‘You Must Be Great Citizens’
Robert Gates Addresses Cadets After Receiving VMI’s Byrd Public Service Award
LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 26, 2012 – Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told cadets of the Virginia Military Institute that a task they face upon graduation is to prevent a chasm developing between the nation’s professional military and its citizens as the United States continues with the longest war in its history.
Gates made the comments as he received the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. ’35 Public Service Award in a ceremony conducted in Cameron Hall Oct. 26 with the entire Corps in attendance.
“My congratulations to all the cadets, the rats especially, for having made it through a VMI experience that tests you in every possible, and perhaps in some impossible ways,” said Gates. “The graduates of this institution are not average citizens, and so you cannot be content to be merely good citizens; you must be great citizens.”
The training of citizen-soldiers is especially important now, as the gulf between members of military and the wider public grows greater than ever.
“Reconnecting the citizen with the soldier – or the airman, sailor, or marine – is so important because a civil-military divide can expose itself in an ugly way during a long and frustrating war,” said Gates.
“Military and civilian leaders alike must be cognizant as we enter a delicate and difficult transition phase in the Afghan campaign, an effort of which the American public and an increasing number of politicians have grown weary, even as so many of our military leaders believe we are on the right track and succeeding.”
Gates highlighted the legacy of service at VMI, and reminded the audience of the character that a life of service requires.
“Despite the sacrifices, hard work, and the calumnies to which a person can be exposed, what drew [Gen. George C.] Marshall and countless others from this institution and from every corner of the country is a willingness to serve a cause higher than their own comfort, their own convenience, and their own self-interest,” said Gates.
Gates stated that those who serve their country are idealists at heart, who believe that their contributions can make a difference in individuals’ lives and in the course of the nation. He used his own experience as validation of that belief.
“I joined the CIA in 1966 to defend our country against the Soviet Union, and, with any luck, to bring down the entire rotten structure,” Gates recalled. “Imagine my satisfaction when, 25 years later as director of the CIA, I watched that evil empire crumble, liberating hundreds of millions of people and ending what had been the near constant threat of nuclear annihilation.”
Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, superintendent, introduced Gates with a recounting of his long government service. That service, he said, qualified Gates for the award.
“The award that the Virginia Military Institute will bestow on Secretary Gates was made possible by the generosity of former United States Senator Harry Flood Byrd Jr.,” said Peay. “It was established to honor distinguished public servants whose careers best characterize the ideals of the Institute: selflessness, integrity, patriotism, and courage.”
The award consists of a medallion inscribed with those ideals and a cash honorarium of $20,000, which Gates presented back to the Institute just prior to the parade.
Former Senator Byrd, for whom the award is named, was present and received a standing ovation as he saluted the assembled Corps immediately before the ceremony.
“I’m glad to see him still going strong and nearing the century mark. He is now the oldest living former U.S. senator.” said Gates, inspiring another spirited round of applause in honor of Byrd. “Senator Byrd’s life and career, beginning with his service in the Navy in World War II and through his time in the U.S. Senate, embodied the highest values of public service in this commonwealth.”
The Byrd Award was established in October 2001, and former recipients include John O. Marsh Jr., Harry Lee Carrico, Gerald L. Baliles, Sandra Day O’Connor, Elmon T. Gray ‘46, and Sam Nunn.
–John Robertson IV