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Commencement remarks of Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry

  • Commencement speaker
    Commencement speaker
    Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry addresses the Class of 2014 during Sunday's Commencement ceremony in William & Mary Hall.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

The following are the prepared remarks of Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry for the 2014 Commencement ceremony - Ed.

I want to start by thanking the College of William & Mary for the privilege of being your Commencement speaker this year.

It is quite the honor to be invited to a college attended by Thomas Jefferson – an institution that nearly 400 years later continues to be one of America’s most prestigious colleges.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank and acknowledge one of William & Mary’s other distinguished alumni who probably had something to do with my standing here today.

Of course, I’m talking about Dr. Robert Gates – the man you know as Chancellor who, in the military, we knew simply as “the SecDef.”

All of us in uniform – especially those of us deployed and in the fight – knew that Secretary Gates had our back, in every sense of the term. He came to work every day committed to making sure that we got the equipment and support we needed to accomplish our missions; in my case, to get the best medical care if something happened on the battlefield.

Sir, William & Mary is lucky to have you – as were those of us in the military while you led us for more than five years.

And congratulations to all of the graduates. Since receiving the Medal of Honor I’ve done a number of public appearances for the Army across this country. But this Commencement speech posed quite the challenge for a guy who made it as far as a couple of semesters at New Mexico Highlands University and Pierce College. But I am still on track.

I spoke last night with one of your student leaders Chase [Koontz], about what he enjoyed in his role and disliked. He mentioned that he had more exposure to the internal workings of this institution. I reflected on what I learned while I held a staff position for a year of my service. The ammo didn’t just magically show up at the range. The Air Force was not on standby with planes for our training. In fact, during training and combat, there was a whole lot of planning, coordinating, forecasting, budgeting and target building, to name a few of the logistical challenges.

Missions only worked when we had a team working together as a well-oiled machine with each part turning in unison to get the job done. The ones often recognized were the fighters but everyone was involved. So I would like to thank the staff, the professors, alumni and everyone involved here at William & Mary for providing you with the best, safe, caring and beautiful campus to help you get to where you are today.

All those years standing in formation listening to senior officers carry on taught me this much – which is that no one ever complained that a speech was too short. I am reminded of the lesson of Julius Caesar, who was a great military general, author and philosopher. He was also known for giving very long speeches, which probably had something to do with how he met his violent end in the Roman Senate.

So I will be brief today – but hope to share a few thoughts about what I’ve learned in recent years that I hope can relate to the challenges you may face in the future.

Without a doubt education is the greatest asset that anyone can obtain. Even more important is what you choose to do with the knowledge you obtain.

You may wonder what an Army sergeant and combat veteran might have to say that relates to college graduates today. I thought about that and I realized that we share some similarities: We started out on a journey in life to do something that was important to us, we worked hard and had fun along the way.

Then once you’ve graduated, things don’t get any easier.  I happened to be in the middle of the U.S. Army’s Ranger School training to join an elite group of soldiers when the attacks of 9/11 took place, which kicked off nearly a decade of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

For civilians, you’ll be competing in a tough job environment – not only against other American college graduates, but talented young people from around the world. You may need to try your hand at a number of different jobs, or even professions, before finding the right career. That’s what people do. There is no straight or obvious path – even for those who think they have it figured out by going to law or medical school!

There will be ups and downs anywhere you go and in anything you do. But have faith. Keep moving forward.  You have been through tough situations before -- just remember how you’ve overcome obstacles in the past, earlier in life or here at William & Mary.

Follow your dreams of what you want to do and make a difference in that field. I joined the Rangers not because I wanted war but because I wanted to be where I could make the most difference to my comrades and my country. When I was severely injured in Afghanistan, I thought that my dream of being a Ranger was over.

I chose not to dwell on the things I could not change. So I thought if I cannot lead troops into battle and kick down doors and capture bad people then I want to do the next best thing; that is, taking care of the ones who are wounded, ill or injured and their families. I didn’t recover alone and I wanted to do all that I could to make it easier on others.

The greatest reward of my experience receiving the Medal of Honor has been the opportunity to see the positive attitude and determination of some of these men and women who have been severely injured in combat. Sometimes they have had a number of surgeries, multiple lost limbs or burns over much or most of their body. Yet, they found a way to press on.  

There is J.R. Martinez, another seriously wounded soldier, who managed to recover and win Season 13 of “Dancing with the Stars” after being burned over 30 percent of his body.

I have a buddy who, after losing a leg, went back to Afghanistan four times and led a platoon into battle.

Major (Scotty) Smiley was the first blind soldier to stay on active duty and continue to teach and share his knowledge and experience with others.

My friend Brendan lost all four limbs at a young age and in 2012 underwent an extensive transplant surgery that gave him a new set of arms and is doing well above all the doctor’s expectations.

They all had passion when the chips seemed to be down and that is what drove them to give 110 percent and not fail themselves or others around them.

I expect and hope that you will never have to face this kind of violence and trauma in your lives. At some point you will face what seems like a crushing setback or far-too-high obstacle. It is at those times when you have the opportunity to stand out and show that you can handle the pressure and responsibility, take calculated risks and earn the respect of others. The degree your receive from William & Mary will be a testament that you earned your education, you didn’t win it, no one gave it to you. You had to work hard and stick it out while dealing with all the other distractions of life.

Those of us who’ve served in uniform experience this sense of satisfaction all the time – which makes the sacrifices and the heartbreak worth it.

Now, I know this might sound like a sales pitch. But it’s not. It’s an opportunity for those of you who are up for another challenge in life. To be sure, the military needs men and women who are well educated as the next generation of leaders – people who want to use their knowledge and further their education while serving others by mentoring, leading and setting the example for others to follow. You will get to experience the cohesion of a team that has the greatest pride and honor defending our lives, liberty and future.

I have served on eight tours, which sounds like a lot, but I’d love to be with my guys right now on trip No. 17.  They want to -- and are still -- making a difference. As the President said at my ceremony, “Our heroes are all around us.”

What he meant by that statement is that you do not need to be nationally recognized, rewarded or even acknowledged to be a hero to somebody. Nor do you need to wear a uniform.  It could be something as simple as listening to someone’s problem or acknowledging them, working to make your community and country a better place. The fact is you have the ability to significantly impact others around you every day.

As service members we all hope to be good citizens in the communities we live in after we leave the military, to continue doing what we can to make our country a better place. Despite all the cynicism you hear today about Americans being selfish or isolated from the realities of the wars, I have found from my travels and meetings that we are a good and generous people; that our freedoms and way of life are worth fighting for and our country needs its best and brightest young people at some point in their lives to serve a cause greater than their own self-interest.

As I attended the candle-lit ceremony last night, I moved up to the balcony of the Wren Building to see an astonishing view from above. As the candles lit up your faces I caught a glimpse of our bright future and the many opportunities of greatness.

Chancellor Gates, I’m alive at the end, all bets are off. Thank you for the opportunity, your faith, leadership, service and confidence.

I will close by congratulating each and every one of you again and I am sure your families are proud of you as well. The greatest pride parents can feel is knowing that their child will not only be a good person, but contribute to the success of our country.

Happy Mother’s Day to those present.

Thank you again for this amazing honor.

Congratulations and God Bless America.