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SPEECH | May 6, 2017

Auburn University at Montgomery Commencement Address to College of Nursing and Health Sciences, College of Public Policy and Justice, and College of Business graduates

Montgomery, Ala. (As delivered, edited for clarity) --

General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM): So how y’all doing?  You guys better be doing pretty good.  It’s a pretty big day for you guys, so congratulations from the start.

It’s just great to be back home in Alabama.  It’s always good to be home in Alabama.

I started here as a second lieutenant, right down the road.  Came here to go to school as a second lieutenant and my first real commander was a guy named [U.S. Air Force] Lt. Col. Jim McKeown.  So Libby McKeown is sitting right up there.  So Libby, stand up now so Laura can see you, because Laura didn’t see you earlier.  Hey Libby, how are you?  Thanks for letting me do that.  I just embarrassed the heck out of her, but I have the microphone, so what the heck.

Chancellor, thank you very much for the invite to be here today. Thank you for everything.  Thank you to the trustees, to the members of the faculty, the administration, the parents, the friends, the family, honored guests.  Every one of you somehow has invested your time, talent, efforts in building the lives of these amazing graduates, and I’m confident a lot of their success is because of the direct support that you’ve given them.  So thank you very much, especially to the friends and family.

Thank you to the gentleman that played that national anthem.  Holy cow! Is that a spectacular national anthem?  I’ve gotten to hear it twice today so I’ve gotten goosebumps from the national anthem twice.  That is a special part of this day.  So let’s give him a round of applause because he was spectacular.

And thank you also to the Army ROTC chapter for presenting the colors.  I joined the Air Force through ROTC 40 years ago this month, and I tell you what, it seems like just yesterday in so many ways.  But to the cadets, to the folks in Army ROTC, thank you for what you do, thank you for what you’re going to do, and it’s an honor to be here today with you.

So before I forget, [there are] a few fundamental truths about all commencement ceremonies.  First, it is a day to celebrate, congratulate, give thanks, remember and enjoy.  Second, a very short time from now, very few of you in attendance today will remember who the heck your commencement speaker even was.  And finally, an even shorter time from now, nobody here will remember anything I had to say.

So with that in mind, congratulations Class of 2017.  Well done.

Congratulations on your achievement.  I know we’re here to celebrate your graduation, but while this may be a conclusion to one phase of your life, one phase of your studies, it really marks the commencement of a really exciting ride.

Many of you may be feeling uncertain or apprehensive, but more than anything, you should be thrilled about the beginning of the next chapter of your journey.  I hope each of you finds a career and a calling that you love.  I certainly did.  But I can tell you the way my life turned out was not the plan.

I’ll tell you, there are a few things that all generals and admirals have in common.  First of all, we’re all circling the drain.  We’re old.  We’re approaching the end of our careers.  But most importantly, we all wish we were you.  We wish we could go back and do it all again, because you are about to start the greatest adventure that anybody can be given and that’s a life, so enjoy your life.

Many of you are going to change careers and goals and ambitions and you’ll probably be surprised where you find yourself 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now.  But if you show up, you honor your commitments, and you say yes to opportunity as it comes your way, even if it’s something you weren’t looking for or didn’t expect, you will have an amazing life ahead of you.

Like many of you in this audience, I was the first in my family to graduate from college.  And like every one of you in this class, I earned a degree from this university.  I came on active duty in 1981, and all I wanted to do was see the world.  So naturally my first assignment was home to Alabama.  That was okay.  I love Alabama, and I was only going to be in the Air Force four years anyway.  So I figured I’d adjust my plan and I’d get an MBA [Master of Business Administration] here at AUM [Auburn University Montgomery] and that way when I left the Air Force in 1985 I could combine my engineering degree from Harvard with an MBA.  It would make me more attractive to the aerospace industry because my real goal was to get into the space business.  And the reason I wanted to get in the space business so badly is because that was my dream.

When I was six years old in 1965, my family moved to Alabama.  My dad came to Huntsville to help work on the Apollo Program.  He got to work on and test the Saturn V main engine, the greatest rocket engine ever built by man.  And I got to watch the test a few times.  And every time there was a test, all of Huntsville would shake right to its core.  Dishes would go bouncing off the counter top in the kitchen.  Pictures would fall off the wall.  And nobody ever complained, because we all knew we were building the rocket that was going to the moon and that was just the price we had to pay.  And then because I had some spectacular teachers, and because I was good at math and science, my fifth-grade teacher selected me to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony in August of 1969 for three new schools, two of which I’d get to attend.  Chaffee Elementary School, Ed White Junior High School and Grissom High School.  Each named after one of the astronauts who died in the tragedy of Apollo I in January [19]67.  And the man cutting the ribbon that day was Wernher von Braun, and I got to meet him, and I got to meet some of the astronauts, and it became my dream to become an astronaut.

But unfortunately, I’m basically blind.  I have 20/900 vision, which means without my glasses I can’t see anybody.  I can’t see anything.  I can’t, it’s just all a blur and all colors.  I can’t see the script either, so I’ll put that back on.  NASA for whatever reason, and I don’t understand it to this day, did not recruit blind astronauts. And you would think that would be a problem with the Air Force too, which takes me back to the beginning.

The primary reason I joined the Air Force was to pay for college.  I got into Harvard, which was a miracle in itself, but I couldn’t afford to pay for it.  But my high school counselor, Ms. Mary Louise Johnson, told me that if I got an ROTC scholarship it would pay for everything, and back in the ‘70s if you got an ROTC scholarship it paid for everything -- tuition, books, fees, and $100 a month spending money.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

But there were a few problems with that plan.  First, Harvard didn’t take ROTC in 1976 when I was applying.  They’d kicked it off campus during the riots in Vietnam, and if you remember 1976 in your history books, that was one year after the fall of Saigon.  But Ms. Johnson and my parents worked it out so Harvard would let me take the scholarship, allow me to cross-enroll in MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for ROTC, and attend college at Harvard.  So all I had to do was pass the physical, which was the big problem because, like I said, I’m blind.

So I took my physical and I flunked it because you have to have 20/400 vision to enter the Air Force and 20/20 if you want to fly, and I was not even close.  But my eye doctor happened to be a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, Dr. Wilson. And he told me I shouldn’t give up.  He said he thought he could get me a waiver, which he did.  But looking back now, I realize if you want to join the military, in 1976 one year after the fall of Saigon, as long as you weren’t attached to an iron lung, the Air Force would take you.  But I’m so thankful to Dr. Wilson.  Not just for the waiver but for the encouragement he gave me, because it would have been easy to give up after flunking my physical.  But he wouldn’t let me.

And by the way, I was only going to be in the Air Force four years anyway.  And that was more than 40 years ago now.  And I’m still here, still doing what I love, because during my time in Montgomery, right from the outset of my career, I began to fall in love with the Air Force.  I had chiefs and captains and lieutenant colonels that taught me to love the Air Force, just the way I’d fallen in love with space as a kid.  And when my boss found a way for me to work in the space business and stay in the Air Force at the same time, it was the first of so many opportunities that I could have never imagined.

When I came in the space business I became involved in an enterprise that has fundamentally changed warfare forever.  But not just warfare, it’s changed every one of your lives as well.  Military space is embedded in every one of your lives today.  From your cell phones to the wireless transactions that you do to the ATMs that you use to get money to the gas pumps at the gas station to your navigation apps on your phone, all enabled by a system called the Global Positioning System, GPS, operated by the United States Air Force.

But space also created an environment where information became the key to the battle space, and by leveraging the space domain, we’ve given ourselves an advantage in every fight we’ve been in.  No member of the United States military should ever again have to worry about what’s over the next hill or where help is coming from.  They should always be able to communicate with whoever they need.  All of these capabilities are enabled by space.  Precision on the battlefield comes from space.  Exquisite global intelligence comes from space.  Warning of attack comes from space. 

War is a horrible thing, but it’s no longer fought simply by attrition.  It is fought with information dominance facilitated by networks originating in space, and it’s pretty amazing.  And I got to be a part of that whole history.

But because space has become so valuable, it’s also become a potential vulnerability, an environment where other nations compete for dominance.  But at the same time, space is a domain where people look up and still dream.  And it’s USSTRATCOM’s responsibility to keep it that way, to keep the space environment peaceful and accessible so that future generations of Americans and Koreans and Russians and Chinese can look up into space and dream, just like I did.  And I’ve been so lucky to be part of that mission.

So let me tell you a little bit about my current command in Omaha.  Our motto dates back to the Strategic Air Command and it’s still our motto today.  That’s “Peace is our Profession,” and it applies to all our missions.  As commander of USSTRATCOM, I’m responsible for integrating the United States’ nuclear, space, cyberspace, global strike, electronic warfare, missile defense and intelligence capabilities.  Seven distinct missions, all with one common priority – to provide strategic deterrence for the nation, or in more simple words, to prevent war by being prepared to fight it.

We’ve been so successful in this mission, I bet very few in this audience have thought really about the strategic threat to the United States.  I remember as a kid in Huntsville looking up at the sky and wondering if that might be the day that Russian bombers flew overhead to deliver an atomic weapon.  I did duck and cover drills when I was in elementary school.  But I bet you few of you in this audience have ever done a duck and cover drill in school.

You probably never even thought about it, and that’s what victory looks like.  And for the past 70 years, strategic deterrence has enabled a world free of major power conflict.

There are those who say to me, “Don’t you wish we lived in a world without nuclear weapons?”  And while I wish we didn’t have to worry about nuclear weapons, I can honestly say I really don’t want to live in a world without them because I know what that world looks like.  It’s the world prior to August of 1945, and I don’t think it’s a world any of us ever want to live in again.  Because during the six years prior to World War II, from 1939 to 1945 when we did not have a strategic deterrent, the world lost, the world killed between 60 and 80 million people.  That’s about a million souls a month; 33,000 people a day, killed in World War II.  And as bad as the world is since then, we’ve never come close to violence on that scale.  And it’s our nation’s job to make sure it never happens again.

When you look at our difficult experience in Vietnam, and I know there’s Vietnam veterans in this room.  We lost 58,000 Americans in that conflict; 58,000 of our sons and daughters.  Each a terrible tragedy. But in total, less than two days of death in World War II.

Some will argue it’s because the cooperation among nations has evolved; that we’re better at resolving international conflict.  But I’d argue that it’s because in [1945] we proved the devastation of an atomic bomb and the consequences of nuclear weapons became unacceptable and it’s USSTRATCOM that still underwrites our nation’s security and preserves that peace every single day, and I get to be part of that too.

The other day I came across my career plan that my bosses, one of them Lt. Col. McKeown, made me write when I was a 2nd lieutenant here in Montgomery.  So to be clear to all the students here, all the graduates here, I’m zero for everything.  My whole plan was to be in the Air Force four years because they paid for college and then get out and seek my fortune.  Clearly, that did not happen.

Then the travel and see the world thing.  Nope.

Then get in the aerospace industry as an engineer.  Nope.

Then the Air Force plan I came up with, which was I was forced to build by those people that made me build it, assumed a 20-year career, which was nuts, ending with me as a lieutenant colonel program manager in the acquisition business.  Nope.

So there’s no way, no way a blind kid from Alabama can grow up in the Air Force and be a general.  It’s impossible. One star is impossible.  Four stars is insane.

When I joined the Air Force there was no such thing as Space Command, and I grew up to be the commander of Air Force Space Command.  It’s impossible, but it happened.

Further, there’s no way I should be the commander of U.S. Strategic Command.  It’s not only the most powerful command in the United States military, it’s the command of Air Force legend.  It’s the command of George Kenney and Curtis LeMay.  It’s impossible.  But it happened.

And you never know, similar things, impossible things, can happen to you because life never goes according to plan.  And I’m here to tell you that that’s a wonderful thing, because that’s what makes it such an amazing ride.  A plan is important because it gives you goals to work toward, but it’s also true that if you plan early you better plan often because it just never turns out the way you think it will.

You should definitely have a plan, but you have to be prepared and excited for what comes at you out of left field.

To prove to you the remarkable things you can accomplish I want to leave you with a few examples of the men and women I get to work with every day.

Would you have guessed that our entire GPS constellation today, the GPS constellation that drives your phone, that drives our financial system, that drives our military, is operated today by seven airmen -- average age 23 -- at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.  Literally everything the GPS does for the world comes out of those seven airmen in an operations center in Colorado.  The commander, 25 years old.  Just out of college.  Two satellite system operators that actually operate the satellites, 19 years old, both one year out of high school.  That’s pretty remarkable.

They have an unbelievable responsibility and they’re performing an invaluable mission for their country and for each one of us who uses GPS every day.  Those are just seven of the 184,000.

I want to share with you the story of another young airman, a senior airman, three-striper in Washington state.  Not much older than you who I saw drive up.  So I pull up to this unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. I pull up in my fantastic Ford Fusion hybrid staff car, and right next to me pulls up a Tesla S.  Have you ever seen a Tesla S? Oh, my gosh it is just unbelievable.  And out of that Tesla S jumps a senior airman, three stripes.  And he goes running into the building because he’s late.

Now how the heck does a senior airman start driving a Tesla S?  So I’m a little bit concerned about what’s going on in this unit.  But as it turns out, that unit is right outside Seattle, Washington.  That airman happens to be also, in his day job, the Chief of Cyber Security for Microsoft.  And his boss, the young captain, works Cyber Security for Amazon Web Services.  And the group commander is a Vice President at Microsoft.  And on the weekends, they like to get together and go work for the National Guard, put on the uniform at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for what is essentially pocket change for them because they thought it was really exciting and they wanted to do great things for their country.  And they do that every day.  That’s just so amazing.

Last, but not least, because I just described 10 of the 184,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that man our strategic capabilities all across the world so we can celebrate here today.  One hundred eighty-four thousand people involved in the STRATCOM enterprise worldwide, standing guard 24/7/365 from underwater to outer space.  They’re in Greenland watching for incoming ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], 600 miles from the North Pole.  They’re in North Dakota sitting in missiles silos.  They’re under the ocean inside nuclear-capable submarines.  And they may have the least glamorous, most important mission in the entire military, and they volunteered to do it so the rest of us don’t have to worry about nuclear threats against this country.  Their skill and service are just remarkable.

So graduates, each one of you is capable of so much more than you can even imagine.  I want you to greet every opportunity that faces you with energy, enthusiasm.  Have a plan, but be prepared to adapt.  Expect great things, but be prepared to embrace the unexpected.  Outwork everyone around you; and if you remember nothing else from today, just remember one thing – enjoy the ride, because it’s an amazing ride. Thank you very much, and congratulations.