Tri-Institutional Veterans Day 2017

President Davidson’s Remarks

Nov. 9, 2017


Good morning. I’m Janine Davidson, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, and I am honored to be with you here today to celebrate the veterans who have served our country with courage and honor.

Let me first express my gratitude to the service men and women, active and reservists, discharged and retired among us today.

We also cannot forget the thousands of civilians who also support our military, from the civil servants to the contractors. Because it is an absolute fact that the United States cannot put ships on the water, planes in the air, or boots on the ground without this massive foundation of patriots who wake up every day to make it happen.

And let me also thank the families, who have stood behind those who serve, those who have provided emotional support, stability and love, who also sometimes go unnoticed and unrecognized.

We celebrate Veterans Day each November 11th because the major hostilities of World War I officially ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when the armistice between the allies and Germany took effect. Next Veterans Day will mark 100 years since the end of the war that was supposed to “end all wars.”

Armistice Day, which celebrated the veterans and the conclusion of World War I, became Veterans Day after the Second World War, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill, extending the holiday to honor all veterans and encouraging Americans to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace.

For me personally, as the daughter of a Navy admiral, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and the former Undersecretary of the U.S. Navy, Veterans Day is about more than just the parades and the waving of flags. Veterans Day, for me, is really all about the people and their stories. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to hear many of those stories and to see some of them unfold firsthand during my military and civilian service, and in my personal life, too.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with countless veterans about their experiences in war and their lives afterwards. I’ve witnessed their heroism with my own eyes. I’ve personally known patriots, men and women, who have laid down their lives on behalf of our country.

Last year, as Undersecretary of the Navy, I had the honor of attending the 75th anniversary commemoration of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. There were a number of WWII veterans there – those who had actually survived the attack that day – who, despite their advancing ages were able to share vividly, their memories from that fateful day. Their humility and patriotism were truly inspiring.

Today, we remember those who have made that ultimate sacrifice, and also honor the contributions, sacrifices and service of the more than 20 million living veterans in the U.S.

In my book, that’s 20 million heroes, more than 400,000 of whom live in our great state of Colorado, and many of whom are here in this room right now.

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about what I would say to all of you, and the word that kept coming up for me was “service.” It’s a term we use all the time when we talk about veterans and active-duty military, when we use phrases like “She’s in the service” or on Veterans Day when people say, “Thank you for your service.”

But I’m not sure we ever really stop to think about what that means. There are reasons why we’re called service men and women.

I grew up on military bases. I did ROTC in college, flew planes for the Air Force and worked in the Pentagon three different times. So, I’ve been around military men and women, veterans and families my whole life. And what I’ve found is that there is a deep desire among them – among us – to serve. And our veterans do this in many different ways.

Service to others seems to be written into the veteran DNA. I know it was for my father and so many of the women and men that I served alongside. And I’m sure it is for you, too.

Now, it goes without saying that service is a part of the military experience. You served your country and by extension the entire population of the United States. You put your lives on the line for others. You were there for your brothers and sisters in arms in training and in combat. And you protected civilians, kept the vulnerable safe, delivered people from oppression, tended those who were hurt or wounded or suffering. You’ve done all that.

But there’s a funny thing about veterans – their dedication to service almost always extends beyond time spent in the military. They continue to find ways to serve, to help people. It’s just such a core part of who they are.

One of the best things about my job as president of MSU Denver is hearing the stories of students who are making a difference in their communities. And our student-veterans always seem to be at the top of that list.

This summer, we had a group of students travel to Guadalajara, Mexico, to put their engineering skills into practice for communities in need. Three of the 10 students on that trip were vets. In an impoverished mountain village, they built a chimney in one family’s kitchen so that cooking fire smoke could escape without being inhaled.

At a local school, they helped build raised garden beds from used soda bottles - and at a farm they started work on a simple conversion system that will turn animal waste into usable electricity.

That – is service beyond the call of duty.

Another of our veteran students is studying photojournalism. His father, also a veteran of the Marines, forbade him to enlist as infantry, so he decided to try his hand at military photography instead. While deployed in Afghanistan, he captured images from the battlefield, documenting the heroism of military men and women and the challenges they faced …

He tells a story about taking photos during a firefight, and how at one point, he realized he should probably put down the camera and pick up his gun. That’s how embedded he was in the unit. These days, he is using photography to give others a window into worlds they may never experience themselves, including documenting the funerals of fallen service members.

That – is service beyond the call of duty.

And this week, we have a group of veterans participating in a service project with Habitat for Humanity. They’ll be building a house together on Friday. To me, that says everything you need to know about vets: It’s their day to be recognized, and yet their using that time, that platform, as an opportunity to help build a home for a family in need.

And those are just a few of many examples.

Veterans go beyond the call of duty for others. And I believe that the government, private companies, and especially universities, should return the favor. We need to go beyond the call of duty, beyond the normal set of expectations, to be of service to our veterans.

I mean, let’s be honest. You are military. You learned early on to come to work on time, probably even early. You give everything you’ve got and more. You are a good team member. You are loyal, intelligent and principled. You make extraordinary contributions every day.

As president, I believe wholeheartedly that it is my job, and the University’s job, to go beyond the call of duty to serve those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.

Right now, we have more than 1,000 student-veterans studying at MSU Denver. They come from different branches of the military, and diverse cultures, backgrounds and experiences. They have returned from conflicts all over the world, including Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more. We also have students in the reserves and still on active duty.

And we’d welcome even more!

Our aim is to work with each student, to offer each person the individual support they need to succeed in whatever life path they have chosen. That’s why we created our Veteran and Military Student Center, a place where vets can go to get academic or personal support, or just to be with others who’ve shared a similar experience.

It’s an incredible place. There always seem to be some amazing students around, working on homework, talking to support staff or just laughing with each other.

We are not always perfect, but we work hard every day to ensure that our veterans and current military get the very best from us – in the same way they have given the very best for our country.

I am so proud to say that we’ve been recognized for our efforts in this area by Military Times, which named us a “Best for Vets College” in 2017. We’ve been on their list for the past four years and will continue to put in the work to remain there.

But what we do to support veterans is only half of the equation. They do as much, if not more, for us.

Their presence on campus is invaluable – both inside and outside the classroom. Veterans bring a wealth of life experience, a unique perspective and a tireless work ethic to the table. They are role models for other students. They set the tone in their classes. They aren’t afraid to respectfully challenge other’s views, a foundational principle in higher education. And when they choose to share their stories, they inspire all of us.

This interaction on campus and in the community is more important today than ever. Although it is common to hear expressions of gratitude and respect – today’s “thank you for your service” culture belies an uncomfortable reality in American society. Right now, there are thousands of U.S. military members around the world, promoting stability on the high seas and in harm’s way in actual combat zones. And the thing is, the vast majority of Americans today don’t even know it. Serving in the military is something other people do.

Indeed less than 1 percent of Americans today serve; and of those 25 percent are children of veterans and - 75 percent were inspired to serve by a brother, aunt, uncle or cousin. It’s not unusual to follow a respected relative’s footsteps - firefighters, lawyers, nurses and so many others do this too. But when it comes to national defense, this is something to watch for. These statistics demonstrate that the divide between Americans with a link to, or understanding of, the military is getting bigger and bigger. Many Americans do not know anyone - or anyone who knows anyone - who is serving or has ever served in the military. Some analysts have begun to call this the “warrior caste.”

Compare this to our WWII generation, when 16 million Americans served in uniform – and countless others served back home in support roles, like our famous “Rosie the riveter.” Everyone was connected to that war – to someone serving abroad. Approximately 400,000 Americans died in just 2,174 days - an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, 19 a minute – one death every three seconds.

These numbers reflect a very different reality for that generation – the “greatest generation” – who came home from that war with a deep understanding of the horrors of war and just how easily things can fall apart. This generation put in place a world order dedicated to stability and international cooperation – as a means to avoid war. From NATO and the UN to the IMF and even university programs focused on the study of war -- on things like deterrence and game theory.

Our post-Vietnam experience was not the same. Draftees came home and were blamed for the confusion and the politics of the war. America tried to forget the war and warfare in general – and failed miserably to honor those who were called to serve. We have come a long way in learning to honor those who serve. But in understanding the nature of war, we can do more.

When I got out of the Air Force and started graduate school, one of my first “reintegration” encounters was with a fellow grad student at a party. When we were introduced and she was told I had been in the Air Force, she looked me up and down and said, “hmmm, well I am against war.”

I was taken aback. Aren’t we all “against” it? “How convenient for you.” I said, without even thinking.

As LTG H.R. McMaster (one of the U.S. Army’s most brilliant strategists, now serving as the president’s national security advisor) pointed out in his own Veterans Day speech three years ago at Georgetown University, in our efforts to forget or ignore the horrors of war, we have made a big mistake.

“It was during the divisive Vietnam War,” he observed, “that many universities confused the study of war with advocacy of it and tended to view military forces and weapons as propagators of violence rather than protectors of peace. Some saw war as the cause rather than the result of international tensions and competitions.”

In academia, I believe that we do not honor our veterans by ignoring the horrors of war; we honor our veterans by learning from our history and our mistakes and by pledging not to repeat them.

President Barack Obama also reflected on this difficult truth: “To say that force is sometimes necessary,” he said, “is not a call to cynicism – it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason …”

So, in addition to honoring our veterans, thanking them for their service, and providing pathways for them to succeed in higher education and the workforce; we need to find ways to learn from them as well. Universities in particular need to step into this role in an academic way and provide the next generation of leaders – civilian and military – the intellectual and contextual tools to understand the human and structural drivers of conflict. We need to do this so we can avoid war; and if necessary, so we can successfully defeat those who would challenge the peace.

So we look to you – this generation of veterans – as you “reintegrate” into civilian society – to help chart this course. And I know you are ready and able.

A student-veteran recently told me that coming back to college was scarier than anything he faced during his military service. But he also told me that he wasn’t going to let down, or give up, because he’d made a promise to himself.

That’s the military way. And, you know, it’s the MSU Denver Roadrunner way, too.

I intend to do everything I can to make sure he and his colleagues have the support they need to fulfill that promise.

Thank you, my fellow veterans, thank you for your service. Thank you for believing in our country, its values, its people.

And thank you for the service you have yet to give, to your communities and companies.

May your work, lives and families be blessed. Happy Veterans Day.