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2018 Remarks at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Tercentenary Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

Secretary Carter, Lt. Col. Godfrin, Lt. Col. Ott, Capt. Horten. Commissionees. Families and friends.

Last January I received a mysterious package in the mail. I opened it to find a gift from a Marine Corps captain who had been commissioned here on this stage in 2010. Capt. Shawna Sinnott wrote to explain that on the eve of her fourth deployment, she was sending me a flag she had flown in my honor when she was stationed in Afghanistan. I was deeply moved by her gift and her story, as I have been by the stories of sacrifice and service of all 74 Harvard students I have cheered on as they have taken their officer’s oaths in this ceremony over the past 10 years.

From the outset of my presidency, I have believed that it is imperative that Harvard and the military maintain a close relationship. Military service and sacrifice are an important part of this University’s history — going back even before George Washington and his troops bivouacked on the hill just behind us and also used my office as a soldiers’ hospital. But more significantly, strong connections between Harvard and our armed forces are essential to Harvard’s — and the nation’s — present and future. Harvard students aspiring to be leaders and influencers in America and the world need to understand the military. And the military has and will continue to benefit from the contributions of the extraordinary leaders educated here. As Gen. David Petraeus, himself a soldier-scholar, reminds us, “The most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind.”

Less than half of 1 percent of the American population currently serves in the armed forces. Christian Yoo, commissioned in the Navy in 2013, observed that — and I quote him — “For many of my classmates at the College … I was one of the only, if not the only, member of the military they had ever met.”

For her part, when Shawna began Marine basic training she discovered how odd her Harvard identity seemed to many around her. Her name became not Shawna but “Harvard” — used first as a kind of mockery or hazing, but soon emerging as a form of respect as she coolly demonstrated her physical and intellectual prowess. She notes that what she brought with her from Harvard proved in many ways invaluable in her new military environment. For example, the special concentration she pursued here on terrorism enabled her to be quickly approved as “uniquely qualified” for a Military Occupational Specialty in counterterrorism. 

Other recent ROTC graduates describe how their Harvard experience has aided them in their service to our country.

Colin Dickinson, an economics concentrator commissioned as a Navy officer in 2013, says of his liberal arts education: “I can honestly say that I have drawn upon my learning in everything from marine biology to the tales of Homer in my attempt to best serve my sailors and lead them to success.”

Catherine Brown, Class of 2014, observed that, “Much of a Marine Corps officer’s job … lies in receiving information, analyzing it, coming to a timely decision based on that analysis, and communicating a plan.” These tools for rigorous thinking were honed by her studies at Harvard.

Joshua Foote, commissioned in the Navy in 2010, served as a combat officer aboard the USS John McCain, where he found that the diversity of the Harvard community prepared him well. He said: “I met people at Harvard from every kind of background and learned to interact with them and relate to them. This is essential for a naval officer.”

Those commissioned here at Harvard over the past 10 years have pursued every imaginable field of study — physics, neurobiology, mechanical engineering, government, philosophy, applied math, history, chemical biology, East Asian studies, Near Eastern languages, and more. And they have entered every branch of the service in a wide variety of roles. We can claim a MEDCOM doctor, an Army dentist, a Black Hawk pilot, nuclear engineers, intelligence officers, submarine officers, language specialists, Naval and Air Force pilots, and at least one aspiring astronaut. 

A number have seen combat. Joseph Kristol, commissioned in 2009, served in Helmand province in Afghanistan during some of the toughest fighting there. Schools and markets had been abandoned and Taliban flags flew everywhere. Kristol wrote: “It is truly a privilege to serve with the Marines in combat. Unfortunately I learned firsthand that privilege has a huge price.”

We do not know yet what path will unfold for those of you on the stage today. We do not know what price might be asked. But we know that Harvard has helped you to develop skills and capacities that will enable you to make significant contributions in the years ahead. And we know that the most important and fundamental of your contributions will be the selflessness and service that your decision to join the military represents.

James Brooks, commissioned in the Navy in 2014, put it this way: “You just have to live every second knowing that you are living for a bigger purpose, and you are living for someone else and for your country.” I thought about those bigger purposes when I received Shawna’s flag — and it is that flag from Shawna that is flying here for this ceremony today.

We honor your dedication to that bigger purpose and to your country. And we honor you and all those who have preceded you. Congratulations on joining the long Crimson line.