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Your moment in history.

James G. Roche, secretary of the Air Force

Commencement address to the graduating class, St. Thomas Aquinas College, Sparkill, N. Y., May 9, 2003

Thank you Dr. Badgett (Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs) for your kind words and gracious introduction.

Madam President, distinguished trustees, Reverend Parsons and Rabbi Pernick, Senator Schumer and Senator Morahan, faculty and guests, graduating students, proud parents and family members, it is my great pleasure to join with each of you at these commencement exercises to congratulate these graduates on the achievements that gave rise to their arrival at this time and this place in the history of their lives. Whether they're earning a graduate degree, a Baccalaureate, a professional certificate, or an Associates degree, today they become graduates of St. Thomas Aquinas College, and with this great achievement, complete a major chapter in their lives.

As someone who was educated by Adrian Dominican Sisters, I can say to you graduates, you can feel justifiably proud of what you have achieved; for today, you fulfill the objectives of this great institution--to continue the heritage and spirit of its founders, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill. With your graduation, you realize the mission of this school, to enlighten the mind. And, in doing so, you exemplify the values of your namesake, St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived his life in pursuit, not of knowledge, but of truth. St. Thomas Aquinas College is a dynamic institution with a thoughtful, purposeful past, a resourceful, dramatic present, and an important, vibrant future. As graduates of this school, you now, more than ever, become part of this distinguished and life-long legacy. By the way, I'm proud to tell you that the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management is an alumna of St. Thomas Aquinas College.

I want to extend a special thanks to the President and Chief Executive Officer of St. Thomas Aquinas College, Dr. Margaret Mary Fitzpatrick, who invited me to share this special day with you. She and her staff have pursued the mission of this College with energy and vitality, and, through their relentless efforts, are propelling the growth and progress of this institution into the 21st century.

I would also like to express my deep gratitude for the honor you will bestow on me today with the award of the Doctor of Commercial Science honorary degree. As one who appreciates deeply the value of learning as a life-long endeavor, I am humbled and moved to join you as an honorary alumnus of this great school. I now have a total of three earned degrees and two honorary degrees. Although, some of my classmates from my undergraduate days may tell you that my bachelor's degree was an honorary one as well--but I know you won't believe them.

When President Kennedy was granted an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1963, he announced sardonically that he had achieved the best of both worlds--a Harvard education and a Yale degree. Now, as a recipient of degrees from both Harvard and St. Thomas Aquinas, I might say that I have the best of both worlds--a Harvard education and a St. Thomas Aquinas degree! But, I believe that I also would enjoy a St. Thomas Aquinas education as well.

To the class of 2003, I commend your hard work and diligence over the past few years. Today, we are gathered to celebrate the results of those long hours you have spent in libraries and laboratories, in seminar rooms and dormitories, and across that great cosmopolitan educational environment that is the city and environs of New York. Hopefully you spent more time in the library and the labs than you did in the city, but I expect for some, the lure and luster that is the Big Apple played a valuable role in your education as well. Yet, I suspect during your college years, you personally experienced the three foundations of learning included in the widely noted proverb: "seeing much, studying much, and suffering much."

Today, we mark a great milestone in your lives. The diplomas you receive are not merely a tangible reward for completing a prescribed program of study--they are also a signpost toward the wonderful, scary, and ultimately, fulfilling thing that happens to us all after college, called real life. You will be challenged, but as STAC graduates, you will be up to it.

Emerson once said: "The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education." In this spirit, I challenge you to look upon these diplomas not as the brass ring that marks the culmination of your ride in the carousel of college life, but rather as a stepping-stone on a continuous journey of inquiry, discovery, and service. Persist in your quest to become a responsible citizen of our nation and the global community. Strive to become a leader who can shape the future and create a better world for our children and grandchildren. Use the broad foundation your liberal education has provided you as the means to serve the communities from which you came. And, I can assure you, that in this increasingly technical world, your education will be of great value as you meet the challenges of the future.

Although born as a charity case in Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn just before World War II, I too was blessed with a liberal arts undergraduate education; and, my earned degrees were made possible by the taxpayers of the United States through the United States Navy. Hence, the foundation of my American dream is composed of both education and service, and my experience combined the two in a way that allowed me to prepare for national service physically, mentally, and yes, spiritually.

As I tackled the tough technical and humanities curricula of my era, I also learned that the American dream is based on a universal system of values that combines simple truths with bold vision. These ideals are often less appreciated by those who have not sacrificed to secure them, with the costs of liberty coming at a much higher price for previous generations of Americans than yours or mine. Let us never forget the high costs of freedom.

Yet, as residents of this community and graduates of an institution that is close to the greatest city on this planet, I do not need to remind you of the tenuous and fractured world into which you graduate, or the challenges to freedom we face around the globe.

It is a vitally important time in the history of our nation and, for that matter, for modern civilization as we work to solve the challenges posed by the new threat of global terrorism. The American future is one that either we can make for ourselves, as New Yorkers have done for years, or one which we can have thrust upon us. No longer can we rest on the protections of geographic isolation and friendly neighbors, nor can we put off tough choices until the future arrives; too often, it is then too late.

More troubling, our position of immunity is being eroded as more nations and rogue groups obtain the capacity to project power over long distances, and as the nature of warfare itself continues to evolve. Quite apart from the attacks of Sept. 11, we can foresee threats posed by ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and smuggled chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. We can foresee the prospect of new kinds of attacks, such as computer network attacks, in which distance is less important and our traditional defenses will likely provide little protection.

For those of us charged with protecting America, these realities have forced us to redefine our enemies as well as our concepts of defense. It is these new challenges--challenges that were intensified, but not created by the events of 9/11-that underscore the value of our Air Force to our nation.

The capabilities American Airmen deliver--basically global reconnaissance and strike, and the mobility assets that make it all happen, often in enemy-controlled or politically sensitive areas--these are exactly what America needs at this time in our history. Operation Noble Eagle--over the United States--began the moment the Air Force was notified of the hijackings. Operation Enduring Freedom, our fight against terrorism, began less than a month later. The men and women of the Air Force made possible distant operations in a landlocked nation for the first time in our history. Everything going into Afghanistan moved by air, even the Marines that came ashore via ships transferred to Air Force aircraft to be flown into Afghanistan. In short order, but not without costs, we liberated that nation and have set it on a course of reconstruction.

In the past month in Iraq, we have again liberated an oppressed people and have begun the process of rebuilding in a very difficult tribal and political climate. That operation also featured the most dramatic illustration to date of what a coalition can accomplish with a just mission, high technology, a commitment to joint and combined military operations, and the bravery and creativity of magnificently trained soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of several countries. Because we owe it to them, for the example they set in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is imperative that we succeed in the rebuilding effort in Iraq and the wider effort to assure stability and self-determination in the region.

To meet these continuing challenges, our future will require innovation, it will feature technology, it will demand creativity--in other words--all the elements of a solid education of the type you have received here. It will require the transmission of civilized ideas and the values of a freedom-loving nation. The community needs people who can think and reason, who can understand ideas outside their disciplines as well as within. We must have teachers, business leaders, military leaders, scientists, engineers, and technologists who are also citizens, who are so sensitized that they can recognize opportunities and problems, and so motivated that they want to solve them. Those who can combine a liberal education with technical understanding will lead our country in this new century.

For the faculty, you have prepared a generation for a bright and fulfilling future, even as you undertake research and writing that will stretch the boundaries of your fields for your successors. To the graduates, I encourage you to use this philosophy to chart a course of service to your nation and to prepare those who will follow.

As Secretary of the Air Force, I can assure you that our Air Force is headed in a similar direction. There is a real and significant role for the liberally educated in our military today. Future wars will require many forms of our nation's power: economic, diplomatic, financial, law enforcement, intelligence and overt military capability. To succeed in this complex new world, our leaders will require knowledge of history, economics, religion, finance, psychology, technology, game theory, decision analysis--even chess--among many other disciplines.

In these times of conflict against a new kind of enemy, we are reassessing how we think, and adapting to a new form of warfare. We seek to develop thinkers, leaders, and professional men and women of high intellect and unquestioned skill. If we hope to preserve freedom, we cannot--and will not--depart from this course.

In our recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, our airmen demonstrated an appreciation for these new demands, taking into account tribal history; religious concerns; the value of food, water, and humanitarian aid; and the enduring power that respect for human life can have on a people yearning for liberty--all while carrying out their demanding missions with professionalism and excellence.

Our relentless development of competent airmen who understand these demands and who are prepared to operate in these environments is the difference between excellence and mediocrity, success and failure.

Most of you surely began your academic experience here with confident expectations about the future. That perspective changed dramatically when our nation was attacked by a hateful band of terrorists that abhor our freedoms and values. But the problem for these terrorists is that they missed, very far off target, the bedrock upon which our nation stands--the magnificent civic foundation that continues to attract people to our shores and our universities and our enterprises and our culture.

From my years of education, I've learned to break a problem down to its essence, to ask first principle questions, and to rigorously test one's assumptions and hypotheses. Ladies and gentlemen, at its essence--who we are and what we stand for--as citizens of the civilized world, is not something than can be bombed, exploded, or taken away. America is not a building designed in the shape of a skyscraper or a Pentagon. America, in its essence, is not about land, or wealth, or technology--or even a high standard of living. America is not just people, or those whom we nurse, those whom we mourn, or those whom we salute. America is an idea, a grand and on-going experiment like no other in the history of mankind. It is a dream; founded upon an idea rather than a nationality or a religion, and guided by the most enduring and sensible framework of government our world has ever known. And it is a prospect of the future, a future that harnesses the disciplines of science, the creative energies of art, the lessons of history, and the moral order that derives from the rule of law.

I have every confidence that the American people, our allies and citizens of the world will remain resolved to persist in--and yes, prevail--in our fight against terrorism, because it is a war between freedom and fear. It is not a war against a people or a religion, but against a familiar enemy--tyranny, a hatred of liberty, and the rejection of human dignity. I have the confidence reflected by another observer of the American idea, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote more than 150 years ago:

 "Americans alternatively display passions so strong and so similar,
 first for their own welfare and then liberty-that one must suppose
 these urges to be united and mingled in some part of their being.
 Americans in fact do regard their freedom as the best tool of and
 the finest guarantee for their prosperity."

It was in this spirit, during a now famous commencement address 40 years ago next month (June 10, 1963) that President John F. Kennedy issued a similar challenge. Hoping to resume the mission of Woodrow Wilson to encourage a revolution in human rights, not just within the United States but for the entire planet, he invoked Wilson's challenge that: "every man sent out from a university should be a man of this nation as well as a man of his time."

I am confident that the men and women who carry the honor of graduating from this institution understand the imperatives of this era, are willing to sacrifice for a higher calling, and are prepared to give their talents and lives in the pursuit of pubic service and public support. And, let us not forget, as President Kennedy so eloquently spoke:
 "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we
 all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all
 cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal ... But
 wherever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the
 age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together."

There are also heroes in peace, just as in conflict or in the extraordinary times when ordinary men and women are called upon to perform extraordinary acts. We've witnessed countless courageous deeds in the tragedies of this new era--by policemen, firemen, the military--and ordinary citizens. As you cast your gaze across the commons today, you will find future heroes in abundance--the citizens and loyal servants of our republic who stand at the precipice of a daunting but exciting future. The graduates of St. Thomas Aquinas, prepared to step into the breach of service to peace, freedom and the perpetual education of yourselves and those who follow.

May you always be guided by a higher purpose. May you always recognize that you are part of a bigger plan. And, may you always draw strength from a greater power.

As you contemplate your future path, I implore you to answer the call as Isaiah did when the Lord asked: "Whom shall I send? And, who will go for us?" Isaiah simply said, "here am I, send me."

Your moment in history is now--let service--whether military or in civilian pursuits--be your call to arms. Thank you all very much, congratulations, and God bless you and God bless America.
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Title Annotation:Air Force secretary James G. Roche
Publication:Air Force Speeches
Article Type:Transcript
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 9, 2003
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