Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel challenged the 2013 West Point graduating class Saturday to take on a leadership role in a rapidly changing Army that will face downsizing, cost-cutting and the “scourge” of sexual assaults.
In his commencement address to 1,007 new second lieutenants, Hagel said “the Army you enter today is emerging – and in many ways recovering – from more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“A new Army is being shaped and you will not only be present for it, but you will have the responsibility of helping shape it and lead it at a complicated and uncertain time,” Hagel said to the cadets and their parents assembled on the football field at West Point’s Michie Stadium.
“A new world order is being constructed,” Hagel said, “Budget constraints curtail training and cancel exercises.”
The strains on the Army since 9/11 have created a climate in which “alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and mental illness, sexual harassment and sexual assault” have become all too rampant in the ranks, Hagel said.
“You must be the generation of leaders that stop it.”
“Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal — a profound betrayal — of sacred oaths and sacred trusts,” Hagel said, echoing a theme President Obama stressed in his commencement address to the Naval Academy a day earlier.
“This scourge must be stamped out,” Hagel said. “We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens. We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other and we cannot fail the men and women that we lead.”
Hagel’s condemnation of sexual assault drew light applause from the crowd, the only time he was interrupted by applause in his remarks which were cut short because of the cold and rainy weather.
The direct message on sexual assaults was prompted by a series of recent sexual misconduct incidents in all the services that has reached the upper ranks. An annual Defense Department report earlier this month showed that the crisis was escalating.
West Point itself was rocked earlier this week by the disclosure that an Army sergeant on the staff had allegedly been planting cameras in the locker rooms and shower stalls of female cadets.
Accompanying Hagel to the graduation was a longtime friend, Harry Walters, West Point Class of 1959, who was the fullback on the undefeated “Black Knights of the Hudson” team of the era led by Pete Dawkins, the Heisman Trophy winner.
As he often does in pubic addresses, Hagel reflected back on his experience on the battlefield.
In a moving tribute, Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts while serving as a sergeant in Vietnam, told of another West Point graduate -- Robert George Keats -- who led him and his brother, Tom, in combat.
“A few months after arriving in Vietnam, Captain Keats took command of my company – B Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. Within 10 days of taking command, on February 2, 1968 – shortly before his 24th birthday – he was killed while on a mission. I was there,” Hagel said.
“Captain Keats is buried at West Point Cemetery, alongside other heroes of the Long Gray Line – including 33 of the more than 90 West Point graduates who have died in uniform since September 11, 2001,” Hagel said.
Hagel quoted from a letter Keats wrote while still a cadet at West Point.
“I am in a fight to save the ideal now. I shall be until the day I die. The world can only be saved by people who are striving for the ideal. I know we shall win, it can be no other way.”
Hagel told the class that “wherever you go, whatever you do, remember, that like Robert George Keats, you chose to be soldiers at a defining time in our nation’s history. You too are fighting for an ideal – as the Class of 2013 motto says, you are ‘defending the dream.’”The graduating class then filed forward to receive their diplomas, and render salutes to Hagel and academy officials, and take their oaths as officers.
For the last time as cadets, they sang the alma mater, which ends: “E’er may that line of gray; increase from day to day; live, serve and die we pray; West Point for thee.”