Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on university students to step up and lead their country in a lecture to a sold-out audience at Duke University on Wednesday.
Gates delivered a message that resonated with his audience, which included a noticeable contingency of ROTC students from universities in the Triangle area.
His lecture addressed the state of the nation’s all-voluntary armed forces, and he encouraged the students to consider serving in the military.
Gates, former director of the CIA and president of Texas A&M University, captured the attention of the students in the audience by comparing college students across the country to the young adults serving in the military.
“Instead of wearing J.Crew they wear body armor,” he said. “Instead of carrying book bags they are carrying assault rifles.”
These young members of the armed forces are the most battle-tested, innovative and impressive generation of military leaders this country has produced in a long time, Gates said.
But he said that performing such a role is difficult.
“The camaraderie and commitment is real,” he said. “But so is the strain.”
Demographics in the military are affected by the lack of ROTC programs in the Northeast, the West Coast and major cities, Gates said.
Some universities are considering establishing or re-establishing the program, he said.
“But a return of ROTC back to some of these campuses will not do much good without the willingness of our nation’s most gifted students to step forward,” Gates said.
The hardship involved with serving in the armed forces is real, but so is the opportunity to be involved in decisions that can change the course of history, he said.
He asked students to consider the military — to take a risk and step out of their comfort zone.
“Think about what you can do to earn your freedom,” he said.
After the lecture, Gates spent a short time answering questions from students on U.S. foreign policy and the structure of the military.
Gates’ lecture was this year’s Ambassador S. David Phillips Family International Lecture.
“The purpose is to bring renowned leaders to speak at Duke and reflect on the state of international politics,” said Peter Feaver, director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the program in American Grand Strategy at Duke.
Some UNC students even traveled to Duke to hear Gates’ lecture.
“I think it really shows an advanced level of the national security studies in this area,” said UNC senior Christopher Jones.
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