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Ryan Crocker Thayer Award Speech

Address to Cadets

Well—General Williams, General DeFrancisco—words fail me, and that is not something a career diplomat often says. The honor that you have bestowed on me is well beyond my merits. I accept it with enormous gratitude. And to those who nominated me, and to the West Point Association of Graduates that selected me, all I can say is you have only yourselves to blame.

Every time I come to the Academy, I learn something. I’ve learned a lot of things on this trip. One of them is that the Thayer Award presentation this year coincides with a very important West Point tradition. I am told that tomorrow is Ring Poop, and that is followed by Ring Weekend. So, in keeping with the reputation of this Academy for scholarship and dedication, I just would like to say to all of the firsties out there hoping to get their rings, there is going to be an examination after my remarks, and, as long as you are able to fully capture the essence of what I have said, you’ll be cleared to go ahead and get your rings. So, take lots of notes and don’t leave too early.

General Williams and General DeFrancisco spoke about the previous recipients of this incredibly prestigious award. Their portraits in the Thayer Room constitute an American hall of honor, Statesmen and soldiers, presidents and justices, scientists and scholars. I am more than humbled to be in their company, and to be a symbolic part of the Long Gray Line. But I’m especially honored to be following last year’s Thayer recipient, General Dunwoody, the first woman to achieve four-star rank in the Army.

Back in 1995, Hillary Clinton made a comment in Beijing that entered history, that women’s rights are human rights. Scholarship and experience since then have shown us that women’s security globally is also national security.

For us in America, to continue the greatness we have achieved in the past, we have to do more, and, most particularly in my view, we have to do more for gender equality. We are not yet at the point where we have full gender equality in this country. I know that comes as a real shock to the female cadets here, but it is the case.

I am very privileged to have served under three female Secretaries of State, two of whom also received this award: Madeleine Albright, Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton. I served all three of them as an ambassador, and I can tell you I never had better bosses. West Point is leading the way on this as it has led on so many other issues of social significance in our country, especially on racial equality. Our constant efforts to make our country more inclusive and our society more equal are what make America great. We in the Foreign Service are actually a little bit ahead on gender equity. The first woman in the service to receive the title of career ambassador, four-star rank, was in 1962. And the Foreign Service is now almost 42 percent female. Collectively, we have made great advances; we still have some distance to go.

A number of diplomats have received this award, but only one other Foreign Service officer. That was Robert Murphy in 1974. Ambassador Murphy did a lot of things in a storied career, the most significant of which was an advisor to General Eisenhower during WW II. France had about 120,000 troops in North Africa that had not been required to surrender when the Nazis took Paris. Murphy’s mission was to bring them back into the war. Under very challenging circumstances he did so, and they became a key element of the success of Operation Torch in 1942, the allied landing in Morocco. That was our first major offensive in the war. Had that gone bad, had the French pulled out of the agreement, the war could have had very different consequences. So, I salute my colleague of a time long ago now, and those he served, particularly Generals Eisenhower and Bradley. Duty. Honor. Country.

What exactly is the Foreign Service that Ambassador Murphy and I so proudly served? We’re small, a little under 10,000 Foreign Service officer generalists – popularly known as diplomats. We are highly expeditionary. That is why it is called the Foreign Service—75 to 80 percent deployed abroad any day of the year. We are nonpartisan, as you are. In my own case, I served six times as ambassador: three times for Republican administrations, three times for Democratic administrations. Like your service, it is inherently dangerous. In those six countries, three of my predecessors were killed in the line of duty. We have the same rank structure for officers as you do, and we swear the same oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. Duty. Honor. Country.

As Ambassador Murphy’s service indicates, links between the Foreign Service and our military are long and strong. After 9/11, I was deputy assistant secretary of state for the Persian Gulf region. I was occupied full time negotiating overflights, refueling access, and basing arrangements for our military with the Gulf countries that were critical for our push into Afghanistan. But my connection to the military and to war, if you will, started long before that, 20 years before, in Lebanon. In my three years as a political counselor at the American Embassy in Beirut, I survived the bombing of the Embassy on April 18, 1983, the worst loss of diplomatic life in American history. I was there six months later, for the bombing of the Marine barracks. Over 240 Marines were killed in that attack. The face of war had changed, and we were there in the middle of it: Duty, Honor, Country.

As Ambassador to Kuwait a decade later, I learned that some of our greatest victories were in wars that we did not have to fight. General DeFrancisco and I were comparing notes earlier, as had the superintendent and I before, trying to figure out exactly in which pestilential hellhole we had first met. For the superintendent it was Tikrit—all of Iraq was tough; Tikrit was the toughest, which is why you were there—and with General DeFrancisco it was Operation Vigilant Warrior in Kuwait in October 1994 where he commanded the 24th Infantry Division. That was part of the force we sent in to prevent a re-invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. And I have to tell you, General DeFrancisco, while I’m hugely grateful for the Thayer Award, I’m still coming after your Vigilant Warrior coffee cup—it may be the only one left in existence. In October, Saddam Hussain sent a multi-divisional force south to Kuwait configured for combat, not for training: it was the real deal. We were in a race against time – could we get sufficient forces into Kuwait to block the advance before he reached the border. I learned that when you need to get forces to the field, like…yesterday, sometimes charter aircraft are faster than MilAir. And so it was for Vigilant Warrior. I was there to greet the first planeload of troops at Kuwait Airport. They were tank crews falling in on a pre-positioned M-1 brigade set. I was there at the top of the steps, and as each soldier got off the plane the flight attendants were saying, “Have a nice day.” These troopers didn’t know if they would be alive at sunset the next day. Duty, Honor, Country.

As ambassador to Pakistan another decade later, I encountered a different adversary, a major earthquake up in the rugged northern part of the country in October 2005, killing 80,000 people in two minutes. As soon as I saw the magnitude of the disaster, given Pakistan’s status as a nuclear weapons nation and a crucial partner of the War on Terror, I knew we had to act. We needed the most powerful humanitarian organization on earth, the United States Army. And it is about personal connections and relationships: I called General John Abizaid, then commander Central Command, a superb officer that I had the pleasure of working with over the years. I said I needed helicopters and I needed them now. Within 36 hours, we had eight CH-47s in-country, pulled out of Afghanistan. We would eventually build up to 24, and Operation Lifeline became the largest and longest humanitarian airborne operation since the Berlin Airlift. And those CH-47 pilots did things that had previously been thought impossible in a double-rotor helicopter, like up in the foothills of the Himalayas, dropping that ramp so that it was barely touching the flat roof of a mud building to load casualties. There were almost vertical slopes on both sides, and the pilots could not put any of the weight of the Chinook on the roof for fear it would collapse. Those crews saved thousands of lives. Duty. Honor. Country.

After Pakistan came Iraq, and there unfolded one of the most significant sets of relationships I’ve had in my professional life. General Petraeus and I were both tapped for our respective positions in the fall of 2006, which was pretty much the worst of times for the U.S. in Iraq. What we figured out before either of us ever got there is that if we worked closely together implementing the president’s Surge strategy there was no guarantee of success, but there was the absolute certainty of failure if we did not. General Petraeus had the idea, the concept before we even got there, of putting together a JSAT. Incidentally, it is so great to be here because I can use all these acronyms and I don’t have to explain what they mean because you know, but I’ll do it anyway: Joint Strategic Assessment Team. The legendary H.R. McMaster, then an O-6, was the military co-chair; Ambassador David Pearce, probably our finest Foreign Service Arabist and an expert on Iraq, was the civilian co-chair, and we had that parallel all down the line. The main objective of the JSAT was to assess our predecessors’ campaign plans and make recommendations for a new campaign plan, but it was also to signal to the military and to civilians that we’re all in this together. Everything we do out here is going to be joint, it’s going to be coordinated, it’s going to be together. General Petraeus and I did our level best to personify it. Our meetings with Iraqi officials were almost always together, as were our briefings for American visitors. It gave that picture of solidarity. It also prevented mixed messages getting sent, or one of us being played off against the other. We were in this together. And that reached its epitome in September 2007 when we testified for 21 hours, over two days before Congress on Iraq. During those two days, literally hundreds of questions were thrown at us, often not directed specifically to either one of us—never once during that period did we have to look at each other and figure out who should answer the question, nor did we ever start to answer together. We knew…we knew who had the lead on a particular question.

We went through that whole testimony again without having any need to consult with each other or slip notes back and forth or anything like it. For me, working with General Petraeus, Class of 1974, who heard Ambassador Murphy speak here, is as good as it gets. It also established a template for me personally, that I could then carry on with General Odierno after General Petraeus went back to take command at Central Command. And then also with General Allen in Afghanistan, who I had gotten to know in Iraq because he was the assistant division commander for Multinational Force West, and the resident expert on Sunni tribes who I consulted with very regularly. These experiences told me several things: we are in this together, civilians and military. But there is no playbook. There wasn’t a playbook then, and there isn’t a playbook now. So personalities count, as do shared goals and shared values. Duty. Honor. Country.

I told some of you earlier today that I have tried and failed over the years to figure out how we could institutionalize civ-mil partnerships at the entry-level. I did give that mission to the SOSH Department and its fine students, and I do want to say here that your SOSH Department is unique in this country. I’m delighted to hear and see that international relations majors here have just skyrocketed. It’s a great, big, messy political-military world out there, and my experience over the years shows that the curriculum that SOSH has developed is one of our most effective fighting tools. It’s wonderful to see again General, Dr., Professor Jebb, who is back now as Dean and who was followed by BG Michael Meese and now Colonel Suzanne Nielsen. It doesn’t get better than this. This department will stand with any in the country. Why is this so important? Here’s what Bob Gates recently said reflecting on his experience: One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win the wars of the future. Those wars are likely to be fundamentally political in nature and will not be solved by military means alone. And that pretty well can be the mission statement for SOSH. So, for those of you who are not SOSH majors, right after you complete the quiz you’ll want to, not walk but run over to the SOSH Department to sign up as a major, but I forget, you already do run to the SOSH department…(applause).

The nature of war changes constantly. Among other things, the current evolution of war as a complex, largely political affair, has created a critical need for support from host-country nationals, primarily but not exclusively interpreters. We cannot fight these wars with any prospect of long-term success if we cannot translate ourselves to the population. It’s absolutely essential. To get these people to risk their lives serving us in Iraq and Afghanistan, we had to make some commitments, that we would take care of them. If they served us, we would ensure that they were able to get here to safety afterward through a Special Immigrant Visa program. I started the program in Iraq in 2007. I revitalized it in Afghanistan in 2011. But there are still problems: bureaucratic delays, lack of resources. So, I’m very proud to join General Petraeus on another joint mission: We’re both on an advisory board for an organization called No One Left Behind, which works intensively with Congress and with others to be sure we live up to our commitment to those who have served us in very, very difficult circumstances. Duty. Honor. Country.

Finally—this may be the most important thing I have to say to you—wars cost. They cost in treasure, and they cost in blood. I’ve stood at many ramp ceremonies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each one hurts; each one reminds me that this is not a video game. To advance our interests, to secure our allies, we put lives on the line and some of those lives are going to be lost. I have had the privilege for some time now of being

Associated with a Gold Star family group called “Time of Remembrance.” And again, it’s very gratifying to speak to an audience to whom I do not have to explain what a “ramp ceremony” is or what a “Gold Star” family is. Each September we have a big annual gathering. We couldn’t do it in person this September because of COVID-19, but a number of us got together in Eastern Washington state about ten days ago to do some videos for a virtual event. I told my friends there that I would be here tonight. I asked them what they would want me to say to the future leaders of the U.S. Army. The answer was brief and powerful: Please don’t forget us. These are amazing people. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—also from Eastern Washington, we’ve been friends for a number of years, and both of us work with Time of Remembrance—has called them our better angels, and so they are. They are not looking for closure. They are not seeking to move on. The pain they suffer is never going away. But they are also not wallowing in grief. They have big hearts and a big tent. They have reached out to families of service members who have died from other causes, like training accidents or suicide. They reach back to Vietnam War families. They have given comfort to people like me who have a case of survivor's guilt. Their message is one I have tried to convey this evening: we are all in this together. They have given more than they have ever received, but their message of support for others also brings them support. This includes elements of the Patriot Guard such as Combat Veterans’ International, and I would like to give a shout out to some of the guys there: Pops, Stretch – thank you. Time of Remembrance runs on a shoestring, but they manage. It is a collective endeavor, but even collective endeavors require leaders. Ours is Shirley Schmunk. Her son, a Washington State Guardsman was lost at Fallujah. She is creative, compassionate, a ball of energy, and filled with abundant good humor. These are great leadership qualities, whether it’s here at West Point or out west, pulling Gold Star families together.

I have told you all of this because I wanted to remember them to you today. And as I remember them to you, I ask that you remember them now as you step into the future. Duty. Honor. Country.