At 0859 hours the narrator announced;
"Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. We will begin the graduation ceremony in one minute."
Five hundred friends and family were gathered at Victory Field, Fort Knox, Kentucky, to see their Basic Combat Training Soldier graduate. They were buzzing with excitement, as they gazed across the parade grounds to try to identify their Soldier from all the GI Joe, American Soldier look-alikes: exact same uniform, identical haircut, all 20 pounds lighter, and they all wore that solemn, resolute, confident demeanor of a disciplined warrior.
The gathered crowd of families and friends had not seen their Soldier for more than two months and you could hear the crowd excitedly surveying the graduating Soldiers in mass formation, one hundred yards to their front:
"There he is!
No wait, that's not him…is it?
There! In the first group on the far right...no, wait… over there, the second from the left group, front row, 4th person in...no...aaaaaaah..they all look so much alike from over here! Oh, where is he!?"
The morning was hot and sultry, and you could see the sweat stains already across the chests of the Drill Sergeants standing immaculately, stoically, at "parade rest" (locked in a position of near-attention), standing silently in front of their units all the way across the parade field. Guests took their seats and visited anxiously, mopped the accumulating sweat from their faces, and awaited the final announcement to begin the graduation ceremony. Nervous excitement filled the air as both graduating Soldiers and assembled guests were keenly aware of the portent of this graduation moment: America was a Nation at War, and these young men were now trained for battle and would very soon be in harm’s way, halfway around the world. Danger, adventure, patriotism, valor, courage, duty, honor and fear all swept through both Soldiers and assembled onlookers.
The 200 Soldiers standing before us, had endured and then triumphed through their ten weeks of intensive, combat-preparation, under the watchful eye of their mother-father-brother-sister-girlfriend...all rolled up into one loud, confrontational, outspoken, brazen, highly skilled and very professional Drill Sergeant. Today it was time to say good-bye to their Drill, as they moved on to their diverse, specialized occupational skills training, now that they had proven they could soldier with the best.
It is an amazing phenomenon that after 26 years I can still remember all three of my Drill Sergeants from rocky, poison-ivy-infested Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in 1986: Staff Sergeant Curry, Sergeant Lewis and Sergeant Haggerty, and I can see their stormy, angry, animated faces in vivid detail in my memory to this day. Those three drill sergeants made a lasting impression in my life, as they were in the profession of training me to stay alive on the battlefield and ensure that the enemy soldier had every opportunity to give his life for his country, NOT the other way around. Our job was to live and win the conflict and do our duty better than any other Soldier on any given battlefield. Our Drill Sergeants trained us to this end, and I learned my fundamental Soldier skills and values. They did their jobs well.
I had been asked by the Basic Combat Training company commander to be the guest speaker that morning, so I was seated on the reviewing stand where I could take in the full pageantry of the morning. Troops were moved in mass formation; the Army band played its fife and drum music and all those marvelous military melodies that ring of John Philip Sousa; families applauded each movement and announcement of units arriving; and the graduating Soldiers were moved into their proper place in the center of the parade field. Once all were assembled, Old Glory was brought to her rightful place of honor front-and-center and honors were rendered, then all were re-seated. It was time to hear from the guest speaker who would make a few comments to the Soldiers and their families; honoring the graduates and applauding both family and Soldier.
The graduating Soldiers were far across the field to my direct front and their friends and families were seated in the 15 overflowing bleachers behind me and well on around the edges of the parade field. Behind me sat the Company Commander for the graduating class. Off to my right front sat the Battalion and Brigade Commanders and their Command Sergeants Major. The wind was blowing gently and the Stars and Stripes were waving proudly in the breeze as I took in the pageantry of the moment and began.
It was already hot. Both Soldiers and family members were feeling the mid-morning heat, and I had been on the parade field many, many times as a Solider, so I understood their pride as well as their ever-increasing discomfort, so wisdom suggested that it was time to hurry up my comments and get these troops graduated and released to spend time with their families for some just earned and well-deserved “recovery time”.
Glancing at my two tiny 3” x 5” note cards, I stood, took a long look at the Soldiers and the crowd of more than 500 assembled around the field, and I began my comments:
"Good morning American Soldiers! And good morning to all you wonderful friends and family who are here this warm morning to celebrate the achievement of your sons, husbands, brothers, grandsons, fathers, uncles, friends and loved ones [all-male basic training at Fort Knox, so no female graduates on the field that morning]”.
Turning slightly toward the audience to my left and my right, I asked:
"Why are you all here ladies and gentlemen, sitting here in the sun on this muggy, hot, August summer morning at lovely Fort Knox, Kentucky?"
There was a long pause.
"You are here for your Soldier!"
"And we are here today to honor both you, and your Soldier, and to get him graduated and then off for some great family time with all of you!"
There was polite applause scattered across the bleachers and the overflow.
"In May of 1986, 24 short years ago, I stood in your ranks, a Private First Class in the United States Army at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, glad to be finished with Basic Training and ready to go find my darling wife and be there for the two-weeks away arrival of our first child and all the anticipated joy of being a father. I know something of what this day means to you all. And I know something of what you are now hoping, that my comments won’t take too long! "
There were a few chuckles and polite laughter from the audience, and stoic silence from the troops.
"But something has changed from my graduation day and yours here today.” I continued, “For today we are a Nation at war.”
“Your generation witnessed one of the very rare moments in American history, where an enemy dared to strike us here on our own soil. You watched the Twin Towers in New York City and then the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., attacked and violently destroyed or severely damaged, and thousands of our fellow citizens ruthlessly killed by an enemy taught to hate America and all the freedoms and inherent “Great Satan” evils they had been taught that we were responsible for in the world. Some of you were only eight years old when that happened, but many of you were 12 to 15, as I see some older trainees amongst you. All of you joined our Volunteer Army knowing your life is jeopardized as a direct and immediate result of your joining with us!"
The audience was now silent and somber.
"When you knew the terrible danger to you, you answered the call!"
"While you know there have already been more than 35,000 Purple Hearts awarded in this war to our American Soldier brothers and sisters, who have been wounded in combat operations in the War...you answered the call!"
"While you knew there have been over 5,500 American Soldiers killed in combat operations in the current War on Terror...you answered the call!!"
"Why are you here American Soldier? Why would you risk so much to join our ranks as a Soldier in a time of war and great danger?"
"I work over in that big building back behind you, and I market and recruit for the Army. Our data tells us that there is no doubt that all of you joined us because you were looking for a job. Yes, many pundits in the world of national journalism make great headway and gain wider readership by arguing persuasively that the main or only reason you joined our Army ranks was because you needed a job. Many conclude from this that in desperation you gave up your life as you had no other options. Even many of your family members here with us today might still be anxious for your life and even angry at the risk you are taking, and even some of you might still not understand the deepest reasons why you are here today, graduating from Basic Combat Training.”
“So I want to tell you what I have come to know about the soul of the American Soldier; about you, and why you are here today, graduating from Combat Basic Training and becoming full-fledged fighting men; Soldiers in the American Army."
"Here is what I know about why you are here, standing before us to be honored today. Somewhere in your recent past, you watched a football, soccer, basketball, baseball or hockey game. Or you turned on a NASCAR race or watched the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s National Finals in Oklahoma or Wyoming. Before that event started, all across America, the American flag was raised to the music and words of our National Anthem. Every one of you saw that flag go up and felt a love of Country from all those silently reverent or softly singing sports fans in that arena; even across the airwaves you could feel it. You felt that hushed awe that Old Glory inspires in the American soul. Many of you saw an old combat veteran with a tear or two running down his cheek. Some saw a zoom-in on a lady crying as she honored her son or husband far away in combat operations today keeping America safe so that you could be free to attend your favorite sporting event. You FELT IT...that ELECTRICITY...that POWER...that longing to join our honored profession of the brotherhood of Arms. You felt that higher calling to risk your life to protect and preserve your family, your loved ones, our American way of life and the American Constitution deeply at the heart of our unprecedented world freedoms that the Constitution and the American Soldier protect 24/7...with our lives."
"You felt that warrior-surge from the depths of your soul, and you answered the call!"
"Maybe you also have seen some old or young hands placed with love over their hearts during the passing of the American flag during a hometown parade. You saw a brother, an aunt, a father or a loved friend step up, join the military and put on the American Soldiers' uniform and willingly risk their lives as they traveled halfway around the world to fight in the ongoing war, and your soul stirred within you as you knew then, that you too had a calling to join our Army Strong team to protect and defend."
"You answered the call!"
"Think now of your reasons for joining us...think and remember today...why you became an American Soldier and why you stand here today to be honored by us all at your graduation ceremony. Think and remember the most powerful, compelling reason of why your soul was stirred and why you answered the call."
"When I see all 200 of you standing at parade rest there on the far side of this field, I cannot help but think of the words of Jesus of Bethlehem, as recorded in the book of Matthew, when he said to those gathered around him; "Ye are the Light of the World."
“American Soldiers here with me today, facing me from the far side of this honored parade field; to all the lands of darkness and oppression where you go to fight and stand for freedom, YOU are the light of the World!"
“Matthew went on to quote the Lord when he said to me and to you; 'Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven'."
"I say to you all today; 'Let your lights shine, your American Soldier Light shine!', as you continue to answer the call."
"We are honored to have you stand with us today as our Nation proudly and doggedly fights the ongoing War on Terror across the globe. In time, you will lead this Army; the most powerful, lethal, Heaven-blessed military force on the face of the earth...this the American Army."
“I honor you today. We all who are assembled here, we honor you this day!
"Be Army STRONG!"
With that I was done and the audience applauded warmly and we closed out the ceremony. I gave the command to the First Sergeant for the graduates to "Pass in Review!"
Off the parade field in perfect cadence and lock-step, and fluidity of motion, came the 200 honored graduating Army Soldiers, finishing their exit march off the field with a final series of formal commands beginning with "Eyes, Right!" to salute the reviewing stand, then a “Ready Front” as they looked back toward their straight-ahead destination and marched off to join their assembled fans and supporters who had driven or flown in from all across the United States to be there for their Soldier.
It was a beautiful way to start one more Army day and to honor the next generation of Solider-leaders who will keep this Nation free by protecting her with their lives.
Here are some soldiers and their Drill Sergeant.
This is me (below) on the day of this speaking engagement to the Basic Combat Training Graduates at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was remembering back to the day 24 years earlier, when I stood in their place at a similar graduation ceremony from Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I knew from the thrill and challenge and soldiering of Army Basic Training that I loved serving my Country and that I had found my chosen profession; the Profession of Arms, in defense of the United States of America.
I had been asked by the Basic Combat Training Company Commander to be the Guest Speaker that morning, so once all were assembled, Old Glory was brought to her place of honor front and center, and all were seated, I was asked to make a few comments to the Soldiers and families. That speech is summarized above, as extracted from memory and from the two 5 x 8 note cards I used to share my thoughts that day. It was an honor to be able to speak, and to have so many read this ArmyStrongStory and pass it along to others.
This is a photo of me speaking that morning. The graduating soldiers were far across the field and their friends and families were seated in 15 bleachers behind me and well on around the edges of the bleachers and the parade field. Behind me is Captain James Hassell, the Company Commander for the graduating class.