As the featured guest told them during a special ceremony in the Wren Chapel just hours before William and Mary's commencement ceremony, the new Army lieutenants were about to join a proud legacy of ROTC graduates from William and Mary.
They were also about to join an exclusive club--the featured guest was U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, also a member of William and Mary's Class of 1965. Just a few hours before giving the commencement address to more than 12,000 people at William and Mary Hall, Gates came to a more intimate setting at the Wren to pay his respects to the newly commissioned lieutenants and reaffirm their oath to serve.
"It's a great honor," said Army 2nd Lt. John Adams, one of four of the officers at the ceremony who graduated from William and Mary later in the day. The other two graduates present at the affirmation ceremony were from Christopher Newport University, whose cadets take part in the William and Mary ROTC program.
Gates, who was introduced by William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol, spoke of the strong ROTC traditions at both William and Mary and CNU. Part of that legacy, Gates said, was Gen. David McKiernan, a member of William and Mary's Class of 1972, who led the initial ground force in Iraq and now commands all Army troops in Europe.
Gates said training the next generation of this nation's leaders is a "vital mission you've performed well." He added, "With your credentials, you could have chosen something easier, safer. You have, however, chosen to serve your country in a time of war."
Gates also thanked the dozens of family members in attendance for their support.
"You are entrusting the nation with your most treasured possession," said Gates. "And we are grateful."
The ROTC graduates had been officially commissioned into service the previous day in a ceremony featuring retired Army Col. Ramon A. Nadal, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam who was featured in the book We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young. Gates, however, wanted to visit the new officers and personally offer his congratulations. Sunday's affirmation ceremony served as a special treat for the graduates.
"We all kind of hit the floor at first," said William and Mary graduate and Army 2nd Lt. Jeff Harasimowitz, referring to when he heard Gates would be joining them Sunday morning. "It took a while to sink in. This is very special."
Following his remarks, Gates took part in the affirmation swearing in of the new officers. The six lined the front of the chapel and repeated after Gates their oath to serve. Following the oath, each lieutenant and their family got a few minutes to talk to Gates and pose for photos with the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Lt. Col. Richard Monahan, professor of military science at the College, said the experience was "simply awesome" for everyone involved.
"For the Secretary of Defense to take the time to recognize six new lieutenants is indicative of how much our senior leaders value and care about the young men and women who protect our nation," Monahan said. "Anyone in attendance at the ceremony could easily see how important it was to Secretary Gates to be able to thank these great young Americans for serving their country."