By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2011 - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today paid tribute to past and present graduates of Virginia Military Institute, telling the Class of 2011 that a grateful nation is cheering them on for all they will accomplish.
The chairman spoke of Gen. George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901, who was Army chief of staff during World War II and received the Nobel Peace Prize for his post-war work in restoring Europe. Mullen told the graduates to be ambitious, as Marshall was, but not to put their personal desires above the greater good.
"If there is ever a choice between personal advancement and what is best for the institution," the admiral said, "you are expected to – you must – choose against your own self-interest."
Though the Army was facing its most austere times in modern history, Mullen said, Marshall kept faith in it, even as his own advancement through the ranks was slow. Marshall knew he was in line to lead the allied effort against Nazi Germany, the chairman noted. But knowing he was most needed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's side, Mullen said, he allowed the younger Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to have that opportunity.
"By giving up what he most desired, General Marshall served where his nation benefitted most," Mullen said. He quoted then-Defense Secretary Charles Stimson as telling Marshall after the war, "No one who is thinking of himself can rise to true heights. You have never thought of yourself."
The chairman said he believes Marshall would be proud of the service of so many Americans today who "worked silently and selflessly to support our operations."
"They embody a culture of persistence, of working together, and remembering that when it comes to serving our nation, it can't be about you," he said.
Mullen reflected on the 1,500 VMI graduates who already have given of themselves in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 13 who "rendered the ultimate sacrifice." Just two weeks ago, the chairman said, and his wife, Deborah, witnessed the return of Air Force Capt. Charles Ransom, VMI Class of 2001, who was one of nine Americans killed in a shooting at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan, he said.
"His story reminds us that this generation has been profoundly tested, and that VMI has risen to the challenge," the chairman said. Despite the risks, he added, 150 VMI graduates – the highest rate in 20 years – were commissioned in the military services yesterday.
In the image of Marshall, Mullen said, young leaders should have the moral courage to offer and welcome loyal dissent. In World War I, he noted, Marshall was the only major who would stand up to Army Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing.
"Few things are more vital to an organization than a leader who has the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is headed, and the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made," he said. "That's real loyalty. And it only gets more important the higher you rise in the ranks."
Mullen also told the graduates it is important for the United States to stay engaged around the world, no matter how difficult that may be.
"As challenging as engaging others with different views may be, the alternative of abandoning these partners and these regions is far worse," he said, noting that he has been to Pakistan 24 times as the top U.S. military leader. "We've gone down that road before, and it is one that leads to isolation and resentment, ultimately making our nation less secure as we deceive ourselves into believing that ignoring these challenges will somehow make them go away."
Mullen encouraged the graduates to carry on in the spirit of those VMI graduates who have come before them.
"The ghosts of greatness, so ever-present here in Lexington, now look down upon you, the Class of 2011, and all of us are counting on you, cheering you on, and eternally grateful for who you are, and all that you will do in service to our nation," he said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen
Virginia Military Institute