I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you, here today. You are the leaders of tomorrow ... but you know that. On your decisions might well hang the fate of our nation ... but you know that too. But, I wonder if you know of, if you have considered, the challenges and dilemmas which will accompany this responsibility. I wonder if you have prepared ... not just your minds ... but prepared your character ... for the challenges ahead. I would like to take you back in time almost 31 years ago ... back to October 1967. A young naval aviator takes off in his A-4 from the flight deck of the Oriskany. He is part of a bombing mission to knock out a power plant in Hanoi. Penetrating the heaviest air defenses on earth at that time, he evades one surface-to-air missile, and rolls in to drop his bombs. His bombs come free and hurtle towards their target, but as he pulls up, another SAM comes up and takes the right wing off his aircraft. As his plane plunges for the ground below, he pulls the hood over his face which activates the ejection seat.
When he descends to earth, he falls right into a lake in downtown Hanoi. North Vietnamese soldiers fish him out ... he is in bad shape. His knee is broken, as is both arms. Despite his injuries, the angry crowd which has formed around him, beats and spits upon him. He is stabbed with bayonets in the ankle and the thigh, and someone smashes his shoulder with a rifle butt. He is then thrown in the back of a truck and taken to a prison which would become known to Americans as "the Hanoi Hilton." There his captors refused him medical treatment as a means to entice information from him. For several days he faded in and out of consciousness. With the Code of Conduct as his guide and ally, he repeatedly refused all but name, rank, serial number and date of birth. This enraged the North Vietnamese who beat and kicked him despite his wounds. Finally the camp doctor was summoned. He checked out the pilot, whispered something to the interrogator and left. The pilot begged to be taken to a hospital but the interrogator just said ... it was too late.
Alone and in pain, the officer goes into shock ... he knows he is dying. But then his captors discover something about him ... something which they believe will be of some value to them. He is transported to a crude hospital, and there, his life is spared. In a 90 minute session without anesthesia, a doctor tried to set his arm, broken in three places. Unsuccessful in this effort, the doctor left the bone protruding just under the skin and put the patient in a cast from his waist to his neck. Nothing was done at all for the other broken arm ... probably to the relief of the pilot. He later did receive surgery on his knee in which the doctors simply cut all the ligaments and cartilage, all but making the knee worthless. He was told the follow-on surgery which would make his knee operative again, would not be performed because of his unwillingness to cooperate.
The value his captors ascribed to him, the reason they kept him alive, soon became apparent. Seizing upon the opportunity to embarrass a prominent American Admiral, the North Vietnamese decided to parole from their prisons ... a naval aviator ... his son ... our pilot. Several dignitaries came to the prison cell to make the offer. By now, you have been exposed to the Code of Conduct. You know we are not allowed to accept parole or special favors from the enemy. By extension, you know that the first prisoner in, should be the first one released, that you can't go sooner because of who you are or what you have done. Our pilot stood his ground. He expelled the dignitaries who had come to take him away from the filth, from the torture, from the hell in which he lived. He refused to put an end to his misery ... he refused to go home, home to his family, home to safety. Soon he was put into solitary confinement. The months dragged on. Frequent interrogations included beatings and torture. He resisted. In fact, he did more than just resist. He went out of his way to be troublesome. Despite the physical injuries inflicted upon him, he was determined to maintain his honor.
In July he was summoned again, and for three days, new offers of parole were put in front of him. He was told his health was so poor that it negated the "first in-first out" rule. There was some plausibility to this. He was a very weakened man. He considered it a very real possibility that he might die without serious medical treatment. Yet again he refused. He would not take parole.
His refusal meant he was no longer a prisoner of value. His tormentors were now free to result to more vigorous methods of torture. In the process, his arm was re-broken. His despair continued. John McCain, now Senator McCain, a graduate of this, very hallowed institution, was finally released in March of 1973. He spent some five years in inhumane conditions because of his sense of moral obligation to his country and to his fellow prisoners. That is physical courage ... that is moral courage.
Now ... the question is, have you steeled your character with an inviolate commitment to such courage? Are you prepared to always do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons? Are you ready for the test? The test may not look anything like John McCain's, but ... it will most surely come. You can count on that ... you most surely will be tested. It doesn't have to be in a prisoner of war camp. It doesn't have to be under situations of great duress. Tests of your moral courage will come in all sorts, shapes and sizes. It can be as simple as the temptation to look away when your fellow officer is doing something you know to be wrong. It can be something as easily explained away as a so called "victimless" crime. As many of you already know, it is not always easy to stand up, speak out, or take action in order to do what is right ... But it must to be done. Moral courage has to be part of your very being ... part of your character. And when it is ... you will know what to do.
When you are told to falsify training or maintenance records to get through an inspection, you will know what to do. When there is a better way, but nobody wants to challenge the status quo, you will know what to do. When you discover, waste, fraud or abuse, you will know what to do. And when you observe something you know to be just plain wrong ... no matter where it is ... no matter if it has implications for those above you in the chain of command ... you will know what to do! Some call this "rocking the boat" ... ... I call it; "staying the course."
It is now, while you are still in school, that you must find your moral touchstone... to ensure that, who you are, and what you stand for ... is as large a part of your professional reputation as your ability to fly planes, man ships, or lead troops. It is now, that you commit to, staying the course ... regardless of how rough the waters get ... to, stay the course.
Soon you will be officers in our armed forces. Consider the type of leader you wish to become. Make deliberate decisions and commit to inviolate principles. There will come a time when you can go along with that which you know is wrong or you can literally ... take the moral high ground. Your character will be defined by your decision. It will be yours and yours alone to make.
Remember the words of General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army during World War II, " the efficiency of your leadership will depend only to a minor degree on your tactical or technical ability. It will primarily be determined by your character, your reputation." I will tell you that there is no more telling, no more lasting, trait associated with your character, than moral courage. You cannot operate in the margins ... there are no margins. Either you are committed to doing what is right ... or you are not. You will either be seen as an officer of principle ... or as a fake. ... ... So which do you choose? Semper Fidelis.