WEST POINT, N.Y. (Oct. 7, 2011) -- The U.S. Military Academy welcomed former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on Oct. 6 as the 2011 recipient of the Sylvanus Thayer Award, presented by the Association of Graduates.

The award bears the name of the academy's fifth superintendent, known throughout West Point as "the father of the academy."

"For millions of Soldiers and their families, Dr. Gates has always demonstrated bedrock integrity, exceptional professional competence and unvarnished candor," West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr. said. "As secretary of defense, Dr. Gates was always focused on taking care of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines--the armed forces of the United States of America. He always set the conditions for their success and never forgot their sacrifices."

Since 1958, the award has been presented to a U.S. citizen whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto, "Duty, Honor, Country."

During his remarks to the Corps of Cadets and invited guests, Gates focused on the element of "Country" in that motto and the relationship the military has with society. Gates said the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns represent the first large-scale conflicts to have been fought entirely by volunteers since the Revolutionary War.

"A tiny sliver of America has achieved extraordinary things under the most trying circumstances," Gates said. "My hope and expectations is that when all is said and done, the country's political leadership will continue to do right by the armed forces."

It is heartening, Gates said, to see the great affection, gratitude and support toward servicemembers and their families. However, wars remain an abstraction for most Americans and are presented as distant and unpleasant news items with no personal connection. In the absence of a draft, a notion exists that military service has become "something for other people to do."

"But what I would like to focus on tonight is the risk of growing disconnect between our military and American society--not on the part of average Americans but on the uniformed side of the equation," Gates said.

Gates recollected a visit to a forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan where a servicemember said he enlisted because the military had higher standards and values than the civilian sector.

"It is rather peculiar to suggest values like integrity, respect and courage are not valued in the United States of America at large," Gates said. "If you were able to spend enough time getting around this country…you would find the seven Army Values are considered pretty important and being practiced across this great country and by Americans across the world."

He warned of a real risk of developing leadership disconnected from the majority of people they are sworn to defend, and it is his hope that the military is nowhere close to that reality.

"It does suggest that another important task for young Army leaders--for you--is to do what you can to keep yourself, through the assignments you take in your career and the choices you make in life, better connected to the American society of which you are an integral part," Gates said. "Tending this relationship between Soldier and society is something that military and civilian leaders alike must be cognizant of as we enter a delicate and difficult transition phase in Afghanistan. [It is] an effort in which the American public and an increasing number of politicians have grown weary; even as so many of our military leaders agree we are finally on the right track."

Admittedly, this was not award dinner material, Gates said, but still a message cadets should take note of as future Army leaders.

"I'm not good at fluff, and I suspect you're not very interested in fluff," Gates said. "Each of you with your talents, intelligence and records of accomplishments could have chosen something easier or safer…and for that you have the profound gratitude and eternal admiration of the American people."