Veteran’s Convocation- Maricopa Colleges- May 2015
Members of the Maricopa Community College Governing Board, Chancellor Rufus Glasper and members of the Executive Council, administrators, faculty and staff, parents and friends, and, most of all, fellow veterans! It is a privilege to stand before you today and celebrate your achievement with you and your loved ones. On 22 May, 1978, I raised my right hand and swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In two weeks I will have proudly served for 37 years.
My military service has enriched every area of my life and provided opportunities that few can imagine. Traveling through Iraq on Blackhawk helicopters to celebrate the holiday of Passover with deployed service-members, experiencing an Air Force refueling mission, freezing my Arizona self in Korea and Afghanistan- what other rabbi has these adventures? As you know, there is a very special bond of camaraderie that we share, a sense of family connection. We come together today to honor the unique values that you bring to the fight as military veterans. Having just graduated from the US Army War College in 2013, I have a sense of how hard it is to go back to school when you’ve been out for a while. The dedication and sacrifice are enormous, and we are all in awe of your achievement!
The president of a university once attended an alumni event, where he was approached by a graduate as follows: “You said something to me at graduation that has been a guiding principle of my life and a foundation of my success.” The president stood up a little taller and prouder and asked, “What was that?” The graduate replied, “As I shook your hand on that stage, you whispered, ‘Keep moving.’” The alumnus concluded, “A I took your advice and I have kept moving ever since!” My personal goal here today is to keep this event moving. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was once asked for his ticket on a train and he couldn’t find it. The conductor, recognizing him, said reassuringly, “Never mind, sir, I’m sure you have it somewhere.” “Mr. Conductor,” replied Holmes, “the question is not where is my ticket, but where am I going?” That, indeed, is the question each of us must ask ourselves- we must keep moving, and, where are we going?
With deference to my Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard colleagues, I would like to explore the 7Army values that characterize all those who serve our great country and offer guidance on our journey. First and foremost is Duty. Doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, how it needs to be done. The military assigns responsibilities to every service member at every level, and trains us to do our duty. This commitment to complete our mission no matter what is a fundamental principle. As they say in the First Infantry Division, the oldest, continually serving division in the regular Army, “No mission too difficult, not sacrifice too great, duty first.” As college graduates, you now have a very special additional duty- that of mentoring others, developing the next generation of leaders. you accomplished something really hard and really important- pay it forward.
The next Army value is Honor. It is an honor to serve and we honor your service. When I joined the Army in 1978, we were not permitted to stop anywhere on the way home in uniform out of fear for our own safety. Now, you can’t walk two steps without someone saying, “Thank you for your service.” It is encouraging to hear those words and to know that military service is honored. In our own lives, the more we say “thank you” and the less often we say “please,” the happier we will be! Being an appreciative person is the foundation of happiness. As society recognizes and thanks us, so we should take to heart the value of gratitude. And, we all thank you for your service. There are perilously few heroes in the world today, and you sitting in this audience are among the very few. We honor you.
Integrity consists of doing the right thing even when no one else is looking. A person who has integrity never has to look behind them to see who may be listening. A person who has integrity can sleep soundly at night, unafraid of their actions being revealed. Integrity implies consistency- saying the same thing to anyone who asks. One of the most important things I learned to say in the Army was, “I don’t know Sir. I don’t know Ma’am. I will find out and get back to you.” Never be afraid to admit what you don’t know or when you get it wrong- it is a sign of wisdom and we learn through asking questions. When Isador Rabi received the Nobel Prize in Physics, he commented that his mother was the greatest influence in his life that led him to become an award-winning scientist. What did your mother do that was different that other mothers, they asked? His answer- every day when I came home from school, instead of asking me what I learned in school, my mother wanted to know- Did you ask any good questions? I learned that asking questions is how you learn. Integrity, credibility is an essential element of leadership. No one can know everything- asking questions enhances our credibility. Don’t let your graduation be the end of your learning!
Our 4th value, Courage, is too often misunderstood as carelessness or reckless disregard. Courage does not mean an absence of fear, it means doing the right thing even when we are afraid. In the moral realm, courage means fiercely resisting temptation and peer pressure. Thomas Jefferson famously noted that, “One man with courage is a majority.” Be that courageous individual. Lead by example. Once our unit was at annual training at Ft. Lewis. On the last day in our office space, we were all anxious to get home, so we decided to begin breaking down the equipment and packing it away. Imagine the chagrin of our commander when he walked in to show off his space to his boss, only to find it in various stages of disarray. What impressed me incredibly was a young captain who faced the Colonel and said, “I was the highest ranking person in the building when this decision was made; I take responsibility.” To see this young man’s moral courage was remarkable. What made his action even more impressive was that he did not confess after being caught- he openly and readily stepped up to the plate. Courage means taking responsibility for our actions and being willing to admit when we are wrong. Do you ever listen to Pandora? Pandora tries to predict what music you will like, and, just like the rest of us, Pandora occasionally gets it wrong. But, unlike the rest of us, Pandora has no issues about apologizing and asking for forgiveness. When a new song plays, you have the option of marking a box- “I don’t like this song. It is not what this station should be playing”, and Pandora immediately replies, “Sorry about that. We’ll try something else and will never play this song again!” Wow! If only we could program our friends and our loved ones to apologize so promptly, elegantly and unabashedly. Rabbi Harold Kushner expressed it thus- “The four holiest words in the English language are ‘I may be wrong.’ For better or worse, that’s not how human beings work. Apologizing does not come easily or naturally. I am not a fan of preemptive forgiveness without a specific request for forgiveness on the part of others. And, I also think that it is healthier for us to let go of anger and hostility so that we don’t poison our own souls. It take courage to admit when you are wrong. You will never go wrong with a courageous and heartfelt apology.
Our Loyalties are excellent indications of who we are at the deepest level. Are we loyal to our family? Our community? Our country? To what do we pledge our allegiance? Loyalty is the 5th Army value. In 1989 there was an earthquake in Armenia. Over 30,000 people were killed in less than 4 minutes. As one dad rushed to the rubble that had been his son’s school, bystanders told him that all the students had died. “Go home, face reality,” they told him. That father dug at the rubble for 38 hours before he heard his son respond to his call, “Dad? It’s me, Dad. I told the other kids not to worry. I told ‘em that if you were alive, you’d save me and when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised, “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” You did it, Dad!” The son then allowed the 14 other survivors to be rescued first, because he knew that “No matter what, you’ll always be there for me!” That’s loyalty. People are loyal to all sorts of misguided causes. Make sure that your loyalties align with your values.
Let’s talk about number 6- Respect. An ancient rabbi wisely said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Respect yourself, respect others. Each and every person is made in the divine image. Self-respect is fundamental, and we must respect each other as well. We all treasure our good name. Reputation is ours to lose, and we should safeguard our own and each other’s, even more so in this culture of rampant social media exposure, when one negative comment can live on for a lifetime. We show each other respect by watching our words. We are aware of the power of words to create or destroy. Once words are launched, they are impossible to take back. We should be as careful with what we say as we would be with a loaded weapon. Listening to others is another way that we demonstrate respect. If you shut yourself off from loving criticism you will never grow as a person. Be open to feedback and seek continual self-improvement. “Who is wise?,” ask the rabbis. “The person who learns from everyone.”
Finally- Selfless Service, a value not much seen in our culture of individualism and what’s in it for me? I grew up in the era of “Be all that you can be,” and, oh!, how I detested, “An Army of one!” Stupidest slogan ever! An Army of one is non-functional, or, at least, dysfunctional. Teamwork is essential for military success and it is essential for success in life and a fundamental aspect of life in community. “Leadership,” write Kouzes and Posner, “is a team sport.” Veterans have a special bond, and, values that our culture desperately needs. Duty, Honor, Integrity, Courage, Loyalty, Respect, and, Self-less Service- Uncle Sam needed you once and you heeded the call. Uncle Sam still needs you, to bring your passionate commitment to bear, serving our country in new ways as college graduates. I’d like to conclude with these inspiring words of Corporal Pat Tillman, who taught us that, “Passion is what makes life interesting, what ignites our soul, fuels our love and carries our friendships, stimulates our intellect, and pushes our limits… A passion for life is contagious and uplifting.” Go forth and be passionate.
CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell May, 2015