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SPEECH | April 13, 2017

Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Greater Omaha Chapter Luncheon

Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. -- (As Delivered)

General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM): Roll Tide, everybody.  It’s funny, because if you read my bio you’ll find out that I actually have a master’s degree from Auburn University at Montgomery.  That was a huge mistake.  We were talking at lunch, when you grow up in Alabama, when you’re in first grade you have to declare, and once you declare, you can never go back.  I declared for the University of Alabama, and I still root for the University of Alabama, but man, I went to Auburn because I was a lieutenant in Montgomery, and the two choices were Auburn and Troy State, and I said I’ll get a degree because I’m getting out of the Air Force in four years and everybody knows that. So I’ll get my master’s degree and I’ll be all set up for my future.  And now I can’t tell you how much I appreciated, Colonel [Murphy], that you didn’t mention that master’s degree because I get a “War Eagle” at the end of the introduction so many times, and I rarely get a “Roll Tide”, and then I’ve got decorations on the table too, that are appropriate decorations.  So thank you very much.

Thank you to AFCEA [Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association], for setting all of this up, for the lunch today, for the scholarships.  Thank you for the students and everything that they’ve done.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to them all, but in talking to the students I’ll just say that this week I got to meet with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all the combatant commanders, the Secretary of Defense, the President of the United States, and today was the highlight.  There is no doubt.  Today was the funnest time I’ve had this week, talking to the students about what they do every day. So thank you to you, thank you to your parents, thank you to the teachers that help inspire you.  I want to talk to you a little bit about that, too.  Thanks to the folks that are here that are reaching out to you. 

Because you heard a little bit of my background, but I tell you what, I grew up in an amazing place.  I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama in the 1960s.  And Huntsville, Alabama, in the 1960s was, it was Wernher von Braun and the German scientists and NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] that came to Huntsville.  My dad brought his family, his wife and three little kids to Alabama in 1965 with the Apollo program.  He came to work on the Saturn V.  And when I was a little kid I got to see the Saturn V built up.  I got to see the F-1 main engine test.  I got to work all those things.  Some of my science projects in school were about rocket engines because we were building a rocket that would go to the moon.

When they would test that main engine, it’s a million-pound thrust engine.  A million pounds of thrust out of a single engine, and there’s multiple engines on the rocket.  When they would test it, the entire city of Huntsville would vibrate, significantly.  And if you had anything on the counter, it would vibrate off the counter and break.  We broke plates and dishes and glasses.  And the amazing part in my memory, and I asked my mom about this a while ago.  Nobody ever complained.  That was just the price of being part of going to the moon.  That’s just what we had to do as a community.

But I had teachers that were just amazing teachers.  I had a 5th grade teacher that had a Ph.D. in Mathematics.  I had a physics teacher in high school that had a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech.  My chemistry teacher had a Ph.D. from Purdue.  It was Dr. Hill, and a public high school in Alabama.  How do you come across that?

But because they inspired me and my parents inspired me and I got excited about science and math, the whole world opened up to me in ways that until you get to be an old person like me you don’t really look back and understand how the entire world opened up to you.  Because I got to do things that when I’d say them out loud they’d sound almost impossible.  Because when I was in 5th grade I got to meet Wernher von Braun.  I got to walk up and talk to Wernher von Braun in 5th grade, and you know what?  That was a cool thing for a 5th grader, but when I look back on it I’m going, man, I wish I’d asked him this, this and this.  And all I could think of was holy cow, I’m meeting Wernher von Braun.  And why did I get to meet von Braun?  Because he came to the opening of three new schools in Huntsville, Alabama, that had started in 1967.

So you think about the miracle of the ’60s.  Apollo I, the tragedy of Apollo I where three astronauts died on the pad in January of 1967.  And in July of 1969 we walked on the moon on a completely different rocket.  Because the Saturn IB looked nothing like the Saturn V.  The engines on the Saturn V looked nothing like the engines on the Saturn IB.  And Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, the three Apollo I astronauts died in that tragic fire in January 1967.  But out of that tragedy, Huntsville decided to build three new schools focused on science and math.  And the schools would be Chaffee Elementary School, which was actually built in the cotton field that was my back yard; Ed White Junior High School, and Grissom High School.  And I got to go to those schools with just amazing teachers.  And they enlivened my imagination, they encouraged me, they got me to do things that I had no idea -- I decided I wanted to go to Harvard for a number of different reasons, and Mary Louise Johnson, my guidance counselor, said that’s a great goal.  We can help you get in there.  Then you’ve got to figure out how to pay for it.  Because my family, they couldn’t pay for it.  It just was not going to work out.  But the United States Air Force at the time offered a scholarship that would pay for the entire education -- all tuition, books, and fees, and $100 a month living money.  When you think about that at Harvard University, that’s an amazing thing.

But Harvard had kicked ROTC off campus in 1969 in the riots in Vietnam, and this is 1976 when I’m now looking to go, and they didn’t allow ROTC back on campus.  So we had to petition the university to allow me to cross-enroll at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], because I got into MIT.  I could cross-enroll at MIT and take courses there and earn my bachelor’s degree at Harvard.  All because of my teachers.  All because of the fascination that I had with science and math.

I actually at one point in my life was good at science and math.  I was talking to somebody this morning at work as we were going through some math questions and I realized I really can’t do the math anymore.  It’s really sad.  I used to love it.  I used to love the puzzles that were created.  I used to love doing that kind of stuff but I can’t do it anymore. But the stuff that I get to do and the people that I get to work with are truly amazing people.  And I get to come over and visit you.

And people think because I’m the commander of Strategic Command that I’m an important person.  In some ways I guess that’s true because we do have the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States and all of the space capabilities and cyber capabilities and everything that we do in this country.  But fundamentally, the best thing about being the commander of U.S. Strategic Command is I get to meet the best people in the world.  I get to meet you.  And hopefully the students in this audience will learn from the projects they’ve done; they’ll learn from the teachers; they’ll learn from the excitement; they’ll learn the new challenges that are ahead of them and they’ll be right there.  Because everything is in front of you.  It is said, and Col. Spletstoser [U.S. Army Col. Kathryn A. Spletstoser, USSTRATCOM Commander’s Action Group Director]  don’t make funny faces because I’ve used this line before and you’re tired of it.  But there’s two things that all four-star generals have in common.  Number one, we’re all circling the drain, which means we’re all old and we’re about done, we’re all going down.  And we know that.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  And number two, we always wish we were you.  We do.  We wish that we could go back and do it all again because holy cow, it’s an amazing life.  And there are some things going on in this country, in this world, that if you’re good at science and math everything opens up to you.

I’ll tell one last story, and then if anybody’s got any questions I’ll take your questions.

In Air Force Space Command and under U.S. Strategic Command now, we have a small unit that is in the Washington State National Guard, a cyber unit.  It’s at Joint Base Lewis-McChord right outside of Seattle, Washington.

I went to visit that unit in my last job, and I drove in in my magnificent Ford Fusion hybrid staff car.  And I pulled into the parking lot and this guy whips in next to me and he jumps out of the car and I look over and the car is a Tesla S.  And out of that car jumps a senior airman, three stripes on his shoulder -- Do we have any young airmen in here with three stripes?  Who’s the youngest airman?  There’s got to be somebody.  Three stripes?  Stand up.  What car do you drive?

Voice:  I drive a Chevy Cruze, sir.

General Hyten:  Chevy Cruze, fine automobile, very smart car for a senior airman.  Do you ever think about going down to the Tesla dealership and trying to buy a Tesla?

Voice:  Every day.

General Hyten:  Every day.  So why haven’t you bought a Tesla S?

Voice:  Because I’m a senior airman.

General Hyten:  There you go!

So when a senior airman jumps out of a Tesla S, I tell you what, the four-star general in the Ford Fusion hybrid staff car looks at the Tesla S and  ̶   ̶  going something’s wrong with a three-striper jumping out of a Tesla S.  So I go in the building, and the airman is booking in because he’s late, and the four-star’s coming, so he’s late so he’s booking in.  And he just leaves the Tesla S sitting right there.

I go walking into this unit and I’m trying to figure out okay, where -- because that’s a $100,000-plus automobile.  Where does this airman get enough money to buy a $100,000 automobile?  Because that’s about three years’ salary for these guys.  And the answer is that he’s a guardsman, so he comes to work one weekend a month, two weeks a year to do heavy-duty cyber stuff for the United States Air Force.  And on his day job, he’s Chief of Cyber Security for Microsoft.  So the money that we’re paying him, your money, that’s kind of tip money.

Why does he come to work in the United States Air Force every day?  He makes, you know, a significant six-figure salary.  And oh by the way, his boss, a captain, is Chief of Amazon Web Services.  And his boss’ boss is the Senior Vice President at Microsoft, the colonel who’s the current group commander.  He comes to work there because he can do some amazing things for the security of this nation.  And he comes to work because he loves to do what he can do.  And he comes to work because he loves the cyber career field, and that’s what he wanted to do.  And oh by the way, he may be a staff sergeant someday, and I hope you’re a staff sergeant someday soon, but that’s not why he’s doing what he does.  In fact that’s the secondary issue.  He does what he does because he loves it, he loves being able to defend this nation, and it’s just costing him a weekend a month and two weeks a year to do that.

Those are the kind of people we get to work with.  And they’re there because they were awesome at science and math.  Science and math opens up the entire world.  I always tell young men and women in school, you can become good at science and math.  I can’t tell you what the future’s going to bring, but it can bring almost anything that you can desire because it opens up everything.  And it’s not to say that political science majors aren’t important, and English majors aren’t important, and history majors.  I love history probably more than anybody I know of.  I’ve studied history backwards and forwards.  But if you know science and math, the future of the world opens to you, and it’s important to learn from the past; that if you can invent the future, if you can invent something that nobody’s done before, and being in the Air Force for the last 35, almost 36 years, I’ve actually gotten to do things that nobody’s done before, which is why even though my whole plan was to take the scholarship and get out after four years, I’m still in the Air Force after 35 years.  Because I get to wake up and put on the uniform every day to go to work with the best people and do things that nobody’s ever done before.

So I thank you for your time and attention today.  I know we’re here to give out some prizes and scholarships and that’s pretty special.

But before we finish, especially to the students, does anybody have a question for me?  Because I’ll take the time and answer questions, especially from the students or parents or teachers.  If you’re in a uniform, just keep your mouth shut.  We’ll get a chance to talk anywhere else.

Question:  I was just wondering if maybe you could think back to your middle school was there one teacher who said or did something that inspired you to excel?

General Hyten:  Mrs. Bradshaw.  And it’s, I talk about -- I got an award back in Washington from the Galaxy Explorers which was a very nice award, but I happened to get it the day after Mrs. Bradshaw passed away.  And the interesting thing about Mrs. Bradshaw, who was my middle school math teacher, is that she saw something in me.  She’s the one that got me to meet von Braun.  And then she saw something in me that said there’s something in this person and if I just encourage him.  So she would actually set aside math problems that were different than the rest of the kids were doing and have me do them.

And then there was a woman named Laurie Spillman who was my 12th grade math teacher in high school.  And if you put Mrs. Bradshaw and Mrs. Spillman together, the unique thing they did -- Mrs. Spillman looked at me going into the senior year in a public high school in Alabama, where public schools in Alabama in the 1970s did not teach calculus.  So by the time I was a junior and I’d already finished all the math courses the school offered, and she said you can’t go through your senior year not taking math.  I’ll tell you what, we’ll come up with a calculus course and we’ll teach you calculus.

Everything changed because of the power of a teacher – I’m sorry.  You asked the question, it’s your fault.  But you know, a teacher can make all the difference in the world.  A teacher can reach out and look at somebody and make a decision.  And guess what?  How much extra money did Mrs. Spillman and Mrs. Bradshaw get for the extra work they did?  Not a penny.  Nothing.  And it changed everything.  It opened everything up for me.  Because I tell you what, if I hadn’t taken the calculus course I would never have gotten into Harvard.  Because when I took the SAT Math II Achievement Test, if you don’t know calculus, you’re not going to do very well.  And the fact that I knew calculus and I could do that helped me get into Harvard.

The fact I got into Harvard, I had to take an ROTC scholarship to pay for it, because that’s the only way I could pay.  That got me in the Air Force.

If you go all the way back to those specific things, I wouldn’t be here today, if it weren’t for them.  So I owe you not good things for making me cry in public.  But you know, she just passed away last year, and she also watched out for me all the way through.  I’ll tell you what, there’s probably no more prouder person in Huntsville, Alabama, than Mrs. Bradshaw and Mrs. Spillman, because they would tell my story everywhere they went because they remember to this day.

We’ll stop there and get to the rest because I’m a basket case right now.

Thank you guys very much.