LEXINGTON, Va. - Their faces might be different, but the expectation of the 34th class of George C. Marshall award winners remains the same: effectively lead Soldiers.

As the annual event honoring the top Cadets in each of Cadet Command's 273 programs got under way Monday on the campus of Virginia Military Institute, some of the Army's top brass encouraged the soon-to-be second lieutenants to take up the challenge of leading the Army through an anticipated prolonged period of change.

"You will forever be known as a winner of the George C. Marshall Award," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Army chief of staff. "I hope that makes you feel empowered, but that you feel some sense of burden. ... We're going to ask a lot of you, and you're going to be up to the challenge."

The Marshall event - put on by the George C. Marshall Foundation and U.S. Army Cadet Command - has honored nearly 10,000 Army ROTC Cadets since it began in 1967. What separates these Cadets from their peers through the years is they get opportunities few officers ever will.

They get to interact with proven leadership. They get to learn in-depth about issues that will shape their careers. And they get to network with other Cadets who have established themselves as the sort of leaders who will successfully guide their platoons in defense of the nation.

During the two-day conference, participants are heralded for their potential. But the praise comes with a dose of reality: Their job won't be easy.

Organizers design the event around the principals of leadership practiced by the late George C. Marshall, a former general of the Army, U.S. secretary of state and Nobel prize-winner. For Cadets looking for someone to emulate, they point to Marshall as a pattern.

Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, Cadet Command's commanding general, applauded the Marshall winners on their selections. The exposure they receive during the seminar to discussions and senior tutelage will prove an invaluable resource once they commission.

"I know your quality, and I know you had other options" besides military service, McDonald said. "You represent the strength of our nation, and you will keep our Army strong."

The chairman for this year's event is retired Gen. Richard Cody, a former vice chief of staff of the Army. The fact that they have opted to serve in the military speaks to their character, he said.

"You have chosen a career that will be rewarding to you and the 310 million Americans you serve," Cody said.

Before he was sworn in as the 37th Army chief of staff last week, Dempsey spent time soliciting advice from a number of people. The recommendation one senior civilian offered was that he get a wristband that reads, "What would Marshall do'"

Marshall's leadership in and out of uniform represents the sort of lifelong commitment to values and service all Cadets should practice, Dempsey said.

Because Cadets are bombarded with information throughout the seminar, Dempsey said he realizes the event will be a blur to most. If they remember anything, he asked that they not just understand the profession of arms but learn to "feel" it.

The chief also encouraged participants to dedicate themselves to lifelong learning and to avoid simply becoming satisfied with their job.

"Master it," Dempsey said. "You're about to give this nation a great gift - leading it."