H. Ross Perot Receives Thayer Award

Categories: Thayer Award, Events & Awards

For more than fifty years Ross Perot has been an extraordinary supporter of our armed forces, our American values, and our Nation. He has served his country from positions in the United States Navy, international business, public service, and private life. Currently serving as Chairman Emeritus of Perot Systems Corporation, Ross Perot continues to contribute generously of his time, expertise, and resources in the service of our Nation.

Ross Perot’s lifetime of service to America has been multi-faceted. In his home state of Texas, he led the Texans’ War on Drugs Committee in 1979 and the successful reform of the Texas public school system in 1984. During the Viet Nam War, he spearheaded a campaign to end brutal treatment of U.S. prisoners of war in Southeast Asia, receiving the Medal for Distinguished Public Service. A decade later, when two of his EDS employees were held captive in Iran, he organized and directed their successful rescue. A presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996, Ross Perot became known as a champion of fiscal responsibility in government.

Our Nation’s warriors and their families have often benefited from Ross Perot’s philanthropic support of those who defend our Nation. Personally and through his family’s foundation, he has funded medical research and critical treatment for wounded warriors. He has also funded education, capital projects at the U.S. Naval Academy, memorials for military heroes, the commissioning of several U.S. Navy vessels, the Disabled Veterans LIFE Memorial, museums honoring our military, and special events for our Nation’s combat veterans. A great friend of the U.S. Military Academy, Ross Perot has often spoken to Cadets on leadership and service and has made generous donations to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Among Ross Perot’s numerous honors are the Winston Churchill Award, Raoul Wallenberg Award, Jefferson Award for Public Service, Patrick Henry Award, Distinguished Business Leader Award, and Eisenhower Award.

Ross Perot’s lifetime of selfless service to our Nation, our warriors, and their families, has embodied and furthered the highest standards of “Duty, Honor, Country.” Accordingly, the Association of Graduates takes great pride in presenting the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award for 2009 to Ross Perot, a truly great American.

Theodore G. Stroup ’62
Chairman, West Point Association of Graduates


Remarks by H. Ross Perot upon receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award
West Point – 15 October 2009

General Hagenbeck, General Stroup, distinguished guests, and members of the Corps of Cadets.

It is a privilege to be with you tonight in this magnificent dining hall.

In particular, I want to thank the Corps. You honor me greatly with your presence this evening.

This evening, I would like to talk a bit about the mission of West Point and the role it plays in our nation.

Here at West Point, you all understand FREEDOM IS NOT FREE. Many Americans don’t understand that. They don’t realize that freedom doesn’t come easy. That you have to earn it. That it is fragile. And that tough, brave men and women have to step forward and fight for freedom, and for all of us. You are part of a small group in our country who really understands you can’t take freedom for granted—not for a minute.

Nearly fifty years ago, General Douglas MacArthur received the Thayer Award here in Washington Hall. In his now-famous Duty, Honor, Country speech, he spoke of the nobility of the American Soldier. He said of the American Soldier: His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. You men and women of the Corps have stepped forward to revalidate that birthright for all of us and for generations to come.

It is such a privilege to be with you here this evening.

The liberty and freedom of opportunity you are protecting was not always guaranteed. I sometimes think about the immigrants who came to Ellis Island. They had nothing. When they got through immigration, they walked into New York City. They didn’t have a job. They didn’t have any money. There was no welfare program. They were on their own, and they couldn’t speak English.

But they scrambled. They got the money together. They saved their money. Wait a minute, no credit cards? No, they saved their money. They made pennies a day. They finally put together enough to head west on covered wagons. Well, how do you get a covered wagon? You had to work your guts out to get a wagon and a couple of mules. You didn’t know where you were going, but you had a dream, and you headed west.

By the way, I have had a lot of people say to me, “Why in the world did the pioneers ever stop in Texas? It’s so hot down here.” I reply, “Their mules died from the heat. They didn’t have a choice.” That was the bad news. Later on, they were on these little farms, barely making a living, and oil came in?

It all turned out fine.

You are fortunate to be at this great Academy, focused on the ideals Duty, Honor, Country. Your alma mater is one of America’s great institutions that produce leaders of character. I understand that because I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Naval Academy. There are not many institutions that teach you duty, honor, country. Every morning you should get up, look in the mirror and say I am the luckiest person in the world to be at West Point. I can guarantee you—those words—West Point—are revered around the world. And that’s coming from a Navy guy!

Over my years in business, I have had a saying when it comes to hiring: Hire character and train skills. Everything worth doing is done on a foundation of integrity and honor. Dishonest ventures and corrupt nations don’t last. That’s why America endures. It’s based on cultural character.

You have a special brand of character here at West Point. You are learning to take responsibility for other people’s lives. Your peers at civilian institutions don’t even think about that in any depth.

A leader of character instinctively makes decisions for the right reasons. Leaders of character are loyal to their followers and teammates, and they are loyal to the end. Leaders of character share hardship with their subordinates, and they take the lion’s share of the risks. Leaders of character persevere until the job is done; they are relentless when their cause is just.

This is what you are learning, and I know you are living it every day. Believe it or not, even our most elite business schools don’t teach leadership the way you learn it at West Point. The character you are refining every day and the leadership skills you are practicing are gifts few receive.

Together, they give you an advantage. It has a multiplier effect. It enables you to tap the potential of others and inspire them to be brave, tough, and honorable. We need them to be that way—to protect and preserve freedom for us all.

In the next few minutes I would like to share with you some examples of leading with character—of heroes I have been privileged to know. Some are West Point graduates; some are not. Like MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton, Al Haig, my late friend Wayne Downing and others from West Point, these great Americans are the essence of the American warrior. They are among the world’s most noble figures, to borrow the words of Douglas MacArthur.

One such leader of character was Colonel Earl Rudder. With a handful of Rangers, he started the Normandy invasion on June the sixth, 1944. He and his Rangers had to take out Pont du Hoc, a 100-foot cliff at Normandy Beach, with artillery on top of the cliff.

A handful of team members went ashore. They had “borrowed” wooden fire ladders from the British fire department. I don’t think they ever took them back. With the Germans firing everything they had at Rudder’s small team of people, they laid these ladders against a cliff, climbed the cliff, took out the artillery, fired a flare, and the Normandy invasion began—and it could not have begun if they had not been relentless in accomplishing that mission.
What a noble cause. You might say the history of the free world turned, in part, on their mission. If you ever go to Normandy Beach, make it a point to view that cliff at Pont du Hoc.

I often think of people like Major Nick Rowe, West Point Class of 1960, and an outstanding man. I think about him every day, and you say why? A picture of his wife and two little boys is behind my desk. When I see it, I think of them. Major Rowe was captured in Viet Nam in combat. He was kept by the Vietcong as a prisoner for five years. He was the only POW who ever escaped.

Keep in mind that if you were an American trying to escape in Asia, once you got out of prison, you stood out in the crowd. Many POWs tried to escape, but Nick Rowe pulled it off. He was being taken through an area by the Vietcong, and suddenly our helicopters started swarming in. The person responsible for Nick was walking in front of him. Nick realized the guard only had one magazine in his weapon and none on his body.

As the guard was struggling around and watching the helicopter, Nick quietly pinched the magazine button on the guard’s rifle and the magazine fell to the ground. The Vietcong didn’t notice it for several hundred yards. The weeds were waist high. The Vietcong asked Nick to help him find his magazine, and Nick pretended to help him, but our helicopters were swarming all around. Nick then knocked the Vietcong unconscious, ran out in the open and waved at the helicopters. There was every reason in the world for the helicopters to think that Nick was Vietnamese and that they should strafe him. The pilot of one helicopter swarmed in to fire on Nick, but said, “Wait a minute, let’s capture this guy.” Nick was waving to them and the pilot thought, “There’s something odd here.” Then he realized this might be an American. The helicopter landed. Nick jumped in the back of the helicopter. The rest is history.

He came home. He served his country in a very noble way. He then went to the Philippines on a classified assignment. He was assassinated on that assignment. What a man—what a role model—and what an example to all of us.

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Leftwich and I were members of the Class of 1953 at Annapolis. Bill was another extraordinary leader of character. He came from a wealthy family in Memphis. He didn’t have to work. But he wanted to work, and he had to be a marine. Bill was in Viet Nam. In his first tour, he received every medal but the Medal of Honor. Bill was so highly respected that when he came home he was made aide to the Secretary of the Navy. At the end of his tour with John Warner, John said, “Bill where do you want to go?” Bill said, “Back to Viet Nam.”

I was with him the night he left. We were at the Waldorf Astoria attending a dinner honoring Bob Hope—the 1968 Thayer Award recipient, by the way. Bob Hope heard that Bill Leftwich was there and asked to visit with him privately. After the evening dinner, Bill put on his uniform and went back to Viet Nam.

About six months later, the Secretary of the Navy, John Warner, called me at 3:00 a.m. crying opening saying, “Ross, we’ve lost Bill.”

Bill had been in charge of a recon battalion. Bill’s policy, not Marine Corps policy, was that anytime his men got in trouble, he personally rescued them. He had just pulled a team out of trouble using a helicopter. They came out of the jungle, 1200 feet in the air. The edge of the helicopter blade hit a cliff. The helicopter was fluttering to the earth and Bill Leftwich, with no emotion in his voice, using the radio back to the command center, dictated a farewell message to his wife and sons. That tells you a lot about Bill Leftwich. There is a Leftwich memorial trophy given every year by the Marine Corps to the outstanding young Marine Officer. It is one of the most highly sought after awards in the Marine Corps.

These are the types of people that you are going to be associated with. There are not a lot of people with these qualities. People like Bill Leftwich and Nick Rowe allow us to keep the Star Spangled Banner waving.

General Robbie Risner was another hero. He shot down a Chinese Ace pilot in the Korean War in the last personal air-to-air duel that will, probably, ever be fought. He then destroyed 17 MiGs on the runway below.
More than a decade later, Robbie went to Viet Nam. Time Magazine ran his picture on the cover—America’s Top Ace in Viet Nam. Ninety days later, Robbie’s plane was hit by a surface to air missile and he was taken by the Vietnamese. They knew exactly who they had because of the Time Magazine story. So, they put this great man in a box and kept him there for five years. It was 140 degrees in that box. Robbie never bent. He never broke. Instead, he inspired countless young officers to stay alive; by tapping on the box with a tap code.

How is that for leadership? How would you like to try making an inspiration (tap, tap, tap) like that? After five years, just imagine 140 degrees in the box, they took him out of the box. It took him just a few weeks to regain his ability to walk and talk. He was the senior officer in the camp. He looked around, and realized that they weren’t allowed to have church services. As the senior officer of the camp, he ordered church services the following Sunday.

During the church service, the POWs were singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and the Vietnamese stormed in, grabbed Robbie, and dragged him back to the box. As he was dragged by the guards, Robbie’s fellow prisoners stood proudly to honor him and sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” They were brutally tortured for singing our National Anthem.

Years later, when Robbie came home, I said, “Robbie, what was going on in your mind when they dragged you back to the box?” Instead, he looked at me, and his eyes were twinkling. He said, “Perot, with those guys singing the “Star Spangled Banner” I felt nine feet tall, like I could go bear hunting with a switch!”

How would you like to be in combat against a man with that indomitable spirit?

My friend, the late General Wayne Downing, West Point Class of 1962, was a recipient of your Association of Graduates Distinguished Graduate Award. Wayne was commander of the Ranger Regiment and US Special Operations Command, a former chair with your Combating Terrorism Center, he was also White House special advisor for terrorism in President Bush’s administration. He was a role model of what all of us should be.

A few years ago, after Wayne Downing had retired, China took over Hong Kong and a large number of Nung Vietnamese, who had fought alongside our Special Forces and did incredible things to protect them and save their lives during the war, were at risk.

You see, when Saigon fell, the Nungs fled to High Island off Hong Kong. As Hong Kong was being taken over by China, China made a deal with Viet Nam to give the Nungs back to Viet Nam. And the odds were about 100% that the Nungs were going to be executed.

The word went out. When I got a call from the legendary Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simon, I called General Hugh Shelton, who then was in charge of Special Forces and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said “Ross, the only reason I am alive today is because of the Nungs. We have got to get them out. “What is the problem?” I said. “They have to be validated”….He replied, “Whatever it takes, we have got to get them out.” Well, that got my attention.

I then called General Downing, who had retired from the Army, to get his advice. Wayne wasn’t there, but his wife Kathy gave me a 10-minute lecture on how many times the Nungs had saved her husband, and told me that Wayne was staying in a hotel in Washington. I called him.

The challenge was to validate these people so that the State Department and Immigration could let them come to the U.S. He said, “I can do that. I’ll be on the next plane.” I said, “Where do you want me to send the ticket?” He said, “Perot, nobody buys this ticket but me. I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the Nungs.”

Wayne Downing was not a rich man, but this was in his heart, this was in his soul. Wayne’s father, in fact, had been an infantryman and killed in action in Germany in World War II. His father’s service inspired Wayne to attend West Point.

So, this is what a leader is all about. I said to Wayne, “Can I help you with anything?” He said, “I need an interpreter.” I asked Max Dat, a South Vietnamese fighter pilot whom we had brought to the states with his family following the fall of Saigon, to go help validate the Nungs.

Max knew he would be a dead man if the Vietnamese caught him because he would be a better trophy to trade than the Nungs. But Max was on the next plane.

They got to Hong Kong on a Monday. They called me on a Tuesday. General Downing said, “Perot, the Chinese won’t let us on the island, but don’t worry, we will get on the island. We will validate them, and we will call you when it’s done.”

I didn’t hear anything from them until Saturday. They called and said it is all taken care of. The men are all on their way to the U.S. I said, “Just out of curiosity, how did you do this? How did you get on the island?” And, I will never forget the conversation. Wayne Downing said, “Don’t ask Perot,” Laughed and hung up.

I don’t know if they swam out, or parasailed in. I don’t know what they did. But, they got those men out. It would be easy to forget men who fought alongside you 25 years ago. But they didn’t because they had the same qualities and the virtues all of you have—values that are taught in this great institution— and are not taught in civilian colleges. Those qualities and virtues give you an advantage the others will never have.

John Alexander Hottel had those qualities in spades. He graduated tenth in his West Point Class of 1964. He was a Rhodes Scholar in 1965. He earned two Silver Stars. He was killed in a helicopter crash on July 7, 1970.

He had written an obituary for himself. Here are some excerpts: “I am writing my own obituary because I am the best authority on my own life. I loved the Army. It reared me. It nurtured me. It gave me the most satisfying years of my life. The Army let me live in Japan, Germany and England, with experiences in all of these places that others only dream about.

He continued, “I commanded the company, and was father, priest, income tax advisor, confessor, and judge for 200 men at one time. I have played college football and rugby, won the British national diving championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round, and played handball to distraction. And all of these sports I loved, I learned at West Point.

I have been an exchange student at the German Military Academy and gone to the German jumpmaster school. I have made 30 parachute jumps from everything from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I experienced all of these things because I was in the Army. How in the world would anybody be able to experience all of these things at that young age? I never knew what it was to fail. I never knew what it was to be too old or too tired to do anything. I did not die for my country. I lived for my country. And surely if there is nothing worth dying for, there is nothing worth living for.”

Can you imagine a better role model as a leader than Alex Hottel? He learned these qualities at your great institution. More importantly, he lived them in his life.

I never look at his obituary without thinking of the phrase Duty, Honor, Country. I hope that every one of you will maintain the same highest standards of honor and integrity.

So, freedom is precious, freedom is fragile, and freedom must be protected. Your generation has its own heroes, of course. The names of four of them are on the Nininger Award plaque in the foyer to this mess hall. I understand your Nininger Award for Valor at Arms is named in memory of Lieutenant Sandy Nininger Class of ’41, posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor for heroism in the Philippines in World War II. The four recipients on that plaque–MAJ Ryan Worthan Class of ’97, CPT Randy Ashby Class of 2001, CPT Bryan Jackson Class of 2005, and this year’s recipient, LT Nick Eslinger West Point Class of 2007–have all spoken to you from this same podium. What an honor to be on the podium where they spoke. They are great representatives of your generation’s leaders of character.

In closing, I want you to always remember—everyday think about the last phrase of the first verse of the “Star Spangled Banner.” It is a question: “Oh say, does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” That is a question. And, if the answer to that question is to be “Yes,” we must have great leaders like you defending the gates of freedom.

Our great nation is so fortunate to have you with that mission. I know if I asked in the distant future if the Star Spangled Banner was still waving, the answer would be a resounding YES!

On behalf of my family, thank you so much for your courtesies today, and thank you for your service to our country.

It is a privilege to have been here with you at West Point.


2009 Thayer Award Recipient H. Ross Perot

H. Ross Perot was born on June 27, 1930 in Texarkana, Texas. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1953, he was class president, chairman of the honor committee, and recipient of the National College Award for Leadership. Four years at sea on the USS Sigourney and the USS Leyte preceded his being honorably discharged to continue serving our Nation in civilian life.

Settling in Dallas, Texas with his wife Margot. Mr. Perot joined IBM before establishing his own company, EDS, which he built into one of the world’s largest technology services firms. In 1979, when two EDS employees were taken hostage by the Iranian government, Mr. Perot organized and directed their successful rescue by EDS employees (Vietnam veterans) led by retired Special Forces Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons. Following the sale of EDS to General Motors, Mr. Perot founded Perot Systems Corporation, serving as Chief Executive Officer until 1992 and again from 1997 until 2000, helping to take the company public in 1999. Mr. Perot served as Chairman of the Board until 2004 when he was elected Chairman Emeritus. In both of his companies, Mr. Perot emphasized hiring former military leaders and preparing them to become future business leaders.

The catalog of Ross Perot’s public activities is extensive. It includes successfully working to end the brutal treatment U.S. POWs in Southeast Asia, spearheading anti-drug efforts and education reform in Texas, and strong bids for the presidency of the United States in 1992 and 1996.

The Perot family is actively involved in a variety of charitable and civic activities through the Perot Foundation, which has given approximately $200 million primarily in support of medical research, complex medical treatment for wounded veterans, and education.

Less public has been Mr. Perot’s deep commitment to our armed forces and their families. This commitment drew the following praise from the late General Wayne Downing USMA ’62: “The US Army Ranger Creed succinctly states, ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.’ . . . . I have never met anyone that lives up to this standard like Ross. For over three decades, his determined efforts were personally responsible for the welfare and repatriation of many captured Americans and our loyal supporters.” Time after time Mr. Perot has given his time and resources to provide life-changing, and sometimes life-saving, support to our nation’s warriors, often by providing medical care and resources not otherwise readily available.

Mr. Perot has also demonstrated a special appreciation for West Point, speaking to Cadets, providing them with literature on Medal of Honor recipients, and contributing financially to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Widely recognized for his service and patriotism, Mr. Perot has received numerous awards and honors.

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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