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There Will Always Be New Challenges

by LTG Mark Hertling
April 19, 2018

During what would be my last year in Command of US Army, Europe, I welcomed a group of West Point cadets who were in Germany for Cadet Troop Leader Training (CTLT).  There was reverie for me in preparing for this session, as I remembered the anxiety I had four decades earlier in traveling to Germany for this same summer training. But I guess there was also a bit of jealousy when I met these young, strapping and fresh-faced cadets: they were at the beginning of their careers getting ready to dive into the waters, I was at the end of my career preparing to leave the Army I had come to love.  What was supposed to be a 30-minute greeting to outline how they would be viewed by their units evolved into a 90-minute energized discussion about the state of the army in Europe, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the profession of arms and the character required of soldiers.

I found out later that two of the cadets had talked about this informal discussion with the Superintendent upon their return and asked him if I could be part of their ring weekend celebration as the guest speaker.  The Supe was a friend of mine, so he called and relayed the message. I jumped at the opportunity…and then realized I would have to write a speech.

It had been a while since I had received my class ring, so I tried to remember what my ring banquet speaker had said.  Not only couldn’t I remember the subject, I couldn’t remember the speaker. It had to have been some old general, but how old? In 1974, when our class received our rings, I figured the general talking to us would have had to have graduated in the 1940s! Holy smokes, was I that old to this class?  The general talking to us likely fought in World War II, or at least Korea and possibly Vietnam.

In the summer of 1975 after I graduated, none of us were sent to the war that was waging when we entered the Academy. Instead, most of us were sent to Europe where about a quarter of our active Army was serving at the time. We patrolled borders, checked general defensive positions, and qualified on tank tables at muddy Grafenwoehr. We prepared for the Soviet hordes to cross, though they never did. Instead, over the 20 years after our graduation our classmates jumped into Grenada, fought in Panama – Panama! – and then many of us deployed after the end of the Cold War from the forests of Germany to the sands of Saudi Arabia. Then, for those who stayed longer, there was Bosnia, Kosovo, and two long fights against insurgents and terrorists that continue to this day.

When we received our rings, none of us would have expected what we would be asked to do.  The “unknowns” are what define our profession of arms in defense of a nation and our Constitution.  Preparing for the unexpected is what we are obliquely asked to do.

If you’re interested, this was the theme of my remarks on that ring weekend. Preparing for the unexpected. But right before I was introduced, I looked down at the West Point class ring that I rarely wear and realized the only “knowns” we can hang onto are our mission, our values and our ethics. No matter the time, the place, the duty assignment, or the conflict, those three things defined in our leadership manual as elements of character remain our touchstone. When we commit ourselves to the professional ethic and the institutional values of service to nation, we are all required to continuously refine our character under increasingly trying circumstances.  While we may be tempted at times when confronted by issues large and small, as members of the profession of arms we must never allow our character to be tarnished.

Humankind has not seen the end of conflict, so there will always be unique battlefield trials and contests for the soldier.  But there are few challenges as difficult as continuously refining your character, constantly inculcating your values, and perpetually living your ethos.   

There will always be new challenges…