Recently, I was honored to offer remarks at the commissioning ceremony for 20 cadets from the Temple University Army Reserve Officer Training Corps “Red Diamond” Battalion. This was a truly inspiring event (and not only because it was held at Lincoln Field where the Philadelphia Eagles play). Rather, as the years of Army service add up, it’s easy to forget professional milestones and personal achievement moments like these. It was a joy to see these men and women complete their cadet journeys and begin their service as officers.
I’ve posted my remarks below, which focus on two areas: People and Competence. You can view the entire ceremony on Facebook at this link and I hope that many of you (not just new officers) will find these thoughts helpful.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, Temple University and ROTC alumni, family, friends, and fellow service members…thank you for allowing me and my family to join you in celebrating this group of 20 soon-to-be officers as they begin their journey of service.
Before I proceed with my best twelve minutes of inspiration and advice – which may very well be forgotten the second you see those gold bars on your epaulets – allow me to recognize the group of people seated in the stands who helped make this moment possible. I’m talking about the parents, siblings, loved ones, instructors, and mentors who planted seed after seed into these men and women, year after year, in hopes that they would one day reach the level of achievement we are about to witness. Thank you for that selfless investment in them, as well as the persistent faith in what they could achieve. Cadets, please join me in a round of applause for those who helped you get here.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Gouverneur K. Warren. And that’s ok. Perhaps some of the history lovers in the audience might recognize his name. Gouverneur K. Warren was born on January 8, 1830 and began a journey of service that 33 years later, put him on top of a large rock 4 miles south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at a crucial moment in American history. His actions that day in fact turned the tide of American history and relate to the two key concepts I’d like you to consider today: People and Competence.
In case you haven’t spent time in the Army messaging stream recently, the United States Army’s number one priority is…people. Now, why would the Army publicly and officially state that People are a higher priority than Readiness, Modernization, Training, and many other options? Because people are the heart of everything we do. Our profession is organized around the fundamental principle that we can achieve any mission when competent individuals trust one another and then work together to form cohesive teams. Not only can we achieve any mission…this is the pathway to achieving EVERY mission.
The strength of our Army comes from the diverse backgrounds, unique talents, and individual personalities that each and every one of you bring to the team. Despite what is portrayed in most military movies, the goal of military training is not to strip away the civilian self and replace it with a new, disciplined, hard-nosed military identity.
The goal of the training you have just completed…and the goal of your continuing leader development in the Army…is to weave your exceptional attributes into the profession while preparing to win the next fight.
This means that your gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation…your childhood experiences, personality quirks, skeptical point of view, your sense of humor…these aspects of your authentic self are not at odds with the institution, they make the institution stronger, and they will add value to those you will serve with throughout your career.
This People Lens, if you will, is the first lens through which we view our service, our operations, and our leadership. This is the mindset you must have as you step into officership. As an Army leader, when you step in front of a team, you should see people first.
The second concept I’d like you to consider today is competence…because an Army of cohesive teams who can’t fight won’t get us very far, will it? Beginning in just a few moments…your job…is war. The United States has given us the exclusive authority to apply discriminant violence in its defense. No other profession has this responsibility. And the American people…these American people sitting in the audience…trust us to be ready for any fight.
As company grade officers, you must become experts on your weapon systems and the doctrine used to employ them. Whether that weapon is a rifle, a tank, an aircraft, a trauma cart, or a stack of policies and regulations…we are counting on you to know them, cold. I’m not talking about a loose working knowledge. You must have an active expertise, a passion for understanding the inner workings of the tools you use and the formations you lead.
History has shown that we do a poor job of predicting where the next fight will take place…so you must be ready to win in any environment, in the worst conditions, day and night. The Non-Commissioned Officers you will soon lead have been doing this for years. They will help you, but you have the responsibility to match their level of competence and then lead them in any fight.
As junior officers, your job is the fundamentals. Do the basics, over and over and over again, until you reach reflexive competency. Then make the conditions harder and do it again. Do this for yourself and your platoon, staff section, or whatever team you’re on. Lead from out front, by personal example, while upholding the standards and discipline set forth. We are counting on you to do this. We are counting on you to be competent and ready.
Trust and Competence at Gettysburg
Gouverneur K. Warren was a Brigadier General in the Union Army on July 2, 1863. He was a staff officer, the chief engineer for the Army of the Potomac. As Confederates from General Longstreet’s Corps attacked the Union left flank south of Gettysburg, Warren positioned himself on a rocky outcrop to assess the situation. Finding Little Round Top unmanned, he immediately recognized the extreme risk to the entire Union line.
As the Confederates approached, Warren rushed down from the hill to try and convince formations from Sykes’ V Corps to divert from their line of march and defend the key terrain at Little Round Top. Imagine this…here we have the Union Staff Engineer trying to tell sitting brigade commanders to change their mission and follow his orders. Who thinks that would go well? What kind of trust would have to be in place for them to listen to Warren?
Well, the commanders took the Engineer’s recommendation and turned to the southeast. Warren then personally emplaced two Infantry brigades and an artillery battery to hastily defend Little Round Top. Warren stayed through the fighting despite being shot in the neck, witnessing the 20th Maine counterattack with bayonets as a last resort. Ultimately, the Confederates were unable to flank the Union left and halted their advance.
Though a staff officer by position, Warren acted and led with the decisiveness and authority of a senior commander. He was competent enough to recognize the danger to the Union line, and had previously earned the trust of his fellow officers, such that they followed his orders at the decisive point of the battle. People and Competence. Gouverneur K. Warren’s actions that day were instrumental in preventing a catastrophic attack, which turned the tide at Gettysburg and ultimately the entire Civil War.
You, soon to be Second Lieutenants in the Army of the United States, will face similar challenges where your competence and the trust you’ve earned as a leader may prove decisive. We know you will be ready.
Now, you have the honor of taking the Oath of the Commissioned Officer, which I will reaffirm alongside you. I’d like to highlight the fact that our Oath is unique among militaries because we do not make our commitment to a person, or a political party, or a government agency. We make our promise to support and defend a document…the Constitution of the United States…the origin of our democracy. This means that when the winds of political drama, bureaucratic wrangling, and societal upheaval color the American landscape…the foundation of your service is clear. Your loyalty is first, and always, to the Constitution. And that is a privilege we celebrate here today.
Thank you again for inviting me and my family to join you on this special occasion. I congratulate you for earning your undergraduate degree and for volunteering to join the profession of arms. We have full confidence in you. Lead well.