WASHINGTON -- When Marine Gen. Peter Pace graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy 38 years ago, the nation was at war.
During a speech to the midshipmen of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, at Kings Point, N.Y., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke to young men and women in similar circumstances: the nation is at war and they are facing careers as military leaders.
"I didn't have a clue at all if I could be a good leader or a good Marine, but I knew I could try," Pace said April 20. "I have not regretted a day of service to this country, and you will not either."
Pace told the midshipmen that when they are commissioned, the Congress of the United States will consider them to be leaders. But "you will prove you are leaders in a different way," he said.
He told them they will think of their oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" during important times in their service. "Whether ... you spend five years or 40 years serving in uniform, you will remember that oath and what it means to you as an individual," he said.
Speaking of the war on terrorism, Pace said, "If we had the ability to do so, we would wish it otherwise. We didn't pick this war -- in fact, we didn't even know we were at war for many years -- not until those twin towers (fell)."
If the nation is at war, then young academy graduates have the responsibility to do something about it, he said.
About one-third of the academy's graduates go onto active duty in the U.S. military. The rest incur a service obligation with the U.S. Naval Reserve.
He said the current generation of military men and women have a responsibility, handed down through the sacrifices of previous generations, to pass the freedoms Americans have to the next generation. "You may very well be sitting there asking yourself 'How will I do as a leader?' 'How will I do in combat if called on?' You will do what Merchant Marine Academy graduates have always done: your duty magnificently well," Pace said.
He said that what the midshipmen have learned at sea and in the classroom will enable the young officers "to dig down inside and do the right thing at the right time."
Pace told the young men and women that he didn't plan on staying in the military. He did so because of the searing experience of leadership in Vietnam. "Because as a second lieutenant of Marines I went into combat with incredible young men who were following my orders, and (some) lost their lives. I can never repay it," he said. "I've tried, but I cannot repay it."
From his position as the No. 2 officer in the Defense Department, Pace said he sees a phenomenon that he is still trying to puzzle out. "The more I have tried to give to those who look to me for leadership, the more they have given me," he said. "The more I have tried to be a decent leader for them and do the right thing, the more they have given back to me because they know I've been trying."
The general said he does not wish combat on anyone, but there are many more positive experiences that come with military service. "I do wish for you the feeling of awe, gratitude, indebtedness that every leader comes to hold, to those they are so fortunate to try to lead properly," he said. "I envy you your time."