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2014 Remarks at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University

As delivered.

Thank you for inviting me to be here with you. It is a privilege to celebrate the admirable and honorable choice you have made to pursue military service.

Today we recognize your dedication and offer our deepest gratitude for the courage and the selflessness you will continue to demonstrate in the months and years to come. You are distinguished among your classmates and fellow citizens by virtue of your connections to two institutions with lasting and storied legacies: the Unites States military and Harvard University.

Your accomplishments are intertwined with their histories, and you will and have shaped them as they have shaped and will shape you. Just as many professors and fellow classmates have learned about the military by having you in their House, or section, or classroom, there will be many—in the military and elsewhere—who will come to know Harvard through you. One of your predecessors, commissioned here several years ago, even reported to me that when she was in Basic Training her fellow Marines gave up her name entirely and just called her “Harvard.” Now, since there are four of you going to Basic Training this year together, maybe you will have to be Harvard 1, Harvard 2, Harvard 3, and Harvard 4—it might get confusing.

You will establish and deepen others’ understandings of the University—as have so many men and women before you. 

Now, the actions of some of those men and women define the very space in which we are now gathered. One hundred years ago this summer, a conflict began that would spur warfare on an unprecedented scale. During World War I, some 11,000 individuals from Harvard served with the Allied forces. Here on this campus, one of the very first ROTC programs in the country was formed, and its students marched through Boston in a show of national preparedness. In 1916, Captain Constant Cordier, whose saber you may have seen in Harvard’s Army ROTC office, said of the newly formed Harvard Regiment that, and I’m quoting him, “In all this land, there is no better material for officers than is found in the student body of Harvard.”

Memorial Church, just behind us, was built in memory of the hundreds of individuals from Harvard who died in World War I. The alumni who led efforts to support its design and construction sought to create, in their words, “a shrine of deep spiritual significance to commemorate the idealism and the cheerful sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the cause.” Intended to be “a standing monument of the spiritual and an embodiment of the highest ideals,” Memorial Church was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1932.

On a plaque inside Mem Church that lists Harvard’s Medal of Honor recipients, two names appear from World War I: Charles Whittlesey, a 1908 graduate of the Law School, and George McMurtry, College Class of 1899. These two Harvard men were commanding officers of the legendary Lost Battalion, approximately 550 men isolated by German forces after an American attack in the Argonne Forest. Refusing to surrender in spite of heavy casualties and lack of food and water, Major Whittlesey defended his position for five days until relief, summoned by carrier pigeon, arrived. All but 194 men were killed, wounded, or captured, but the battalion held its ground. Captain Cordier’s words were accurate: there proved to be “no better material for officers” than that found at Harvard. 

With your commissioning today, you become part of that tradition. You will honor the service and sacrifice of those who came before you through your own commitment. Whittlesey came to Harvard from Wisconsin; McMurtry from Pennsylvania; you have come from nearby Groton and distant San Diego, from Colorado, Connecticut, and Maryland.

Some of you came from military families with traditions you are dedicated to uphold. One of you came with a family of your own. All of you leave with a shared identity, as an indelible part of Harvard and its heritage of military and national service. 

May you continue to support one another and to test yourselves. May you take full advantage of the learning you have gained here to make a better world for others. We take pride in your dedication and your leadership. It is an honor to congratulate you and your families on this very important day.