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2016 Remarks at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to greet you—alumni, students, parents, friends—and especially the veterans who have joined us for this ceremony. I am delighted that this year we will be commissioning 12 new officers, the most since 2010. A few weeks ago, we welcomed Air Force ROTC back to campus, now completing the return of all three service branches that began after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Just this week we have seen powerful evidence of how that repeal has not only strengthened Harvard’s ties to the military, but has strengthened the armed forces more generally. On May 18, an openly gay man was sworn in as Secretary of the Army, and at West Point’s graduation last Saturday, Vice President Biden hailed the cadet who had served both as Brigade Commander and Class President—only the third individual in West Point history to be chosen for both positions. E.J. Coleman, whom I had the great honor to meet when I visited West Point in March, came out as gay during his undergraduate years. A decade ago, this extraordinary young man would have been compelled either to live a lie or leave the army. Throughout our history, the military and the nation have grown stronger together as they have become more inclusive—of blacks, of women, of gays and lesbians. And now our former Kennedy School colleague, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, has pledged to open our armed forces to transgendered persons as well. This is a historic time, one that reminds us of proud traditions these officers will carry forward into a new era as they join the long Crimson line.

One hundred years ago, Harvard students, anticipating the United States’ entrance into the Great War, joined what would become one of the country’s first—and at the time, largest—Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs. It was called the Harvard Regiment, and its members—more than 1,100 strong—received instruction, drilled and marched at Soldiers Field, and paraded through Boston in a show of national preparedness. Five months after the unit’s creation, The Cambridge Sentinel reported that a public exhibition by the regiment attracted more than 3,000 spectators to Harvard Stadium. By the 1917-18 academic year, there were 12 ROTC companies at Harvard. And when the United States at last entered the conflict, enrollments across the university plummeted as men marched off to war. By the end of hostilities, more than 11,000 Harvard men had served and more than 400 had died. President Lawrence Lowell was haunted by these deaths and he wrote by hand to the family of every lost undergraduate. These men were, he stated, “the choicest of their kind.”

Captain Constant Cordier, commander of that first Harvard ROTC regiment, would have agreed about the quality of his troops. He believed them inspired by what he called “an invincible spirit” and remarked that “in all this land there is no better material for officers than is found in the student body of Harvard.” A century later, I can find no better words to describe your commitment and your caliber.

Thank you for the selfless work you are about to undertake on behalf of your fellow citizens, and thank you for giving me an opportunity to express my gratitude on this very special day for you and for your families. It’s a great honor and a privilege to be here at your commissioning ceremony.

With your commissioning today, you today join an exceptional company, a fellowship unlike any other at this University or elsewhere. Over the past nine years, I have come to know a community within a community, a group of deeply committed and unfailingly loyal alumni who are connected across time and space to a remarkable military legacy. They have championed efforts to make the full complement of ROTC programs available. They have advocated on behalf of active duty and veteran students across the University. And they have reminded us of contributions made by Harvard’s sons and daughters to each branch of the armed services. 

I think of the names carved into stone in Memorial Church just behind us, in Memorial Hall, in quiet corners throughout our Schools, names of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I think of the Medal of Honor recipients whom we proudly claim as our own, and of their willingness to give more of themselves for others. 

I think, too, of those who are living and serving among us. Of a student whose special concentration—“Understanding Terrorism”—prepared her for service in Afghanistan, of the philosophy concentrator who found himself piloting a warship less than a year after graduating, of the government concentrator who led a flyover at The Game five years after she left Cambridge—and I think too of her surprise and delight a few years later when she discovered an eager Harvard alum among the would-be pilots she was instructing. I think also of the doctoral student at the Business School, an active duty Army Colonel, who created an extensive catalogue of the University’s military sites and symbols in order to deepen understanding of the service and sacrifice of Harvardians. He became a model of those ideals at the 2013 Boston Marathon, rushing into harm’s way to treat the wounded just seconds after the bombings.

I hope this extraordinary fellowship will grow in the years to come. With all three service Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs now united on our campus and open to future generations of undergraduates who, like you, are devoted to supporting and defending the Constitution. And—in the coming year—a Yellow Ribbon Program will be open, for the first time ever, to an unlimited number of eligible students across the University.

In a year, in five years, in a decade, we will be speaking about your accomplishments, about the ways in which you have challenged and changed the perspectives of those who will come to know Harvard University and the United States Armed Services through your actions and your words, your commitment to the values that have shaped these two great institutions for centuries. May an “invincible spirit” continue to guide your efforts as you seek to create a better world. Thank you—and many congratulations.