Thank You For Your Service …*

Remarks Prepared for Delivery By
Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)
Dickinson College Commencement
May 21, 2017

Thank you for that kind introduction, Mr. President.  The President said that the normal length of a commencement address is about 2 hours and 15 minutes?  Is that OK?  Everyone comfortable?  Fear not, I shall be done in a few brief moments … You will be having a beer at the Gingerbread Man in no time …

What an honor for me to be here with my beautiful wife Laura, a proud 1981 graduate of Dickinson College.  I’ve known Laura since I was 8 years old (and she was only 3 – a younger woman), but we began to date seriously and fell in love while she was studying here in Carlisle.  I owe her everything that is good in my life, starting with our two wonderful daughters … but today I am again in her debt for creating this chance to be with all of you.  I was here for her graduation day on a beautiful spring morning in 1981, and I can honestly say about the graduation speaker that day that I haven’t the faintest clue who he or she was, nor what they had to say that morningI suspect that will be my fate as well … and that is fine … because ….

The people you will remember from this day, of course, are your family members … especially your parents … so please join me in applauding them.

What I learned about Dickinson in my various appearances on campus over thirty years ago was pretty simple: Fay’s Country Kitchen had great breakfast skillets, the school has a Mermaid on top of one of its buildings (how could a Sailor not love that), and above all that it is an extraordinary place of history, learning, scholarship, and integrity – with one of the top international exchange programs in the nation.  So thank you for having me here with you.

I’ve had a long and fairly eventful life, and I will avoid over sharing with you today … but I wanted to at least put a proposition in front of you, with which I shall end my brief talk.

To get to that proposition, I have to begin with a phrase I encounter on more or less a daily basis these days.  It is “Thank You For Your Service.”  This has become a kind of tradition, a short hand if you will, that is passed along to veterans and active duty members of the armed forces quite routinely.  I served over thirty years in the US Navy, saw my share of combat operations, and spent far too many days forward deployed to the waters of the Persian Gulf, Western Pacific, North Atlantic, and pretty much everywhere else.  A couple of years ago, I totaled up the number of days I spent on the deep ocean – out of sight of land – over the course of my misspent youth in the Navy: well over a decade.  And I am indeed proud of my service, and proud when my fellow Americans thank me for it.  All of us who have been part of the armed forces appreciate the sentiment.

But I have a problem with it as well.

My problem is that by making that catch phrase … “Thank You For Your Service” … somehow the province of the military alone, we miss a crucial point.  Which is simply that there are SO many ways to serve this nation, and indeed to serve the world beyond what our military does.

Let me begin with the heroic first responders, who save so many lives everyday around this nation --- emergency services, police, firefighters.  When the airplane hit the Pentagon in September 2011, I was in my office, a newly selected 1-star Admiral, and was in the side of the building impacted by the airliner.  Over 200 of my shipmates died that day, but many, many lives were saved by the emergency response teams from the DC, Virginia, and Maryland area.  Police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians – they were all running toward the building while the rest of us moved away to safety.  In my mind, on that terrible day, they perfectly represented all of those who undertake dangerous and so often-thankless work for low pay on behalf of every one of us.  The heroes of that day weren’t wearing military uniforms.  Today I say to all of them thank you for your service.

Or members of the US Peace Corps.  They learn hard and obscure languages, take incredibly low-paying jobs, often operate in risky environments, give of themselves again and again with little or no recognition.  At The Fletcher School of Law an Diplomacy at Tufts University, I gladly welcome a dozen or more returning Peace Corps volunteers every year, and the work they do on behalf of this nation is remembered in distant corners of the world and benefits our foreign policy deeply.  I say to all of them,  thank you for your service.

How about teachers?  I have learned a lot about the various teaching programs, like Teach For America, where students spend a year or more in challenged settings here in the United States.  The vast majority of them could be starting lucrative training programs on Wall Street, or be heading into consulting or sales or a hundred other things that would “assure their future.”  But they choose to put our national future – the education America’s young students – ahead of their own personal ambition.  They stand with so many dedicated teachers all around the country who are paid well below what many could earn in the market place, but choose to teach. 

In a famous scene in the Film “A Man For All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More has a conversation with his young, ambitious son-in-law, about what he should do with his life.  It goes something like this:  The younger man demurs, says, “If I were a teacher, who would know?”  More says,  “You would know.  Your students would know.  Your family would know.  God would know.  Not a bad audience that.” Indeed, many teachers in public and private education – including my sister in South Carolina public elementary schools -- work hard for relatively low compensation, including many on College faculties.  May I say today, to our teachers, thank you for your service.

What about our nation’s diplomats, foreign aid administrators, or intelligence professionals?  I have had the chance to visit more than a hundred US Embassies around the world, and let me assure you many of them are not exactly in the safest of places.  Too many of our nation’s brave Foreign Service Officers have died on duty, in Embassy bombings, missile attacks, and assassinations.  As you walk into the CIA, you see stars on the wall – no names – honoring those killed in action.   I know their quality under fire, and they are brave and true, whether they are running an AID station, helping install a new water plant, or negotiating a vital truce.  Today I say to all of them, thank you for your service.

Journalists are so often maligned as “the media,” but I assure you that many of them do deeply dangerous work on the front lines of crisis around the world, risking their lives to tell the story.  We rely on them in profound ways we don’t often appreciate, and I have served alongside many of them who were embedded with me on missions to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Danny Pearl of the Wall Street Journal and James Foley an independent journalist and many others died in the Middle East, working hard to bring us the truth; others are captured and escape like my friend NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel.  These foreign correspondents so often shine a light on much of what is evil and wrong in the world.  They are nearly all brave and steady under fire, like the best of our military, yet they are armed only with a notepad, a recorder, and a smart phone.  Thank you for your service.

When Ebola flared up in West Africa, and earthquakes destroyed Haiti, and Japan’s nuclear reactors melted down, who “rode to the sound of the guns” the fastest?  Specialized medical personnel – doctors and nurses with deep expertise in treating victims of disasters, from radiation sickness to communicable diseases: not the specialties that pay the big bucks, but the ones that do the most good in the midst of poverty, despair, and natural disaster.  I have two son-in-laws who are doctors, one in an emergency room in Atlanta, the other a Navy flight surgeon; and a daughter who is a proud Registered Nurse.  To all in medicine who work on our behalf, I say, thank you for your service.

Who else?  We are lucky in this nation to be surrounded by entrepreneurs who wake up every morning and think about how to create jobs.  Their energy, vitality, and creativity are the spark plug of our economy.  Is there a profit motive?  Sure, but in the end, the security of our nation is not built on our guns but rather on our ideas -- and the ability to translate them into reality.  And so many of the truly visionary business leaders I meet and know well – Eric Schmidt of Google, Reid Hoffman of Linked In, Dan Schulman of Paypal, Muhtar Kent of CocaCola and many more -- are more about the job creation, social values, and the long-range future of our nation than they are about anything else.  My daughter who works for Google personifies that kind of service.  To the entrepreneurs who fuel our economy and work hard to give back, I say Thank you for your service.

Can I be truly controversial?  Think about our elected officials.  Politics has become blood sport in America, and it seems at times -- to quote the lead singer of that old 70s band, The Doors, Jim Morrison -- that no one gets out alive.  Any elected representative – at every level from city water works commission to the President of the United States -- is subject to endless scrutiny, bottomless skepticism, and often deep personal unpopularity.  The pay is low compared to what many of them could make outside of government, the hours long, the challenges and frustrations enormous.  And some of them are not perfect, just like in the military or any other group.  But they are willing to put themselves out there, to get into the arena, and the vast majority do it for the right reasons – they care about causes and the big issues and about their community, state, or the nation.  Thank you for your service.

There are of course countless others – from church volunteers to soup kitchen cooks to social workers to animal shelter operators and so many more – who serve in quiet, unpublicized ways without big compensation, glamorous award ceremonies, cool articles in People Magazine, or endless kudos.  I salute them, and when someone thanks me for my service, I will be quietly playing that kindness forward to the many others who deserve our thanks as well.  To all of them, I say thank you for your service.

Which brings me to my proposition today for each of our graduates … I hope that you will find the time in the gorgeous trajectories of your lives to serve others.  To be men and women “for others” as the Jesuits say.  That may be now … or in five years … or after your retire from your first career … or it may be something continuous that becomes the total focus of your life … or it may be merely a chapter, a verse, or a tune you play briefly.  But find the time to serve others in some way, and ask yourself frequently … what you have done this day for others?  It will make all the difference, and reward you in ways that are hard to define but central to our lives.

This ideal of selfless service was not invented here, of course.  It comes to us through the long chain of values that I would argue begins with the Ancient Greeks.  So if I may, I will close by telling you a story of service that occurred 2,500 years ago, in the Bay of Salamis, off the coast of Athens, Greece.

A Persian Fleet was besieging Athens, led by the fearsome Emperor Xerxes.  His fleet of massive triremes outnumbered the Greeks by five to one.  The Greeks knew that the battle the next morning would decide the fate of their city.  While they were decisively outmanned, the Greek Admiral, Themistocles, knew that he had one advantage – all of his rowers in the great ships of war were free men.  Each oar was pulled by a proud, free citizen of Athens; while the Persian warships were almost entirely rowed by slaves.

The night before the battle, Themistocles called his captains together and gave them their orders for the next morning.  It is said that he charged each of the Captains with four simple lines to pass to the free men at the oars.

“Tomorrow, you must row for your parents.”

“Tomorrow, you must row for your wives and your children.”

“Tomorrow, you must row for your city.”

“Tomorrow, you must row for freedom.”

The Greeks, free citizens, proud volunteers all, and devoted servants of their nation, destroyed the Persian fleet the next day.  They saved Greece.  They saved our values.  They saved democracy.

And they did it through their service.

I hope you find a time in your lives as well … when you will row, and row hard … for freedom … and for all that you value in the world. 

Because I will then be able to say to you, with all my heart, thank you for YOUR service.

God Bless you, your families, and this nation

Thank you very much.


*Portions of this speech have been adapted from various articles, speeches, and books previously published by Admiral James Stavridis.