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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Spring Commencement
College Park, MD
May 15, 2010

Provost Dr. Von Lehman, thank you for that kind introduction.

  • President Aldridge;
  • Former Congressman, Tom McMillen, University System of Maryland Board of Regents;
  • Vice Chair Butta-Cavender, UMUC Board of Visitors;
  • Provost Emeritus Dr. Nicholas Allen;
  • Nat Alston, President of the Alumni Association;
  • Soldier, Veteran, and now alumna of UMUC and commencement speaker Sarah Paterson—Congratulations, Sarah. We are all proud of you;
  • Members of the UMUC faculty and staff;
  • Graduates of the class of 2010, your families and your friends;
  • Other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Congratulations to all of you who are graduating today—an exciting time, the fulfillment of many dreams. No doubt, today is one of the most joyful days in your lives. With good reason. The work is done, the degree is in the bag, the post-graduation party is all planned, and now, the only question facing you is: “How long is this guy gonna talk?”

Not long, I promise. Someone once said that a commencement speaker is like the body at an Irish wake: They need you to have the party, but nobody expects you to say much.

Well, in addition to your commencement, today is also Armed Forces Day, set aside in 1949 by President Truman to honor those who had fought and triumphed over tyranny and oppression during World War II, creating, in the process, today’s Defense Department.

The 1940’s were a time of tremendous change, not only for the armed forces, but also for colleges and universities across the country. The original G.I. Bill was introduced in 1944. By the time it ended in 1956, it had profoundly transformed America—educationally, economically, and socially. It’s been pointed out that, in a mere 12 years, our colleges and universities produced 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, and 22,000 dentists. By the early 1960’s, more than half of the members of the United States Congress had gained their education through the original G.I. Bill.

They, and a million other college-educated Veterans, went on to catapult our economy to world’s largest—and our Nation to global leader and a victor in the Cold War, in less than 50 years. All this from a Nation that did not begin the 20th century as a world power—testimony to the transformative nature of education.

UMUC was very much a part of that transformation. Founded in 1947, in the firm belief that higher education should be available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, UMUC and the military have long shared a vital partnership in education. When I served in Germany during the 1980’s and 1990’s, UMUC was there to educate our families, something you had been doing since 1950. Wherever the Army went campaigning, UMUC went with us.

Today, UMUC is one of the largest colleges in the country, providing post-secondary education to nearly 60,000 service members at over 130 military installations worldwide—four each in Iraq and Afghanistan. The human quest for knowledge and intellectual growth is powerful, which is why you are all here today.

My encouragement to you is not to let today be the end of your quest for knowledge. Remain curious and inquire about the things you don’t know. Make education the lifelong journey that it should be for all of us. You won’t be bored.

As proud as we all are of your academic achievements, no one gets this far alone. make time to thank those who helped you get here—special professors and key members of the staff, close friends and classmates, Moms and Dads, husbands and wives, God almighty and your guardian angel. And when you’ve finished saying thanks, give yourself a pat on the back for committing to this big goal in your life and for having stayed the course to earn your degree.

It’s said that “some people succeed because they are destined to, but most people succeed because they are determined to.” Many of you juggled family, work, and school to complete your studies. You took the time and money others spent on recreation, and you invested it in an education.

Now . . . .

  • You have more time, again.
  • You own the potential for better jobs at higher pay.
  • You know what it takes to organize yourselves to achieve an incredibly difficult goal like this one, and you know down deep that you could do it all again, if necessary.
  • And more importantly, you now have the luxury of deciding how to share your time and your talents with those less fortunate. Make no mistake about it; one of life’s greatest gifts is to have meaningful purpose to what you do everyday, beyond getting up and going through the routine of making a living. Fulfilling that purpose is part of the reward.

I’m talking about more than just “random acts of kindness” here. Random acts of kindness are important, but they are not enough. The world cannot thrive this way. What is most needed are people, who are regularly, habitually, and deliberately kind—people who make caring for others a personal devotion, a part of their everyday lives. That’s what’s needed—people who are willing to serve the needs of others.

Someone once wrote that “volunteers don’t get paid—not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.” Well, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we do calculate the value of what our 140,000 volunteers provide by serving Veterans at our hospitals, Vet Centers, and cemeteries. Conservatively, they donate $240 million in labor and $83 million in donations each year—each year!

But there are things that they do that cannot be converted into dollar values. What’s the price of a thank-you? How about an hour of patience? What’s the going rate for dignity and respect for combat veterans, who have already given so much? Such values cannot be calculated, yet these are things Veterans remember and mention to me whenever we meet. We can no more put a value on kindness, than we can put a price on heroism. Kindness and heroism are not as far apart as you might think. Let me share a short story.

Jerry Murphy grew up in Pueblo, Colorado. After finishing high school in 1947, he went straight to college. Graduating four years later, he was sitting where you are now—wondering when his commencement speaker was going to wrap up.

Then, as now, the Nation was at war, and so right after graduation, Jerry Murphy joined the Marines. In a few short months, he was in Korea commanding a platoon in combat.

In February 1953, Murphy’s platoon was held in reserve as an evacuation element, while the rest of his company attacked a heavily fortified hill. During the assault, most of the company’s officers and noncommissioned officers were killed or wounded. The battered company was leaderless on the hilltop and taking more casualties.

From below, Murphy could see that something had gone wrong. He immediately seized the initiative and led his platoon up the hill into the fight, suffering painful wounds from mortar fire during the assault. Arriving on the objective, Murphy found that the numbers of dead, dying, and wounded were significant. Rallying his fellow Marines in the midst of a raging battle, Murphy began evacuating the wounded—carrying many of them himself, killing two enemy soldiers with his pistol, and re-organizing the company to enable a withdrawal under fire. He manned a machine gun to cover the company’s movement, and then led a small group of volunteers back up the hill to recover more dead Marines. wounded a second time, he refused medical attention until he had accounted for every Marine and led his rescue party to safety.

Murphy was the last man to leave that bloody hilltop. For voluntarily risking his life to serve his fellow Marines, Second Lieutenant Murphy was awarded the Nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

His record of service didn’t end there. Jerry went on to serve 23 years with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a counselor and Director of Veteran Services in New Mexico. And after retiring from the federal government, he chose to serve Veterans another eight years as a volunteer at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center.

Jerry Murphy died in 2007 and insisted on being buried in his VA volunteer’s jacket. Coming from a Marine Medal of Honor recipient, that says a lot about the fulfillment found in serving others.

Jerry Murphy was first and last a volunteer. It was selfless service devoted to the well-being of others that led to his heroic actions in Korea. And he didn’t stop being a hero when he left that hilltop; he lived his whole life as one. The same kindness, the same shared sense of humanity that drove him up that hill in search of fellow Marines, also motivated his years of service to Veterans.

With your new degree, there are many things you will be able to do for yourself, but there are also many things you can do for others. My advice and appeal to you is to find purpose for your lives. Find a passion that gets you up each day and makes it difficult to turn in each night. And if it’s serving others, either publicly or privately, this country and the world will be a much better place.

Congratulations, once again. God bless each and every one of you. God bless the men and women who serve and have served in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you.