lot of ramp ceremonies (which are memorial services for fallen Soldiers) and they’re very, very painful,” Crocker said. “I’m associated with a group of Gold Star families … and their loss never goes away. Their loved ones are always absent, but forever present, and I just want to remember them to our future leaders of the Army and ask them that they in turn as they step forward into the future that they remember them.”
During his speech to the cadets, he also expressed the continued need toward gender equality. He spoke highly of women he previously worked with, including previous Thayer Award recipient, Gen. Anne Dunwoody, and Secretary of States’ Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.
When Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams introduced Crocker to the audience, he spoke about Crocker’s career being, “some subtle overtones of a Tom Clancy action novel.”
That career included being in Beirut, Lebanon, during the bombing of the American Embassy on April 18, 1983, which was the worst loss of diplomatic life in American history up to that point. He was a deputy assistant secretary in the Middle East after 9/11, helping the U.S. Military negotiate refueling, overflights and basing arrangements with Arab countries that would be critical to mount a push into Afghanistan. While ambassador to Pakistan, during Operation Lifeline, after a devastating earthquake hit the rugged northern part of the country, with his military contacts, he helped put together the largest and longest humanitarian airborne operation since the Berlin Airlift, which was credited with saving thousands of lives.
“When President John F. Kennedy once challenged a generation to ask not what the country could do for them, but what they could do for their country,” Williams said. “Without a doubt, Ambassador Crocker exemplifies those words put into action. Dedicating his life and career to selfless service and diplomacy. He has lived and led honorably and with a relentless commitment to excellence to our nation and indeed the world – they are better places because of his leadership and service.”
During a career that earned him many accolades, when Crocker reflected on his career, he felt his biggest achievement, or the moment he was most proud of was when females returned to school in Afghanistan.
“It’s hard to quantify, but I do think going into Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, females at that point had been deprived of education for the six-year rule of the Taliban,” Crocker said. “One of the first things we did, at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, was establish girls’ schools. To walk into an Afghan girls’ school where the students were ages 6 to 12 as 12-year-olds never had a chance to get an education, it was an amazing experience.
“I asked one of the 12-year-olds, are you embarrassed to be here with kids half your age? And she said, ‘I don’t care who is here with me, I’m in school,’” he added. “And that was the greatest feeling. We have the finest military in the world and that military set the conditions where an awful lot of good things happened afterward, and I have always been proud of those associations.”
Crocker, who is currently a Diplomat in Residence at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, said his life of service to the country grew from his father, Howard, who served as an officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
However, while his notion of service was always there, he chose a different route working in the foreign service.
“That service is equally important to a nation’s interest,” Crocker said. “It is a message I would convey to the cadets, as they move forward with this new world disorder that those on their left and right may not always be in uniform and we’re in this together.”
Crocker’s last piece of advice he gave to cadets was to have patience and be resilient as there will be tough times ahead.
“We’ve had tough times, but we’ll get through it because we don’t quit,” Crocker said. “You never say, ‘I quit,’ ever. That is the spirit of this academy that has sent generations of officers into combat. It will continue to do so, it will send generations of officers going forward to help keep peace in the world.”