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General (R) Gordon R. Sullivan Receives Thayer Award

Categories: Thayer Award, Events & Awards

A soldier of great distinction, Gordon R. Sullivan has made a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the United States Army and the Nation it defends. His adherence to time-honored values, his words, and his actions have richly exemplified the ideals of West Point, as expressed in its motto, Duty, Honor, Country.

During a military career of over three decades’ duration, General Sullivan answered the call of duty in a succession of increasingly important and demanding command and staff positions and finished his time in uniform with four years of service as the Chief of Staff of the Army. In that assignment, he focused his extraordinary wisdom, energy, and creativity on the problem of maintaining the Service’s fighting capability in a post-Cold War environment of personnel draw-downs and reductions in resources, while still preparing the Army for the future challenges of a changing political and technological world. In both pursuitshe succeeded brilliantly. Then , after retirement from active duty, General Sullivan chose to keep the Army and its vitality at the center of his concern by taking over as the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Association of the United States Army, where he has continued to benefit the national defense – and the men and women responsible for it – in countless ways.

The remarkable achievements of this son of Massachusetts and Norwich University have been both broad in scope and profound in effect, guaranteeing him a secure place in the front rank of America’s soldiers. Accordingly, the Association of Graduates is both pleased and honored to present the 2003 West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award to General Gordon R. Sullivan.


West Point, N.Y., Thursday, 2 Oct 2003

Yesterday evening, 1 October 2003, West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award was presented to General (Retired) Gordon R. Sullivan, former Chief of Staff of the Army and current president of the Association of the United States Army.

A chill wind from the northwest blew across The Plain at 5:15 pm as honors were sounded, briefly holding GEN Sullivan’s red, four-star flag horizontal. Low, dark clouds moved to the south, behind the clock tower of the West Academic Building, now Pershing Barracks, the Eisenhower wing, and the Cadet Chapel. Over towards Quarters 100, similar clouds offered occasional respite from the glaring, late afternoon sun that cast long shadows and rendered the grass of The Plain near chartreuse in color. Then the First Captain, BG Brooks (acting for the Superintendent, who was attending the funeral of his father), and GEN Sullivan mounted the jeep styled “USMA 6” to participate in the ceremonial charade of “trooping the line.” After retreat, the Corps passed in review. As the 4th Regiment approached the reviewing party, the sun was almost masked by Storm King Mountain, and a definite chill was in the air. At other Thayer Award ceremonies, the air was hot and humid, and programs were pressed into service as makeshift fans to create some semblance of a breeze, but that was not the case on this October evening-a crackling fire would have been welcomed.

After pausing before the reviewing stand to play “The Army Song”-adapted from the Field Artillery’s Caisson Song-the USMA Band, led by the Sergeant Major in his white plumed shako, marched off, leaving the field to the Hellcats, the brigade staff, and the reviewing party. The guests quietly filed onto the sidewalk, past Quarters 100 and Thayer’s statue, and on to Washington Hall. The “million dollar view” from Trophy Point was beautiful in the near twilight, with the Hudson River as still as a mirror.

The steak dinner was quite good, and the cadets assigned to each table were personable and young. GEN Sullivan rose to speak and immediately won over the cadets by announcing he had negotiated, with the Commandant, a week of “PMI status” for the Corps; that is, no morning inspections or open lockers but permission to nap. He noted that both he and his wife were graduates of the Thayer Academy in Braintree, MA, and that he was a graduate of Norwich University, founded by Alden Partridge, the USMA Superintendent who preceded Thayer and is deemed the father of the ROTC. He spoke of the influence of Thayer on his life and the life of our country: individual responsibility, values, and strength of character. Then he mentioned a question that a local journalist asked after the review: “What are you most proud of?” His answer: “I am proud to be an American soldier.”

The remainder of his remarks were addressed primarily to the Corps of Cadets. He noted that, during his most trying times as Chief of Staff, his periodic visits to West Point helped refresh his spirits because of the sheer energy of the Corps and the serene majesty of the place. He next spoke of Ike’s selfless service training troops at Camp Colt during WWI, knowing that he would be denied combat service. Then his struggles during WWII, creating and maintaining a sometimes-contentious coalition of allies. Finally, he spoke of the special relationship between Ike, the West Point graduate, and GEN Marshall, a product of ROTC at VMI.

Turning his thoughts back to West Point itself, he noted that one could feel the strife between our soldiers and their adversaries when you walk amidst the captured cannon on Trophy Point. Then he referred to a letter from Sherman to Grant in March 1864 to illustrate the concept of mutual trust. “I knew that wherever I was, you were thinking of me. And if I were in trouble, you would come to me, if alive.” Since it is impossible to predict the world situation, he emphasized that graduates must be ready the moment they moment they take the oath of a commissioned officer-just as those who had gone before. They must be technically proficient and physically fit and are expected to understand that self-sacrifice is implicit in their calling. He mentioned a letter he had received from a member of the Class of 2002 assigned to a Ranger unit. Dated Baghdad, 15 August 2003, it said, “My platoon and company were in combat when I joined them only ten months after graduation.”

Referring to a Thayer academic axiom, he noted that graduates should expect that performance to standards would be measured daily, and that West Point is about starting you (the Corps) on a road of selfless service to the nation. Because, without you, West Point merely would be a monument to past glory. Echoing the motto Duty, Honor, Country, he said the Army and the nation needs West Point exactly as it is-setting the standards for the United States Army. I cannot tell you how proud I am of this award-on behalf of my family and the soldiers who served with me.

The First Captain then presented GEN Sullivan with a mounted cadet saber, and the Cadet Glee Club-resplendent on the stained-glass-window-backed balcony above the main entrance to Washington Hall-rendered the Alma Mater prior to the final benediction. By 8:15 pm it was over, and the guests spilled out into the cool, evening air. I think Thayer would have been proud.

Your humble servant,
J. Phoenix, Esquire


Remarks by General (RET.) Gordon R. Sullivan
Upon receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award
West Point – October 1, 2003


You looked so good out there today on parade you have secured PMI status for a week!

I want to acknowledge in particular my wife, Gay, my son Mark, and our grandson Christopher who are here tonight with us. Gay, Mark, his brother Mineman Chief Petty Officer John Sullivan and his sister Elizabeth were at my side throughout my career, and without their willingness to shoulder the burdens which a Soldier’s family carry, none of what I did would have been possible.

My sister Penny and her husband Gene. He and I may be the only two Red Sox fans in the room!

And my mentor, my friend, my former boss and now my colleague, General Carl Vuono, Class of ’57, 31st Chief of Staff of the Army—a great Soldier who taught us all how to train to standard and how to make things happen while fighting and winning in Panama and Kuwait and causing us to think about the future.

Distinguished guests, supporters and friends, Cadets.

To tell you I was overwhelmed when Tom Dyer, the Chairman and CEO, Association of Graduates, called to inform me I was to receive this award would be to understate my feelings by a wide margin. This is an honor for which I honestly never considered myself to be even remotely eligible. Thank you.

My roots with respect to this award are unique. I graduated from Thayer Academy, created from the estate of Sylvanus Thayer and located on his family farm in Braintree, Mass. I then attended Norwich University. Norwich was founded by Thayer’s predecessor here at West Point—Alden Partridge.

As the historians here know, Partridge and Thayer were competitors. The competition was over an idea: Thayer wanted to perfect the USMA at West Point so it could provide the Nation with regular Army officers. And Alden Partridge, himself a USMA graduate, felt each state needed a military school for citizens to train in a military atmosphere, thus laying the foundation for ROTC and schools such as Norwich, VMI, the Citadel and Texas A&M.

So when I walk by the monument to Thayer—the father of West Point—I think of Thayer’s influence on my life and his influence on the development of our nation.

Thayer’s contributions to excellence at West Point are too numerous to mention in detail, so permit me to summarize. He believed in setting performance standards and measuring cadet accomplishment of their lessons to exacting standards–he believed in individuals accepting personal responsibility for their work and actions, and he felt that clear, frank critiques of work as it was accomplished were important. He stressed the importance of values and strength of character. If you look carefully at today’s Army—and not just here at West Point—you will see the enduring nature of Thayer’s approach.

In my case, I can look back and see his influence in the classrooms of Thayer Academy and Norwich, where the concept of citizen-Soldiers was born, and I can also see the marriage of the Thayer approach with the Partridge concept when Soldier-citizens and citizen-Soldiers became simply AMERICAN SOLDIERS. After all, your fellow lieutenants—professionals raised from different concepts and united as American Soldier-officers—will serve with you for a lifetime.

So I am here tonight as a proud Soldier who was commissioned to lead American Soldiers and who, like you, was influenced by Sylvanus Thayer. Unlike you, much of the influence of West Point on my life came from West Point graduates over the course of my career. I don’t think I’m unique.

A couple of weeks ago when I was here, I talked with the Dean. I always enjoy speaking with him because, unlike me, he always uses topic sentences, frames complete paragraphs, and leaves me with valuable insights.

This was the first time I’d seen him since the announcement of this award, so we talked about it, and I shared with him my feelings as well as some ideas regarding these remarks. He listened, and then he said: “Remember, when the Chairman and CEO of the Association of Graduates, Tom Dyer, called you, you agreed to accept the award here at West Point and to speak directly to the Corps of Cadets.”

These thoughts are for you, the Corps of Cadets.

I’ve been at West Point many times in my life. While I come for various reasons, the visits that have been particularly important were those that helped me during my days as Chief of Staff to restore my spirit and refresh me for the challenges of the moment or helped me wrestle with more intractable long-term challenges. Simply being here with you and absorbing your energy and enthusiasm—your youthful spirit—has always been a positive and exhilarating experience for me, as has been taking in the majesty of this place—the Hudson, the hills, the monuments, Trophy Point, Cullum Hall, The Plain, The Barracks, the museum and, of course, all of you on parade and at play and in your daily routine—even WGRs, WPRs and Front Boards!

While each of the monuments and plaques is important to me and, I would hope, to you, it’s the essence of the United States Military Academy at West Point that makes this place, these things, so valuable to me.

As I look at the statue of Eisenhower, I think about his selfless service at Camp Colt, Pennsylvania during World War I, as he trained Soldiers to go to France to fight. He didn’t go. I think of him laboring to create a coalition during World War II and his struggles to maintain it, all the while soothing nationalistic bruises and protecting national equities. Most of all I think about duties performed well and selflessly.

I also think about the relationship between GEN George Marshall VMI ’01 and GEN Eisenhower USMA ’15. This was an important relationship which brought an officer commissioned through ROTC together with one commissioned through USMA. You will establish similar relationships with your ROTC and OCS counterparts.

When I walk the ground at Trophy Point, I think about what it really must have been like at Antietam, Gettysburg, Chapultapec and Saratoga. While the trophies are static and well kept, the price paid to capture some of them is best seen on the walls of the Old Cadet Chapel and in cemeteries here and throughout the world, as well as on the regular Army monument at Trophy Point, and I can feel the struggles between Soldiers and their adversaries.

Without you—the Corps of Cadets–West Point, this place is nothing but a beautiful monument to the past glory of American Soldiers. It is you—your vitality and energy, your courage, your character which makes West Point so important.

Most of the places and monuments I’ve mentioned are ones you know well. You march, run or walk past many of them every day. One not so well-known is an exhibit of cadet art in the West Point Museum.

In a remote corner of the West Point Museum are two cadet drawings hanging side by side. One is of a gladiator, and the other depicts a pow-wow between an Army officer and American Indians, sitting around a campfire. How surprised I was to see these drawings were the work of cadets U.S. Grant and W. T. Sherman. Obviously, for anyone even remotely familiar with the history of America and our Army, it’s possible to have hundreds of thoughts when reflecting on these cadet drawings and the cadets who drew them: The Civil War, the Indian Wars, Reconstruction, Grant’s relationship with President Lincoln, his grace at the moment of victory, and his presidency. Certainly, Sherman comes to mind in the context of the American Civil War he also could be remembered for creating what became the Army school system as we know it today—the branch school and the Command and General Staff College.

When I look at these cadet drawings, I think of the letter General Sherman wrote to General Grant from Memphis, Tennessee, on 10 March 1864. In this letter, I find the true meaning of Soldiering in the U.S. Army—and the true meaning of a life lived with honor and character. Sherman wrote to Grant,

“When you have completed your best preparations, you go into battle without hesitation as at Chattanooga—no doubts, no reserves; and, I tell you that it was this that made us act with confidence. I knew wherever I was that you thought of me and if I got in a tight place you would come, if alive.”

In other words, he took strength from knowing that Grant was always thinking of him and that if he got himself in trouble, Grant would come to his assistance.

A Soldier’s trust—this is what I think Soldiering is all about, and I believe it is an officer’s duty to ensure all in his or her command know that the foundation upon which all of this rests is what this place is all about: service performed selflessly, and mutual trust and respect between leader and the led.

Visitors to West Point and those who even think about the USMA and the Army must understand and appreciate the powerful impact West Point has had on our Army, on America, and on the world.

When you graduate and assume your duties as second lieutenants, you must be ready to perform in the world as it is on that day. It’s impossible for me to predict with any certainty what the future holds, but I know that the expectations of us all are that, when you take the oath, you will be ready. You will be prepared and you will measure up, just as will your mates commissioned through ROTC or OCS.

There are few professions in which the leaders are required to take an oath as demanding as that of the U.S. military officer. Along with the oath come some unwritten expectations. The first expectation is that the person who takes the oath be technically proficient and physically fit. Only with such proficiency can the Soldier be expected to execute duties as a leader, and only with thorough and continuing education and training and personal development can such proficiency be born and sustained. The Army has a responsibility in this context, and you have a responsibility.

The second expectation is that anyone who takes the oath understands that self-sacrifice and yes, even death, for something more important than each of us—are explicit. West Point is where you start on the long road of duty performed with honor.

For some who may think the road begins only after a period of exposure to the rhythms of your new unit, let me read you part of a 15 August 2003 letter from Baghdad by a USMA graduate, Class of 2002:

“I want to keep you informed of what I am up to over here. . . . I graduated from Ranger School March 14th and reported to Fort Bragg a week later. By April 2nd I was on a plane headed to Kuwait. I figured I’d get to recover and spend time learning my battalion with some time as a staff assistant. My Battalion Commander says I lived every infantry officer’s dream because I was given a platoon immediately. My platoon and company were engaged in combat the night I met them.

The next morning I led my platoon as the company main effort in a raid across the bridge in the battle of As Sawana. In the morning light I did not recognize my PSG or RTO as I had not seen their faces in light. They looked very different from how I had pictured them in my mind.”

Think of this letter the next time you pass the monument to the American Soldier, up by Lusk Reservoir, and read the inscription:

Presented to the Corps of Cadets

The lives and destinies of valiant Americans are entrusted to your care and leadership.

The author of the letter from Baghdad, as many of you know, led his platoon in combat only 10 months after graduation. And he is not unique! Those brave souls he didn’t even know are the valiant Americans of the inscription. He, your fellow Soldier, was their leader, and their lives and destinies were in his hands.

If visitors to this place can appreciate your link to the symbolism of West Point—your motto, your traditions—and understand that you are the youth of America, young people who achieved and made a personal decision to come here, to be cadets and become American Soldiers and officers . . . if they can put all this together and comprehend the bond between you and the United States Military Academy and the future of our nation and our global society, then their visit will have been well worth their time and trouble.

The USMA is not about elitism; it’s not about being the sole birthplace of generals; it’s not even about being one of the world’s best leader-development institutions. Certainly, it is in part about all of these things, but it’s primarily about starting you on the road of duties performed with selflessness and courage in the service of our nation. Your time as cadets is about digesting values that will guide you and ideas about leadership techniques that will serve you and your Soldiers as you lead our warriors in dangerous and desperate times. It’s also about what you bring with you when you become an officer, for it is the intangible West Point experience, combined with the experiences of your fellow officers, NCOs, Soldiers, Army civilians and our families, that makes the American Army what it is—one of the most enduring and honorable institutions in America.

West Point and you, the Corps of Cadets, the Long Gray Line, are to be found at the very core of the American experience.

When you take your oath, you need not take counsel of your fears and apprehensions. You have been tested here at West Point as you internalized the Honor Code, labored over your lessons, and developed yourselves as leaders. Your experiences here and elsewhere will prove throughout your lives to all who come under your influence that your motto—DUTY–HONOR–COUNTRY—endures today as it has and always will.

The Army and the nation need West Point—right here where it is and where it has been since the 1800s, protecting America, producing quality officers and setting the standards for the U.S. Army.

America needs West Point because each year officers with a commitment to duties performed with courage, loyalty, competence and, above all, honor are commissioned as second lieutenants. You who serve here as members of the staff, the faculty and the U.S. Corps of Cadets provide the nation officers who understand what it means to accept personal responsibility for their actions, to perform to standard, to be honorable, and to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

When you are tested as an officer in some far-away place in the middle of the night, with only what is inside your brain and soul, and with 20 or 30 American Soldiers looking to you for guidance, protection and yes, even love, you will be up to the test because you, like almost 40,000 other members of the Long Gray Line, learned well the lessons of Sylvanus Thayer and countless others who have made West Point what it is today.

Thank you for this honor you have bestowed on me and my family.

Gordon R. Sullivan
1 October 2003

Thayer Award

Since 1958, the West Point Association of Graduates has presented the SYLVANUS THAYER AWARD to an outstanding citizen of the United States whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto, “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.”
The Sylvanus Thayer Award is funded by a generous endowment from E. Doug Kenna ’45 and his wife, Jean.

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