By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
May 20, 2007 – In a commencement speech at his alma mater today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged the graduates of the College of William and Mary to serve the greater good of the nation by voting, volunteering and participating in public service.
"When talking about American democracy, we hear a great deal about freedoms and rights, and more recently, about the entitlements of citizenship," Gates said to the more than 1,700 graduates gathered in the university's William and Mary Hall. "We hear a good deal less about the duties and responsibilities of being an American."
The secretary shared that when attending the university more than 40 years ago, he was instilled with a sense of duty and calling to serve the community and the country. It is a calling rooted in the history and traditions of the 300-year-old institution, he said.
Citing his experience as president of Texas A&M University, followed by his tenure as defense secretary, Gates said that young Americans "are as decent, generous and compassionate as we've ever seen in this country."
Despite this impression, Gates said he found it puzzling that so many young people who are public-minded within their schools and communities are uninterested, and possibly distrustful, of the nation's political processes.
"This country will only progress as a democracy if its citizens - young and old alike - take an active role in its political life as well," Gates said. He told the graduates that if they are unhappy with leaders, then they should go out and elect different ones or run for office themselves.
"But you must participate, or else the decisions that affect your life and the future of our country will be made for you -- and without you," he said, filling the hall with applause.
Gates went on to describe how the world has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, and how serving the nation has taken on a whole new meaning and required a whole new level of risk and sacrifice.
"It is precisely during these trying times that America most needs its best and brightest young people, from all walks of life, to step forward and commit to public service," he said. "Because, while the obligations of citizenship in any democracy are considerable, they are even more profound and more demanding, as citizens of a nation with America's global challenges and responsibilities -- and America's values and aspirations."
Gates praised the hundreds of thousands of young Americans in uniform who have stepped forward to put their lives on the line for their country, such as the ones he has met when traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Seeing what they do every day, and the spirit and good humor with which they do it is an inspiration," he said. "The dangers they face, and the dangers our country faces, make it all the more important that this kind of service be honored, supported and encouraged."
In a pre-commencement ceremony at the university's historic Wren building, Gates thanked Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets for choosing to serve their nation. He reaffirmed the oath of the six graduates from both William and Mary and Christopher Newport University.
"You could've chosen a different path -- something easier or safer or better compensated," he said. "But you chose to serve. You have my deepest admiration and respect -- as secretary of defense, but mostly as a fellow American."
Gates later acknowledged the cadets' commitment during the commencement ceremony, describing them are part of the voluntary military service reaching back to George Washington's Continental Army. He listed other William and Mary alumni who have also answered the nation's call to duty.
"If America is to exercise global leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and most idealistic of your generation must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service," he said. "I promise that you will also find joy and satisfaction and fulfillment."
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