Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
University of Vermont Spring Commencement
May 23, 2010
My personal thanks to President Fogel, Senator Sanders, and the Board of Trustees for both the invitation to speak here today, and for the generosity of this honorary degree. There are few universities as closely tied, as UVM is, to the founding of our country—and the origins of the United States Army. I am most honored to accept the honorary doctorate from the heirs of Ira and Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
Congratulations to all 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. It’s been said a number of times 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.
I have just three things to say—three bits of advice I hope you’ll consider. Number one and number two won’t take long at all; three comes with a short story.
Number One: Don’t let today be the end of your quest for knowledge. Stay curious. Keep asking questions about the things you don’t know or understand. Keep challenging the explanations people often quickly offer to make the complex appear simple. Life simply isn’t that way. Grapple with the complex—do your own simplifying. In the process, challenge all the assumptions. In doing so, you will make education the lifelong journey that it should be for all of us. And, you won’t be bored.
Number Two: No one gets this far alone. So take time today 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, and guardian angels. And when you’ve finished saying thanks, pat yourselves on the back. You committed to this big goal in life, and you stayed the course. You now join the ranks of the gift-giving alumni of this wonderful and historically important university—so congratulations, all the way around.
It’s sometimes said that people succeed because they are destined to, but in truth, most people succeed because they are determined to. You have lived that statement. Now, you will have the opportunity to decide how to channel your time, your energy, and your talents productively. For some, that will be to find a job. For others, that channeling may take different directions.
That brings me to Number Three: Even as you put your time, talents, and energy to more productive uses, find ways to share them with those less fortunate. Make no mistake about it—one of life’s greatest gifts is the privilege of sharing one’s own blessings with others.
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 does not thrive this way. What is most needed are unselfish 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 really needed—people who are willing to serve the needs of others.
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 Marine Corps. In a few short months, he was in Korea commanding a platoon in combat.
In February 1953, Murphy’s platoon was held in reserve while the rest of his company attacked a heavily fortified hill. During the assault, most of the company’s officers and NCOs 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. 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 while organizing a withdrawal under fire. He manned a machine gun to cover the withdrawal, and then led a small group of volunteers back up the hill to recover more dead Marines. Wounded twice, 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, 2nd Lt. Jerry Murphy was awarded the nation’s highest award for valor—the Medal of Honor.
His record of service didn’t end there. Jerry Murphy went on to serve for 23 years with the Department of Veterans Affairs, as a counselor and Director of Veteran Services in New Mexico. After retiring from VA, 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, not in his dress blue uniform, but in his VA volunteer’s jacket. Coming from a Marine Medal-of-Honor recipient, that says volumes about the fulfillment that comes with serving others.
Jerry Murphy was first and last a volunteer, and it was his selflessness, his devotion to the well-being of his fellow Marines, that led to his heroism in Korea. And he didn’t stop serving others and being a hero when he left that hilltop—he lived the rest of his life that way. He wasn’t just randomly kind. The same shared sense of humanity that drove him up that hill time and again 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 yourselves. There are also many things you will able to do for others. Find purpose to your lives beyond simply making a living. Find something that gets you up in the morning and makes it difficult to turn in each night. If it’s serving others—full-time or part-time, public service or volunteering—I guarantee, you won’t regret it, and this country and the world will be a much better place.
Congratulations, once again, to each and every one of you—and, especially the newly commissioned lieutenants of the “Green Mountain Battalion.” Knowing what lies before you, I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat. 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.