Gen. Creighton Abrams, the legendary leader tasked with reorganizing our Army into an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War, spent much of his time thinking about how to get – and keep – great Soldiers.
His conclusion was simple: “There must be, within our Army, a sense of purpose. There must be a willingness to march a little farther, to carry a heavier load, to step out into the dark and the unknown for the safety and well-being of others.”
That focus on purpose has been on my mind a lot lately.
I often say you can get Soldiers to move mountains if you ensure they have four things: a gym, hot chow, the Internet and a purpose. I believe deeply that in the same way we prioritize staying current on our soldiering skills – marksmanship, physical fitness, doctrine – we must also prioritize staying in touch with the sense of purpose that inspires us to put on this uniform day after day, year after year.
Soldiering is not an easy life: the deployments, the long training events that keep us from home and family, the physical requirements, the losses of our brothers and sisters in combat, the knowledge that our lives can be held hostage to the whims of global events far outside our control.
Yet still we serve, still we sacrifice – the less than one percent of us who wear this nation’s cloth.
That is the question I pose to each of you and the question I encourage you to take some time thinking about this month. Our Army values demand much of us: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal service. Why did you first answer that call? Why do you still?
I’ve shared with you that my original purpose was the influence of my grandfather, a Filipino Scout who risked his life fighting with the American Army against the Japanese. Later, part of my purpose was to honor my father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran and battalion commander. Today my purpose is quite simply the unparalleled American Soldier and the opportunity to influence and impact the men and women who will continue the legacy of the greatest fighting force on earth.
Maj. Gen. Lloyd Miles, who lost a leg in a live-fire exercise while a battalion commander at the 101st Airborne Division, later wrote memoir called, “Why I Stayed.” In it, he described the professionalism of the Soldiers who saved his life as he lay bleeding out on a Fort Campbell training area and knowing he wanted to continue to serve with heroes like that. After more than a year of healing at Walter Reed, he continued to serve and lead, becoming a brigade commander in Iraq and eventually the deputy commanding general of I Corps.
Studies have shown that people who feel a deep sense of purpose in their lives have lower mortality rates and longer lives. It’s not hard to translate that into seeing how meaning and purpose can extend the time we happily wear this uniform.
At one of our recent hail and farewells, a retiring NCO put it best. He said, “We don’t have to be Soldiers. We get to be Soldiers.”
Let me close with this: In the weeks since the situation in Afghanistan spiraled so quickly, I’ve seen and heard troops ask one question more than any other: “Was it worth it?”
I read an article by a veteran who had been pondering that question. He’d come to a conclusion that was very focused on the purpose – not necessarily the outcome – of what we do. He wrote, “The sacrifice in Afghanistan tells a story. It tells the story of men and women who loved each other and died for each other. It tells the story of people who chose to leave hearth and home and place themselves in harm’s way to confront a terrible evil.”
He went on: “The purpose of sacrifice is not transactional. A sacrifice does not become “worth it” only if that sacrifice yields immediate, tangible returns … Instead, a virtuous sacrifice is transcendent. It’s an expression of duty and faith that has enduring power, and that power is often not fully perceived within our lifetimes.”
Those eloquent words reminded me that having a solid purpose – and taking time to reflect on that routinely – will carry us through even the most difficult times.
Many of you have probably seen the now-iconic photo of a young Marine gently cradling both her weapon and a tiny Afghan baby at the airport in Kabul. You can see courage and resolve – and an absolute sense of purpose – in her face.
It is my greatest hope that when each of us look in the mirror we see the same.