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Skelton speaks at Wentworth Military Academy graduation on Saturday
Skelton speaks at Wentworth Military Academy graduation on Saturday

Congressman Ike Skelton
LEXINGTON, Mo. (May 22, 2010) — Today, Congressman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) delivered the commencement address at Wentworth Military Academy and Junior College in Lexington, which he graduated many decades ago. In his speech, Skelton stated that the next “Greatest Generation” of Americans are those wearing today’s military uniform. He called American troops “national treasures” and noted that many of Wentworth’s graduates are as well:

“I am so proud of them, and every American should have gratitude toward them. I believe those who wear today’s uniform represent the best of America, forming America’s newest Greatest Generation. Today’s troops are national treasures. Many of you are taking your place among them.

“These patriots will continue to do good things if they receive the recognition, encouragement, and gratitude they have earned. If we do right by them, this new Greatest Generation will contribute even more by becoming the civic, community, and political leaders our towns and cities, our states, and our nation need.”

Wentworth’s 2010 Commencement Exercises recognized the achievements of 43 high school graduates, 22 college cadet graduates, and 22 civilian college graduates. The event also included a United States Army ROTC commissioning ceremony for 19 college cadets commissioned as Army second lieutenants.

Skelton’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
_____

Remarks of Congressman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.)
Wentworth Military Academy Commencement Exercises
United States ROTC Commissioning Ceremony and Final Review
Lexington, Missouri
May 22, 2010

Thank you, Colonel Lierman.

Let me congratulate each of the high school, college cadet, and civilian college graduates on this momentous occasion. As a graduate of Wentworth myself, I know how much hard work it has taken to complete your coursework. The lessons you have learned, the relationships you have made, and the impact you have had during your years in Lexington will last long into the years to come. Wentworth has equipped you to succeed in your future endeavors, and I wish you the best.

Today will also witness the commissioning of 19 newly minted Army second lieutenants. Each of them will recall their commissioning as a milestone, opening the door to a challenging military career. Our nation is in need of young, idealistic, determined young leaders, and a special congratulations goes to them.

I am honored to return to my alma mater for today’s ceremonies. Knowing how excited you are to celebrate your achievements, I do not expect that you will long remember the fine details of my speech. But I am not going to let that prevent me from sharing a few words of wisdom that have meant something to me and I hope will give you something to think about as you leave here and move into the next adventure of your lives.

Wentworth has been a polestar in our city of Lexington for over 130 years. Its contributions to American society as well as to the American military have been significant. This is the place that first inspired and shaped my interest in things military. It goes without saying that Wentworth has been a major influence in my life and I have carried with me the lessons learned here. If your experience was anything like mine, memories of the faculty and staff have had a positive impact on you.

Every time I step foot on the Wentworth campus, I have a sense of nostalgia. As a boy, one of my buddies was the son of a Wentworth faculty member. I remember standing with my friend — in the rain, no less — to watch the Corps lower the flag and prepare to march into dinner. Each cadet wore the issued red rubberized raincoat and cap, which most cadets wore with a front and back peak. They marched to dinner, up the steps and through the door under the inscription, “Achieve the Honorable.”

As a freshman in high school, I became a cadet. I posted a less-than-stellar academic record, but fortunately earning a good grade in Colonel Sellers’ Latin class was not a requirement to serve as America’s ambassador to Great Britain, or to serve as the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. During freshman year, I played trombone in the marching band, but I have to say that the highlight of the year was making the rifle team.

Each of us was issued an ’03 Springfield bolt-action rifle, and we were admonished never to forget the rifle number. The same was true my second year as we were issued an M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle. Again, we were admonished never to forget the rifle number.

I did not forget. As per the instructions: the number of my ’03 Springfield was 3819965, and the number of my M1 was 4018591.

My second year at Wentworth, I had my sights set on West Point, so I began serious study, and even earned a place on the special distinction list. But that was the year I was forced to leave school with a serious illness.

I returned to attend Wentworth Junior College after graduating from Lexington High School. It was then that I devoted my efforts to scholarship and the track team. I made good friends on the track. My fellow two-miler, Ernest Scott, who was a much better runner than I and who later became a federal forest ranger in Idaho, remained a friend through the years. Those were good days, and a turning point in my life.

The trouble with inviting an “old boy” to be your graduation speaker is that you get to hear the stories from yesteryear. I’d be remiss if I failed to tell you how tough Wentworth was during my time as a student compared to now. Undoubtedly, when someone from your class returns to give a graduation speech, his or her comments will note how much more difficult Wentworth was back in your day.

Today’s graduation celebrates the steps each of you has completed to prepare for the future. It is a day to look forward. I can remember when I was in school, a guest speaker at an assembly told the students, “you are the leaders of tomorrow.” At that point in my life, it was very easy to shrug off that statement. It’s hard to imagine your buddies grown up and raising families, operating their own businesses, participating in civic life, leading a platoon of soldiers, or running for political office. But somehow it happens. Today, with your degree, you are on the brink of that tomorrow, and people will be looking to you for leadership.

You are not graduating at an easy time. Our nation faces many challenges today, both at home and abroad. The economy is beginning to show signs of recovery that hopefully we can sustain and build upon. And our country faces ongoing security threats, with U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere throughout the globe. But I remain optimistic because I believe a new American greatest generation is coming of age. This is something I’ve seen before.

I grew up the son of a World War I sailor. My father was my hero, and I saw other veterans of that Great War in leadership roles in Lafayette County — lawyers, educators, a judge. In Jackson County, one World War I veteran by the name of Harry Truman entered politics to become a U.S. Senator, Vice President, and eventually President.

I also remember the days of the Second World War, and those service members returning in uniform with combat ribbons on their tunics. That generation, with the assistance of the GI Bill of Rights passed by Congress in 1944, was known as the “Greatest Generation,” as it brought America to a higher level of prosperity at home and respect abroad. The post-World War II veterans who embraced the GI Bill led the post-war economic boom, became civic and community leaders, and changed our nation for the better.

Today, out of a population of more than 305 million Americans, less than one percent serves in the military. This less than one percent of Americans have taken on the burdens imposed by military service, and it is this less than 1percent of Americans who, along with their families, have made the most significant sacrifices to protect our nation’s security today.

Those serving in uniform today are fewer in number than those who fought in World War II. But today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are disciplined and patriotic, and they understand duty to country. Many have been in combat, have served multiple tours, and have either seen or suffered injuries in the line of duty.

I am so proud of them, and every American should have gratitude toward them. I believe those who wear today’s uniform represent the best of America, forming America’s newest Greatest Generation. Today’s troops are national treasures. Many of you are taking your place among them.

These patriots will continue to do good things if they receive the recognition, encouragement, and gratitude they have earned. If we do right by them, this new Greatest Generation will contribute even more by becoming the civic, community, and political leaders our towns and cities, our states, and our nation need.

But those of you not serving in uniform have an absolutely indispensable role as well. America needs more than military might. America needs strength on the home front. Strength of character, strength in civic affairs, and strong communities. The core of America — its heart and soul — needs to be just as courageous and industrious as those on the front lines of international affairs. America must fulfill its potential.

Your years at Wentworth have taught you American values, and as you graduate and enter another phase of your life, it is my hope that you will take your place as so many other Wentworth graduates have, bearing the banners of courage and industriousness that will pave the way for you and for a brighter future for our country.

President Truman, who once visited this campus in the 1950s, liked to tell the story about the grave marker in Tombstone, Arizona, that read, “Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damndest.” Missouri’s President always strived to do just that — to do his damndest — that is, to do his best.

Whatever path in life you choose from this day on, I charge you to heed the wisdom of that epitaph by doing your damndest. As you leave this school, I know you will take with you memories, friendships, knowledge, but most of all, the challenge to achieve the honorable.

Congratulations and God bless.

Congressman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Congressman Skelton’s website is at www.house.gov/skelton.

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