The day after former CIA director Robert Gates went from being a university president to President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, he flew to Iraq. There, Gates said Friday, he noticed something about U.S. troops that he always thinks of when visiting college campuses.
“I was struck by the fact that nearly all of them were the very same age as the college students I’d just left behind, except these 18- to 25-year-olds were wearing full body armor, carrying assault rifles, living in awful conditions and in harm’s way,” Gates said Friday, addressing University of South Carolina graduates at their commencement ceremony at the Colonial Life Arena.
“They were putting their dreams on hold so that you could pursue yours.”
To repay those troops, and the state and nation that “have already given you so much,” Gates urged the graduates to discover what drives them and “pursue it with all your energy.”
The new graduates do not need to deploy to a war zone, move to a developing country or “bury yourself in a cubicle by the Potomac” to give back, Gates said.
“Everywhere there are children to be taught, veterans to be healed, roads to build, communities to strengthen,” he said. “Building a good business, staying involved in your community – you render public service in multiple ways.”
The message resonated with Ricky Benson who graduated Friday from the Darla Moore School of Business.
Gates’ speech connected the “people who make it possible for us to go to school” with “what we’re responsible for after we graduate: to make America better,” Benson said.
For Benson, that connection between college and public service always has been clear.
Having enlisted as an Army medic after high school, the 26-year-old from Daleville, Ala., served stateside for four years. During that time, he received an Army scholarship to go to college and return to the military as an officer, a second lieutenant.
On Thursday, Benson was commissioned in the U.S. Army Reserve, where he hopes to bring his knowledge of managing supply chains to his service.
Gates, a former Texas A&M president who was appointed chancellor of the College of William and Mary last year, said he has been accused of being a lot of things, but a “starry-eyed optimist is not one of them.”
“When an intelligence officer smells the flowers, he looks around for the coffin,” said Gates..
But, Gates added, “If you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve – no matter how outwardly tough, or jaded or even egotistical – are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists and optimists.
“We actually believe that we can make a difference, that we can improve the lives of others.”