It’s all going to be over soon. You’ll be out on that clean, green field with the sun bearing down on you, bathing those crisp white uniforms in a blinding glare. You’ll sit for what seems like an eternity, maybe still shaking off the cobwebs from your last night on earth the night before, as I did. Then they’ll call your name and you’ll walk across the stage and someone important will hand you that thing that you’ve waited the four hardest years of your life for. Then the covers will get tossed into the air and you’ll all wander away to find a group of people that are as proud of you as any people have ever been of anyone alive. Someone might salute you on your way there. And that will feel as good as you imagined it would.
After the parties are over and you’re alone with yourself for the first time that night —maybe not if you’re lucky—you’ll pause and think to yourself that it wasn’t quite as amazing as you thought it would be. Not because it wasn’t amazing. But because nothing is as amazing as what the mind of a midshipmen builds up over four years of Spartan life at the United States Naval Academy. Then you’ll drift off into a peaceful sleep and wake up the next day and your life will start.
You’ll find that, despite all the promises in the world, you’ve not been magically transported into some strange place where people see you as measurably different than those that didn’t just go through what you just did. You’ll get up in the morning and go to work. You’ll sit in traffic. You’ll learn the skills that ultimately make you useful to the organization for which you are a part of. You’ll deploy, maybe go to war. That will be different. But once you’re back, life will simply go on. And over time, this moment that matters so much to you right now, will fade too.
Before it does for you though, I’d like to ask you to do one thing, as a favor to an old grad whose been where you are and on to the other side and lived to tell about it. I’d ask you to remember one thing while it’s still fresh in your mind. Before it gets worn down by the erosion of war and family and life and all that comes after where you are today. Just one simple thing. Remember what you promised yourself you would be when you raised your hand and took this path instead of all the others you could possibly have taken.
You promised you would be good and strong.
Not the way that studious school children are good or that less than great people are simply good. Good the way that when evil seeks an adversary, it finds people like you in its path, every time. And strong enough to hold that impossible line when so few around us will ever even try.
The world is a little lost right now. It gets that way from time to time. But the thing that has kept us from spiraling off into oblivion as a species is that we are anchored to justice and decency by the good and strong among us. And when you applied and raised your hand and suffered through the demeaning, the suffocating, the illogical and the insane these last four years and held the unreasonable standard that you did, you committed to being one of those anchors. That’s the promise you made to yourself. That’s the promise you made to everyone who ever walked through the doors into that great hall.
It’s been 18 years since I walked across that stage. Some of my classmates have assumed command. Some are actively engaged in combat as I write this. Some are gone, having given their life to the war my generation fought or to the all too hard task of stopping the fight that they never could. Others are the leaders of industry. And some are stay at home moms. But wherever they are they’ve held fast to the commitment. They’ve not forgotten their charge to remember who they are or where they came from. And they’ve never forgotten what that means.
What lies ahead of you is life on this planet with all the other crazy people who haven’t figured out how to get off it yet. Whether or not you choose a life of service is immaterial. Because no matter what you choose to do, you’ve already chosen. Your life will be a life of service as the good and strong among us, wherever that is. Those are the orders you’re about to receive. No circumstance, be it war, peace or politics can ever change that.
Now go forward and do great things. And don’t you dare forget it.