Update Your Profile

Stay up to date with all West Point news and stay connected with fellow grads

Update your Register Entry

Cullum Files

historical records

Class Notes

login required, available to graduates & widows

Leon E. Panetta Thayer Award Speech

A Country Worth Fighting For

West Point, NY - October 4, 2018

Thank you for your kind introduction and good evening to all of you.

I am truly humbled and deeply grateful to the West Point Association of Graduates for honoring me with the Thayer Award. To all of the members of the Association here with us tonight and to all of your distinguished members, thank you for all you do to support of this great American institution of our democracy.

I also want to thank the Corps of Cadets for the extraordinary display of pageantry and military precision we all witnessed today. You put on a hell of a show.

As the son of Italian immigrants, I can’t tell you how humbling it is to be included on the roster of recipients of this award, many of whom represent some of the greatest legends of our times: presidents, generals of the Army, secretaries of states, secretaries of defense, the first man who walked on the moon—all distinguished public servants. I am so proud to be part of the history and tradition of West Point.

But for my part, I want you to know that I accept the Thayer Award on behalf of the winner from 16 years ago: The American Soldier. Because I know that at this very hour, in a dangerous and lonely corner of the globe, there are soldiers standing watch, ready to fight at a moment’s notice to defend America’s security and preserve the blessing of liberty for all of us.

For more than two centuries, our democracy has survived because of the soldier’s commitment to Duty, Honor and Country. We have preserved because in every generation there have been brave men and women willing to step forward and give something back to the nation. And those men and women helped America lead a family of nations that worked and fought together to provide security in a dangerous world.

I have always believed in the responsibility to serve, to give back to the nation because of what this country has meant to me and because of what it meant to my family.

We had a tradition in my family of all gathering for dinner on Sundays. My parents would make clear to my brother and I that we had a duty to give something back to this country, which gave them so much.

I was proud to serve as an Army office for two years—went through ROTC at Santa Clara University and received both my degree and my commission on graduation day. I was particularly pleased because my father was there—he had served in the Italian Army during World War I, was wounded in a brutal battle of the Piave River—he taught me about duty, about right and wrong, about hard work and sacrifice.

Some of my earliest memories as a young boy were of that Italian restaurant my parents ran in downtown Monterey during the war years. As a boy, I can remember standing on a chair in the back kitchen of that restaurant washing glasses—my parents believed that child labor was a requirement in our family. After the war, he sold the restaurant and he bought a farm in Carmel Valley, planted a walnut orchard. Again, my brother and I worked hard alongside my father—hoeing, pruning, irrigating—as the walnuts grew bigger my father would use a pole and hook, shaking each of the branches, and my brother and I were underneath each tree picking up the walnuts. When I got elected to Congress, my father said, “You know, you’ve been well trained to go to Washington because you’ve been dodging nuts all your life.”

Throughout my life, I have never forgotten the faces of the GIs my parents served in that restaurant during the war. Thousands were training at a local base, Fort Ord, for the battlefields of World War II. My parents would invite many of these soldiers to our home for the holidays. I had a chance to see them and talk with them as they prepared to ship off to war, not knowing whether I would ever see them again.

They came to Monterey from across America, like all of you—from small towns and big cities, from the heartland and from the coasts. They were young and full of hell but they were ready to go halfway around the world to fight against a great evil that had attacked our country and invaded our closest allies. They knew they might never come home but they also knew that they were serving a cause greater than themselves.

The faces of those young soldiers never left my memory, particularly when as CIA Director and as Secretary of Defense I had to make decisions that would send brave young men and women into harm’s way…warriors fighting to preserve our country and the American Dream.

I used to ask my father, “Why would you travel all of that distance to come to a strange land?” They came from a poor area in Italy, but they had the comfort of family, and like millions of other immigrants they had little money, no skills and little language ability. There were no Google maps, no GPS, no Internet. They had no idea what this strange land would be all about. Why would you leave everything you had, everyone you knew to go to a far away land? I never forgot my father’s response: “Because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life in this country.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the American Dream. It’s what we want for our children and hopefully what our children will want for their children.

But my parents also taught me that dreams are just dreams unless you are willing to work hard, to sacrifice, to take risks, to never give up, to fight and never stop fighting until your dreams come true. I had a Jesuit at Santa Clara who said to me, “Leon, God gave you life, but it is up to you to make a life.” To make the point, he told this story of the rabbi and the priest.

A rabbi and a priest decided they would get to know each other better and go to events in order to understand each other’s religion. One evening they went to a boxing match and just before the bell rang one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi nudged the priest and asked: “What does that mean?” The priest replied, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight.”

We bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be wonderful in this country and somehow our democracy will survive, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we are willing to fight for it.

Those are the values I was raised with, the values of our forefathers, of the pioneers, of the immigrants. The values of love of country, of honesty, of respect for one another, of sacrifice and hard work. They are the values that made America the greatest country on earth.

You, the cadets of the long gray line, follow in a long tradition of those who have been willing to fight and to die for those values and for that country. You are warriors who understand that your duty is not just to fight for your country, but to fight to make sure that your country is worthy fighting for—an America that always remains true to its founding principles of freedom and liberty for all, of equal justice, of opportunity, of respect for one another regardless of color, creed, faith or gender, of honest leadership committed to a government of, by and for all people. The leadership you learn here at West Point is not just for war, it is for country.

I often tell the students at the Panetta Institute that in a democracy, we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If leadership is there and willing to take risks associated with leadership, and make no mistake about it, if you are going to be a leader, you’ve got to take risks, if you are willing to exert that kind of leadership, we can avoid crisis.

But, if leadership is not there, then we will inevitably govern by crisis. But there is a price to be paid for doing that, and that price is the loss of trust of the American people in our system of democracy…because in a democracy, trust is everything.

Here at West Point, you are learning to lead soldiers into battle…that takes leadership, it takes trust, and it takes the ability to work as a unit. You too come from across America. You reflect the rich diversity that is America. But as warriors, you must fight as one—trusting one another, watching each other’s back, never leaving a comrade behind. You are the embodiment of the motto of our nation, “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one.

Alexis deTocquiville, the French philosopher, who came to this country in the early 1800s to see for himself what this young nation was all about, found an America of vastly different communities and people spread our across the vast frontier. But he found one quality in America that was not present in his native Europe, and that was a sense of community, of caring for one another, of working together. He said, “American is great because America is good…and if America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” Our challenge today is to work together, despite our differences, as one—on the battlefield, in our communities, and in our nation.

A few weeks ago, I attended the memorial service for Senator John McCain. I worked with John for over 40 years, in the Congress, when I served in the executive branch, and particularly as Director of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense. He died deeply concerned about our country, about the tribalism and partisanship tearing it apart. He fought for this country and loved it with all his heart. But, he was worried about whether the leadership of the nation could find the courage to work together at home and in a dangerous world.

I don’t have to tell any of you: we live in a dangerous time. I have never seen the collection of threats and challenges in the world that I see today: terrorism, ISIS, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, Syria, Iran, North Korea and a new chapter of the Cold War with Russia, increasing tensions with China, cyber attacks threatening our democratic institutions and our stability.

In the face of these threats to our security, America must provide the essential leadership that we have provided since World War II, to work together with our allies in the world. We do not have to choose between whether we work with our allies or whether we protect our interests. It is the high of patriotism to protect the interests of our country by working with our allies to protect our security in the world. You don’t have to make a choice between those two. Our interests in the world are essential to our ability to protect our interests. The reality is that if the United States fails to provide leadership in a troubled world, no one else will.

The history of West Point is the history of heroic leaders responding to national crisis—to regional wars, to a civil war, to world wars, to natural disasters. I believe in American leadership. Why? Because of each of you—because of your spirit, resilience, common sense, courage, dedication to Duty and Honor and Country.

As secretary, I saw those values in the men and women willing to put their lives on the line, to fight and die for our country. I looked into their eyes on the battlefields of Iraq, in Afghanistan, at the bases in the Middle East from which they deployed into action, in North Africa, and throughout the world. I saw it in the eyes of those brave special forces involved in the raid on Bin Laden. Let me just say a few words about that raid.

It was after 10 years of failed efforts to locate Bin Laden that our intelligence finally located a compound in Abbotobad at the end of a dead end street. It looked like a fortress: 18ft high walls on one side, 12ft walls on the other, a 7ft wall on the balcony of the third floor where a mysterious family was located, high security, barbed wire, no phone services, no Internet. They used to drive 90 miles away to make a phone call. We did heavy surveillance, six months of surveillance, trying to see if we could see Bin Laden. There was a “walker,” an older gentleman, who would come out of the compound, walk in circles like a prisoner, and disappear back into the compound. I told my CIA officers that it was critical to get a facial ID of the “walker.” They said it was difficult to do because of the compound’s security. I said I’ve seen movies where the CIA could do this.

We never got 100-percent ID, but we kept piecing together intelligence. Finally, the President ordered that we prepare an operation. I turned to Admiral Bill McCraven, head of Special Forces, who developed a plan called “Neptune Spear”: two teams of special forces on two helicopters, going 150 miles into Pakistan, at night, getting to the compound, repelling down into that compound, and going after Bin Laden if he was there…a risky mission.

The President ordered the operation. As we tracked the helicopters, one of them, because of the heat that day, stalled. Thank God there was an experienced Army warrant officer, part of the NightStalkers, the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment, who was able to set the copter down. I asked Admiral McCraven, “Bill, what the hell is going on?” Not missing a beat, he said not to worry, backup helicopters, two Chinooks, were on the way, the mission would proceed, the walls would be breached. They did. We heard gun fire, and then there was about 20 minutes of silence…probably the longest 20 minutes of my life…and then McCraven came on the line and said, “I think we have a ‘Geronimo,’” which was the code word for getting Bin Laden, and a few minutes later he said, “We have a ‘Geronimo.’” That night, after the White House had announced the mission to the American people, crowds gathered in Lafayette Park and on the east side of the White House, and they were yelling, “USA…USA…CIA…CIA.” It proved that because of the bravery of our Special Forces and our Intelligence personnel that we sent an important message to the world: nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it…Nobody.

Before I left the job as CIA Director to become Secretary of Defense, I visited Khowst Afghanistan where we had lost seven CIA officers to a suicide bomber who turned out to be a double agent. I brought with me a plaque that I put on the wall, it is the same plaque I gave to each of the families of the fallen, that contained a verse from Isaiah, chapter 6, verse 8: “And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for me?’ And then I said, ‘Here I am Lord. Send me. Send me.’”

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the sound of the trumpet that calls all of us to duty. And by your very presence here, cadets at West Point, it is clear to me that you have responded to the call of that trumpet.

At the Pentagon, as Secretary, I had no more solemn responsibility than to sign the deployment orders that sent men and women into harm’s way. And every time I signed those orders, I said a silent Hail Mary and prayed they would all be returned home safely to their families. Unfortunately, as we all know only too well, those prayers are not always answered.

I have gone to Dover Air Base too many times to greet our fallen heroes, to console their families, to mourn their loss. But it is in their memory that we fight, and fight on because that is exactly what they would want us to do.

As I said in the beginning of my remarks, in honoring me, I ask you to honor the American soldier…the soldier in each of you. You have responded to the call of the trumpet—“Send Me”—and now your duty is clear: to serve America with honor, to make sure that it never ceases to be good, to protect that American Dream of my parents, to make sure we give our children a better life in this country, and to keep our great country—of, by, and for the people—safe and secure. And very frankly, none of this means a damn thing if you are not willing to fight for it.

God bless you and God bless our country.