WASHINGTON – Wearing the dark blue jacket of his dress uniform, surrounded by fresh-faced, scrubbed and gowned graduates on a lush green morning campus in North Carolina, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey today painted a vivid picture of a faraway reality.
"It's sunset right now in Afghanistan," he said. "Thousands of young men and women your age are either completing their day's work or just about to begin it. They do what they do because they trust each other; because they sense that they should give something back because of the opportunities that they enjoy in this country."
So they put on their rucksacks, he said, and they march out of their base camps and into an uncertain future.
"That's their way of making it matter," he said.
Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a call-to-action speech emphasizing leadership, partnership, and responsibility today to graduates of North Carolina's Duke University.
"It's terrific to see so many international students among the student body," he said. "I trust, I hope, I expect that you've formed relationships and friendships that will help us all manage an increasingly complex, and in some cases dangerous, world."
Dempsey noted that during pre-commencement events yesterday, "I was privileged, really, to welcome 11 newly commissioned ensigns and lieutenants into the armed forces, our next generation of military leaders." He invited the new service members – uniformed for the ceremony – to stand, then led a round of applause for them.
"And let's not forget today's Mother's Day," the general said. "So I also salute those of you who have nursed, nudged, nurtured, and nervously watched these terrific young men and women grow. You'll still watch them nervously, but thanks for what you've done to bring them to this point in their lives."
Dempsey noted he last stood in Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium when he received his master's degree in English in 1984, when he was a captain in the Army. He learned some things during his time at the acclaimed university, Dempsey said.
"As the product of a Catholic education and West Point, I'd actually never had to dress myself," he said. Even tougher challenges arose, he continued, and "there were moments I wasn't sure I would make it through Duke. But instinctively, I knew I had to keep trying and I had to keep learning."
The general said that even then, he had a sense that his chosen profession might lead him to an intersection with history.
"And history did find me, about 20 years after I left this beautiful campus," he said.
Dempsey said that nearly 40 years into a military career that has arced from the Cold War to counter-terrorism and the cyber domain, "Of course I'm worried about the future."
He worries about big nations becoming more aggressive; little nations developing weapons of mass destruction; religious extremism "and what it creates," the chairman said.
Dempsey noted that his worries also include "the collapse of governance along in the Mideast and North Africa; about criminal networks that move drugs and illegal immigrants and arms to and across our borders.
"I worry about a pervasive and growing weakness in national and international institutions and structures that have for decades held together our sense of order and well-being," Dempsey continued. "And yet, when I look carefully and thoughtfully at all of this, I see more opportunity than vulnerability. I remain encouraged."
He draws hope not least from "the young men and women that I find poised to lead us," he added.
People will have to think, not bludgeon, their way into the future, the general said. There will be more options, but also more ambiguity, in "dealing with the challenges we face."
"You will need to find, fix and remain true to your moral compass, or you'll find yourself paralyzed," he cautioned the graduates. "… You have to find your own way. You leave Duke with the intellectual tools to accomplish whatever lies ahead of you. But that's only half of what you need, and only you can measure the other half."
Dempsey told the graduates they have crossed the academic goal line.
"You've hit it out of the park," he said. "You've … thrown it down with a vengeance. But what's in your heart?"
Dempsey said his real worry is that they and some of their peers across the country won't confront that question.
"You'll quickly become too busy to give each moment the value it deserves," said the 18th chairman, who has spent countless weekend days and holidays playing with, singing to and just spending time with the surviving children and families of fallen service members.
"Too driven to lead personally," he continued. "Too confident to be inquisitive, too certain to be approachable. I had a mentor suggest to me once that from time to time, I ought to ask myself a very simple question: When is the last time I allowed someone to change my mind about something?"
The more responsibility a person has, Dempsey said, the more important that question becomes. Standing in sunlight on a peaceful green campus, surrounded by academic robes and the traditions of the ivory tower, Dempsey evoked the stern ethos of World War II recruiting posters.
"Let me be clear: America needs you," the chairman said. "It needs each of you, if it hopes to remain what it is and what it needs to be. We are and have it within us to remain exceptional. But you've got to make this wonderful education you've just consumed matter."
Dempsey recounted a fact of his daily life that he speaks of often. On his desk in the Pentagon, he said, sits a small wooden box filled with 129 laminated cards, each bearing the photograph of one of the 129 service members who died under his command in Baghdad in 2003-2004.
"On that box in the Pentagon, on my desk, are three simple words: Make it Matter," he said.
Dempsey told Duke graduates his hope for them is that they believe in themselves "as much as those sitting up here, and those sitting around you, believe in you."
The nation's senior military officer said he also hopes they "genuinely believe in the greatness and the exceptionalism of this country."
He advised them, "Encourage it. Criticize it. Participate in it. But above all, believe in it."
America needs leaders of consequence, he said. "No mediocrity, no bystanders, no ambivalence," Dempsey urged. " … Make it matter."