Final Exercises 2014: Mabus Speech

The Honorable Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy
Commencement Address, May 18, 2014
University of Virginia

President Sullivan, thank you so much.

I'm very glad to be here.  To the faculty and the staff, the families and friends, and most of all to the University of Virginia Class of 2014, thank you for having me. 

The first time I spoke here President George H.W. bush invited all 50 Governors to a conference on education. The fact that he picked UVA for our meeting shows the regard our nation's leaders have for this university, and its place in American history.

From its earliest days, this University has been one of the nation's finest, with some of the best facilities and faculty in the county. It remains so today, which is a testament to the skill and talent of everybody sitting here today, faculty, staff, students, friends, and supporters.

To the Class of 2014: Congratulations to you.  You've done the work, you've made the effort, and you’ve put in the time.  But remember, you couldn't be here without a whole lot of other people.  

Behind every single one of you are mothers and fathers, and grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, coaches, teachers.  Hundreds and hundreds of other people, a lot of them you may not even know, who made your accomplishment today possible. 

After the ceremony – and I know you're going to do this anyway, but give them an extra hug.  Thank them one more time for what they've done, because in a real way, this is their day also.

It's also important to remember those who in a much larger sense make days like today possible.  I'm talking about those who have worn and are wearing the uniform of our country, those who stand the watch every day to keep us safe and secure.

The Grounds here at UVA have been home to students as wide ranging as Woodrow Wilson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Tina Fey. Two of my predecessors as Secretary of the Navy, Hilary Herbert and Graham Claytor, studied here.

From the Navy, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, who was a pioneer of naval aviation and explorer of both Poles, went to school here before he moved to the U.S. Naval Academy. So did Fleet Admiral Bull Halsey, who helped lead our Navy and Marine Corps across the Pacific in World War II. And the 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps Alexander Vandegrift, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership in the Soloman Islands campaign, studied here as well.

These military greats from UVA's past were truly extraordinary.  But so are all who serve this country today – every single person who wears the cloth of this country. 

Every single person, just as professional, just as dedicated, just as skilled as the heroes of our past.  We ought to be grateful to all those who've made the choice to defend this unique and great country, because less than one percent – one percent – of America wears the uniform today.  One percent to protect the other 99 percent of us; one percent who have volunteered and given freely of themselves for years and years, and who have sacrificed day after day.

They are the 6000 Marines in Afghanistan and almost 40,000 deployed around the world from central Africa, to the islands of the Pacific, to the shores of the Black Sea. 

They are the thousands of Sailors on the 100 ships of our fleet which are forward deployed today from the coasts of Europe, to the Middle East, to the South China Sea to Northeast Asia.  They are the soldiers and airmen in Korea.  They are the Coast Guardsmen in the frigid waters of the Arctic. 

They went to Indonesia after the Christmas Tsunami, to Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina, to Japan after the Sendai Tsunami, to Haiti after the earthquake, to New York and New Jersey after Sandy, and this past winter to the Philippines following Typhon Haiyan.  They are your friends, brothers, and sisters – even if you don’t know them.  They are making a difference; they are doing something for others, something beyond themselves.

They have endured hardships and family separations, and have undertaken an incredibly high pace of operations during the nearly 13 years we have been at war.  Thousands have paid the ultimate price of their lives.  Tens of thousands more have come home missing limbs and with scars, both visible and invisible, that they will carry until their final day.

Those who have served and are serving are here today as grandparents, parents, family members and friends.  Some are sitting with you as graduates and fellow students who came back here on the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program. I was honored yesterday to commission ROTC graduates in all the services, who from the next links in that unbroken chain.  I’d like to take a moment as we approach Memorial Day to recognize the veterans here regardless of when or where you served.  Please stand and let us thank you.

The question I want to ask the rest of you is will you join them?  Will you serve?  Now I’m not saying, and I certainly hope that you don’t have to, risk your life.   Although we need skilled and dedicated people protecting our country, the military is far from the only way to serve.  There are other quiet acts of heroism that go on around us every day.  It’s the act of a teacher, staying after school to help a struggling student.  It’s the act of a nurse, staying by the bedside of an injured patient to provide care and comfort.  It’s the act of a neighbor, shoveling the snow from the driveway of an elderly neighbor without being asked.  Or maybe it’s the act of a father putting people through college without ever telling his family. 

It is the service that matters, service to our fellow Americans, service to those in need all over the world.  I hope that I learned that in my own life.  I graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1969, when the Cold War and Vietnam were at their height.  I learned as a 21 year old Naval Officer what it means to be part of a team with lives at stake.  I learned that what I did had ramifications the next watch, the next day, and maybe the next year.  

So do something outside yourself, do something to make a difference, do something to give back to this unique nation of ours.  Do something to help people who may never know you and may never realize what you did.  Do something that is not just about you or your advancement.

Now there is nothing wrong with making money.  There is nothing wrong with seeing how far you can go in your chosen field or profession.  There is nothing wrong and a lot right with looking after yourself and your family.

But, at the end of your life, the most important things aren’t going to be the money or the stuff that you accumulate.  I have never seen a hearse with a U-Haul.  The important things will be the people you’ve touched, the lives you’ve made better, and the futures you’ve made brighter.

I am privileged to lead the Navy and Marine Corps, the greatest expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known, and one of the best things I get to do is talk to veterans.

Earlier this year I was in the Marshall Islands, a group of tiny atolls in the middle of the Pacific.  70 years ago a task force of Marines and Sailors landed there during the march across the Pacific.  Standing under the rusting Japanese anti-aircraft guns that are still mounted in the positions along that beach, I was reminded of how bloody and costly that one battle was.

While I was there I had the honor to have dinner with a number of veterans of the landing operations, who had traveled half way across the Pacific Ocean to remember what they accomplished there, to stand on that beach and remember the friends they lost there. 

Every one of these men told me how important their service was, how important it was to them to do something bigger than themselves – to make a difference. They remembered their service like it was yesterday, and after seventy years it had not dimmed in brilliance or significance.

I also meet a lot of people that aren’t veterans, but remember the two years they spent teaching when they were young, or the time they spent helping to get something they cared about put into action, or the mission trip that they made and how they helped build a school, build a hospital, and build a future for others.

One thing is certain as you go into an uncertain world: There is no end of things that need doing.  Will you become America’s next greatest generation, lauded for your accomplishments 60 or 70 years from now? 

Do something that will last.  It doesn’t need to be the Marine Corps – but look at the Peace Corps as so many UVA graduates have done. You don't have to run for office, vote and get passionately interested in the events of your time.  Whether they are political or not, don’t let them pass you by.  Get involved in your school or community, get involved in your state or your country, get involved in your world.  The Greatest Generation changed the world.  They made it better – and you can too.

Finally, I hope that you will do something for yourselves that you don’t see the results of the next day or maybe ever.  My father Raymond E. Mabus Sr., a member of the Greatest Generation, earned his living growing trees in Ackerman, Mississippi. 

He died when he was eighty-five years old.  In the last year of his life he did not cut a single tree, but he planted thousands.  He knew for an absolute fact he would not see them grow and mature.  He knew for an absolute fact that he would never get any personal benefit from those trees.  But he planted those trees as a matter of faith.  He planted those trees as a matter of hope.  He planted those trees for the granddaughters that he never met and for their children and generations of his family that he would never know. 

Cherish your day, cherish your graduation, you’ve earned it.  But when this day is over, you need to go out and earn some other things that will be cherished long after you live.  Tomorrow – ask yourself, what trees will I plant?

It’s your turn, it’s your life. 

Congratulations and Godspeed.