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2013 Remarks at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Fong Auditorium, Boylston Hall, Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

Today we celebrate graduating Harvard students who have chosen to make a commitment to the nation and its service. Three of you have trained as part of Harvard ROTC, and we recognize your dedication and achievement in meeting that program’s rigorous demands as two of you will receive your commissions as officers today. Two others of you are being commissioned as part of the Marine Platoon Leaders Class, and you too have displayed determination and achievement in completing those exacting requirements. We recognize and honor each of you and offer our special gratitude for your courage and selflessness in choosing a path in which your own welfare—and even your life—are subordinated to the needs of others.

And we recognize today as well the more than 300 students currently enrolled at Harvard who have come here after a term of service to the nation—some to study and then return to the military with new knowledge and skills, others in the midst of their transition to civilian lives. Let me tell you about just a few of those students: A major in the Air Force has enrolled in the Graduate School of Design to study how urban infrastructure and design shapes violent urban frontlines. He plans to pursue a career assisting governments in mitigating conflict in divided cities. A Marine who served in Iraq is seeking degrees at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School in order to work on issues of water scarcity and national security. A pilot who completed two deployments in Iraq is pursuing her M.D. with the intention of serving as a military physician. A member of the College Class of 2013 spent four years in the Marines—including two tours in Iraq—before entering Harvard as a freshman and joining the lacrosse team. He will work with Teach For America next year. The first-year class at the Law School includes 16 veterans. One is a young woman graduate of West Point who served in Afghanistan as a specialist in defusing bombs.

I could cite many more examples of extraordinary individuals among us who have served with distinction and are now making invaluable contributions to our campus community as they prepare to make ever greater contributions to the world. We are grateful to them and for them and so salute them at today’s ceremony as we salute our newly commissioned officers. And we extend very special congratulations to the nearly 150 veterans across Harvard’s Schools who will graduate on Thursday alongside today’s commissionees.

But as we offer our gratitude to those in our community who will serve and who have served, let me ask that all of us reflect for a moment about what it means—and what it should mean—to thank them for their service. Two years ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made some striking observations in a commencement address at West Point. “Our work is appreciated,” he said to the about-to-be Army officers before him. “Of that I am certain. There isn’t a town or a city I visit,” he continued, “where people do not convey to me their great pride in what we do … But I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle. This is important,” he continued, “because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities the Constitution levies upon them.”

The military now includes just one percent of the population. We are in danger of becoming what Admiral Mullen calls “a people uninformed.” That was a significant part of why I was committed to welcoming ROTC back to Harvard. As citizens, we have an obligation to understand our military and to ensure that it and its members do not stand apart from our national life. We must take responsibility for our interdependence.

And we civilians have an obligation too to try to understand what Admiral Mullen calls “the full weight of the burden” the military carries and “the price” its members pay when they “return from battle.” As those on the stage today take up their new assignments, many soldiers are returning from war. If we are truly to thank our veterans for their service, we must do better in meeting their needs—in working to alleviate the burdens they have assumed and the sacrifices they have made in our behalf. Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless, including increasing numbers of women. Because we are now so much better at dealing with severe battlefield wounds, many more soldiers survive with devastating injuries and disabilities—some visible, some not so visible. And an estimated 250,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD.

Our thanks to the military for their service cannot just take the form of a phrase that falls from our lips when we encounter a member of that 1% who now defend and protect our nation. We must commit ourselves to taking responsibility for the burden our veterans have carried and the price they have paid; we must bind up their wounds and return to them the future they were willing to sacrifice in our behalf. And we must seek to understand, as we exercise our obligations as citizens, what, in Admiral Mullen’s words, we “are asking the military to endure.” That is the true way to thank them for their service and that would be the very best way for us to fully honor your service to come, your choice, your accomplishment and your dedication as you are commissioned today.