By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
May 30, 2007 – Today's brand-new Air Force officers need to live up to a higher standard, even though doing so may take them along "a difficult and lonely road," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. nder blue skies at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Gates spoke to the 976-member graduating class during its commencement ceremony in a packed Falcon Stadium.
Gates told the class that relying on elements of personal virtue will leave the graduates above reproach as leaders.
"There is only one way to conduct yourself in this world, only one way to remain always above reproach," he said. "For a real leader, the elements of personal virtue -- self-reliance, self-control, honor, truthfulness, morality -- are absolute."
Gates noted that this class, the academy's 49th, is one of the first whose candidates began their application process after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And, despite an uncertain future, the candidates chose a military career.
"You knew the dangers of the world you were entering, but you still chose to step forward," the secretary said.
The world is more complicated now than when Gates was commissioned as an Air Force second lieutenant in 1966, he said, adding that the challenges the graduates face will test their "spirit and resolve." But, he said, it is now time for the graduates to put into practice the principles of leadership taught at the academy.
"The time for words has now passed. From this day forward, you will have to demonstrate that you can live up to the standards you were taught," Gates said.
He said the U.S. military is unique in the world in terms of how heavily it relies on the judgment and integrity of its junior officers. The secretary warned the newly commissioned officers that their path as leaders will "rarely, if ever, be easy" and called on them to do the right thing, even if it means personal sacrifice.
Failures of leadership, even in the military, are typically not because of leaders' capabilities, Gates said. Instead, they happen because leaders chose personal gain over the long-term interests of the service.
In a light moment, Gates joked about seeing "dancing cadet" Jeffrey Pelehac's Internet video. Pelehac gained dubious renown when he was a sophmore in 2005 after his roommate placed a candid video of him dancing on the Internet. "Yes, I've seen the video. Don't give up your day job," Gates quipped.
Later in his speech, Gates addressed the same technology that made Pelehac infamous, saying it could work against the graduates as leaders and make the decisions they face even more difficult.
"We live in an age where friends and enemies alike will seek out and focus on any and all mistakes made under great stress, where the irregular battlefield will present life-and-death decisions, often with no good choices," Gates said, "where the slightest error in judgment or even the perception of an error can be magnified many times over the Internet and on TV and circulated around the globe in seconds."
Gates warned the graduates that even their supporters will scrutinize their actions and that expectations are high.
"You can never be content to be merely good citizens," he said. "In everything you do, you must always make sure that you are living up to the highest personal and professional standards of duty, service and sacrifice.
"And when you are called to lead, when you are called to stand in defense of your country in faraway lands, you must hold your values and your honor close to your heart," Gates said. "You must remember that the true measure of leadership is not how you react in times of peace or times without peril.
"The true measure of leadership is how you react when the wind leaves your sails, when the tide turns against you," Gates continued. "If at those times you hold true to your standard, then you will always succeed, if only in knowing you stayed true and honorable."
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