By Scott Westerman
This week some thoughts on Memorial Day and a look back on a speech I gave to the graduating class at Michigan State University’s Army ROTC graduation in 2013.
As I record this we’re preparing to celebrate Memorial Day in the United States. A time when we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend the American Dream. We live in an age where sacrifice, delayed gratification and honorable service are rare. Helicopter parents, entitlement and a me-first attitude seem to pervade our society. Kindness, respect and compassion for those who suffer are ingredients that are often missing from human character these days. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Colleen and I met for lunch on campus yesterday. We often do. It’s one of the great benefits of serving a great educational institution on a beautiful land-grant campus. Another great benefit is the MSU Dairy Store. We were enjoying summer weather yesterday and after lunch we saved room for our favorite flavors of Dairy Store ice cream. Coming out of Anthony Hall, I saw a young woman wrestling with the new fangled parking meters that accept credit cards in addition to coins. As is sometimes the case with technology, the device wasn’t accepting her card and I could see her frustration level rising.
Coming back from a trip to Ohio this weekend, I popped a $10 dollar bill into the change machine at a rest area, expecting some ones and a few quarters in return. Instead, a jackpot of coinage exploded out into my hands. 40 quarters, more than enough for the bottled water I wanted to buy.
I thought about that as I scooped up a few from the cup holder in my vehicle. “Here ya go,” I said to her. “I have a few more of these than I need.”
It turned out that she was heading into work at the Dairy Store, a student paying her own way the vast ocean of expense that causes so many of our kids to graduate with debt. My little random act of kindness made her smile. “You don’t have to do that,” she said.
“It’s an honor,” I answered. “When you’re a Spartan success story, pass it on.”
So our thought for today is this: Each of us, no matter what our situation, has something we can contribute to make it a better day for someone else. It doesn’t have to be monetary. In fact quality time is often exponentially more valuable than cash. Look around you and keep your radar tuned for ways to serve. You may never face the sacrifice that our police, fire, EMS and military routinely make, but you can be someone who can alleviate suffering and perhaps be the catalyst for positive change at a pivotal moment when someone else needs it most.
And now for this week’s two minute drill. It’s actually about an 8 minute drill but I hope you’ll find it useful. It’s a speech I gave to the 2013 graduating class at Michigan State’s Army ROTC commencement event. It happened to take place the day after the Boston Marathon bombing so that was on my mind. And it addresses many of the ideas we’ve been talking about on the podcast this week. I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks for the honor of spending time with the finest graduates of the best ROTC program in the nation. Normally my remarks are off-the-cuff. But tonight, with your permission, I’ll be working off of a script, because I want to say exactly what I mean.
When Col McDonald invited me to be with you tonight, I jumped at the opportunity. Because it gives me a chance to talk with heroes about heroism..
Yesterday morning, I was in one of those many meetings we where a lot gets discussed and little gets done. It was then that I felt my phone vibrating in my shirt pocket. Only a few family members and close friends know my cell contact information and getting a text at that time of the day is unusual. I recognized the number as a friend who I knew was running his first Boston Marathon. Here’s what it said.
“Explosions at the finish line in Boston. I’m ok. Doing what I can to help. Many heroes are here.”
I learned later that my friend was one those heroes. He ran toward the danger even before the smoke had cleared, so that lives could be saved, just as many of you will face danger, so that we can preserve, protect and defend our constitution and freedoms we hold dear.
There are only two things we can truly count on in today’s uncertain world. Evil will always exist. And there will always be brave men and women who will fight to defeat it.
This is a time for heroes.
Heroes like my friend Able Bazan, who spends his days as a Comcast technical supervisor and works another 40 hours during nights and weekends as a volunteer police officer. What makes Abel a hero is this: In more than a decade of police work, he has never lost his faith in humanity. Like the best cops, he has a sixth sense for danger. He neutralizes the threat. But he treats everyone he encounters as a human being, seeking outcomes that empower people in trouble to make better choices.
It is a time for Heroes like our Spartan brother Kevin Epling, who lost his son to suicide after he was a victim of bullying. Kevin goes where the bullies are and works to help individuals understand the root causes that foment hate and violence. Kevin personally engages to help raise the self esteem of the very people who feel compelled to hurt others.
It is a time for Heroes like my beautiful wife Colleen, who has twice faced down a cancer diagnosis that would have demoralized lesser individuals, teaching me every day about our capacity for courage and humor even in the face of extreme discomfort and death.
I’m here tonight because of the heroes in this room. All of you have parents and role models who inspired you to become the people you are today. Most gave you the opportunity to grow as a result of great personal sacrifice. We aren’t born with users manuals and every parent knows that it’s possible to do everything right and have things go wrong. You’ve made mistakes. And your mentors stuck with you anyway. They believed in you at times when others would have abandoned you. They loved you despite your imperfections. They inspired you to model a life of service to family and country, and supported your personal commitment to the warrior path that only a privileged few ever have the guts to attempt.
These people are heroes in every sense of the word. Parents, mentors and friends: if you are here in support of one of our cadets tonight, please stand so that we can recognize and thank you for your sacrifice.
And what about our exceptional graduating class of Spartan warriors. Each of you cadets have the capacity for heroism. You have studied the ways of heroes. You have learned from heroes. And because we become who we associate with, you are creating an environment where heroic behavior can become a reflexive second nature in everything that you do.
Loyalty, humility, the pursuit of excellence, service over self, love for family friends and country, and the courage to face an unpleasant current reality without losing faith that you will prevail. These are the qualities that we Spartans hold dear. These are the dimensions of heroism.
And this is a time for heroes.
We celebrate what we call “the greatest generation” with good reason. But I believe that you can be the greatest generation. You will live in a world where the bad guys never sleep, where it’s possible for cowards to kill and get away with it. You will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. By your example, you can inspire others to dream of a life where martyrdom doesn’t have to be an outcome. Your career can be a testament to the value of education, the value of respecting diversity and tolerance, while modeling the very behaviors you expect from others.
You can fight the root causes of violence: fear, uncertainty and doubt. You can elect, perhaps even become public servants who are committed to creating a future where everyone has access to a first class education, world class health care and the opportunity to pursue the american dream. You can roll up your sleeves and fully participate in eliminating the hunger, ignorance and the despair that pushes weak minds in the direction of demagogues.
In fact, this sort of heroism is the only way our nation can endure. As the great Jackie Robinson said, “Life is not a spectator sport.” It’s fired at us, point blank. And what you do, or choose not to do, will impact the next generation, for better or worse.
The challenge of heroism, then, is a choice you will be faced with every day. How you rise to that challenge will determine the quality of your character and the success that is your Spartan birthright.
Knowing many of you as I do, I have great faith in our future. We’re all a little scared of the unknown that lies ahead. That’s normal. But you are Spartan warriors. And “Spartan teams are never beaten”. Sometimes we don’t score enough points before the game clock runs out, but we always keep coming back to the field of battle until we prevail.
There will always be the Walmart types who will try to knock you down. These are the ways of those unfortunate people who want what you have, but would never commit to do the work to earn it. Through your Spartan actions and your Spartan example you will show the world what excellence and heroism truly means. And the world will stand in awe of the warriors who graduated from the finest ROTC program at the greatest school on the face of the earth.
Sadly, there will more senseless violence. And some of us will die while fighting for the values we hold dear. But as long as there are heroes, there is hope. Where there is hope, there are Spartans. And wherever there are Spartans, men and women of every circumstance will be inspired to dream of a better future. You, my friends, will help make that dream come true.
This is what Spartans do. This is why the MSU Alumni Association will always have your back. And this is why future generations will marvel at your accomplishments and say, “perhaps I can be a Spartan warrior, too.”
May God bless our American Dream. God bless you all and Go Green!
Add the Pass It on Podcast to your smart device via iTunes, Google or through my website, ScottWesterman.com. And send me your questions and feedback to scott@Spartaology.com. Have a terrific week. Be bold, be brave, never stop learning.. and pass it on!