By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WEST POINT, N.Y., April 26, 2007 - It seemed very much like the passing of the torch as Marine Gen. Peter Pace spoke to the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2007 here yesterday.
Pace probably will be the last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with combat experience from Vietnam. He spoke to cadets who, by this time next year, may be leading troops in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Pace graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1967. He arrived at Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, in Hue City, South Vietnam, in the middle of the Tet offensive of February 1968. The general spoke of that experience and 40 years of leadership at all levels with the soon-to-be second lieutenants.
Pace urged the cadets to listen to their platoon sergeants, and showed that a four-star general followed his own advice when he introduced Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman.
Pace spoke with a voice about an octave lower than normal, the result of "crud" he picked up during a recent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, he managed to convey the importance of the relationship between a new second lieutenant and a platoon sergeant.
"Every time I've had a leadership responsibility in my 40 years of service, I've had an incredible, strong right arm in the sergeant, staff sergeant, first sergeant, sergeant major who have been my battle buddies," Pace said. "When I found out I was going to be chairman, the first thing that crossed my mind was who was going to be my sergeant major.
"There was absolutely no way I wanted to do this without having a very special, talented senior enlisted person whispering in my ear and telling me when I was headed off on the wrong path and the other things I needed to know," the chairman said.
Pace spoke to the cadets about the lessons he learned in the fighting around Hue City - some of the deadliest fighting of the Vietnam War. He told them to check their moral compass before getting to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"When you are in combat and you see your first soldier wounded or killed, waves of emotion are going to come over you," he said. A moral anchor, he explained, will keep them from doing the wrong things.
"When I was a lieutenant in Vietnam and I was on patrol, the first Marine I lost in combat was a lance corporal named Guido Farinaro of Bethpage, N.Y.," Pace said. "Guido was 19 years old, and killed by a sniper.
"I was infuriated," he continued. "I called in an artillery strike on the village from which this sniper fired. And my platoon sergeant - Reed B. Zachary - didn't say anything to me. He just looked at me, and I knew by his look that I was about to do something really wrong."
Pace called off the artillery strike and ordered a sweep through the village. The only people the unit found were women and children.
"I don't know how I could have lived with myself if I had done what I almost did," he said. "I tell you this story because no matter how well-grounded you are, you need to know each day when you get up, who you want to be when you go to sleep that night -- especially in combat when those waves of emotion sweep over you."
He said the cadets should take the time now to examine their lives to figure out who they want to be at the end of their combat tours. "Because if you don't know your destination, you may find yourself in a place you never wanted to go," he said.
Vietnam also taught Pace to make decisions. He said that his platoon was on point for Golf Company outside Hue City. Each time the platoon came to a crossroads, he would call back to the company commander and ask which way to go.
"The third time I called back for guidance on whether to go left or right, he just chewed me out," Pace said. "If you take out the curse words, he didn't say anything at all. I handed the radio back, and told my radio operator that if he calls I'm not here, because I made the decision that I was going to start making decisions.
"And if I was going to get my butt chewed, which I have had frequently," he continued, "it was going to be for doing something and making decisions, and not for asking for guidance. It is easier to get forgiveness than get permission."
When the cadets graduate on May 26, they will have worked hard for four years and "absolutely earned the right to start at the bottom, and that ain't all bad," Pace said.
He told the cadets that the men and women they will lead are the best America offers. To be a second lieutenant leading a platoon is to have the best job in the military, and general officers would gladly trade places with them to be able to do it again, Pace told the cadets.
"If you asked a senior vice president in IBM if they wanted to get back to their cubby, they'd laugh you out of the building," Pace said, contrasting working the corporate sector with serving in the military. Starting at the bottom in the armed forces isn't bad, he said, "because it's the best part of this organization."
Another benefit, he said, is that people expect lieutenants to make mistakes. "Don't feel bad about that," he said. "Just try not to make the same mistake twice."
He told the cadets to accept the jobs they are given and do the best they possibly can. "The best advice I can give you is to grow where you are planted," he said. "Your soldiers, wherever you are assigned, deserve the best leadership that they can get."
Doing any job well will lead to other jobs, the chairman noted. "There are more good jobs than there are good people," he said.
Pace told the cadets that if they remember only one thing from his remarks, it should be "take care of your soldiers." He said that if the soldiers just know they care, it will help. "A unit that knows its leader cares about it, will always - always - freely give more than any leader can try to demand," he said.
Pace told the cadets that he and they have a lot in common. He said that when he graduated in 1967, the country was at war and he knew he was going to go fight in that war. The country is at war as the cadets of the class of 2007 graduates and the cadets know they will be part of that war.
He said the cadets probably are asking themselves the same questions he asked himself 40 years ago. He told the cadets if they are wondering how they will do in combat and they worry about it, "that's a healthy sign."
He said they have the best training in the world and they will join the best soldiers in the world. "You will know fear," he said. "If you are in a unit and some soldier on your left or right doesn't know fear, move away."
The general said the worst thing a second lieutenant can do in combat is get killed. "It is also the easiest (thing to do)," he said. "And I don't mean it's the easiest because you can pop your head up, or because you're on point and you might get whacked. I mean because as the lieutenant you've got to decide who is going to do the mission that looks impossible and probably will not be survived."
Pace said the cadets will find they'll want to do those missions themselves rather than than pick a soldier. "But your soldiers want to follow you," he said. "They want you to lead. They want you to be telling them what to do. And they want you to be planning the next event. They do not want you to do their job for them. And if you take the easy way and get yourself killed, you have done an enormous disservice to every one of your soldiers."
About 90 percent of what they will tell their soldiers in combat will be by their examples, Pace told the cadets. He said as leaders, they have to carry themselves with confidence and remain calm. "And it is really tough to stay calm when folks are shooting at you, (and) you're trying to work the radio and get things moving," he said.
The chairman promised the cadets that taking the commissioning oath on graduation day will be an event they'll keep with them for life. "I promise you that the instant you put your hand down having sworn that oath, you will never, ever, regret strapping on the leadership of the United States Army," he said.
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