Remarks of Sean Wilkes '06 at Columbia ROTC Return Ceremony

30 September 2013

There’s an old joke that I’m sure most military folks here have heard about the subtle differences between how the different services communicate. Take, for example, the phrase “SECURE THE BUILDING.”
-Tell this to a group of SAILORS, and they’ll immediately turn out all the lights and lock the doors.

-SOLDIERS, upon hearing this, will surround the building with defensive fortifications, tanks and concertina wire.

-MARINES, on the other hand, will hastily assault the building, using overlapping fields of fire from all points on the perimeter, until the property is completely leveled.

-And what about the Air Force? Well the AIRMEN, of course, will take out a three-year lease with an option to buy.

As with many jokes, there is a kernel of truth to all of this, and as someone who has spent a large part of his career operating in joint environments and working with my colleagues from the other services I have enjoyed learning about and celebrating their various traditions. And the Navy has always held a special place in my heart in particular. Indeed, I came within a hairs breadth of joining the Navy myself. Late in the spring of my senior year of high school I was all set to matriculate at the Naval Academy that coming summer. But I had received a number of college acceptances, and over spring break my mother had convinced me that rather than spend the week partying with my friends I should make one last trip to visit some of the colleges I hadn’t yet seen. So we drove up the east coast and made stops in DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, and lastly New York. 

I had thusfar been fairly unimpressed with the trip, and remained dead set on being a Midshipman. But then I set foot for the first time on Columbia’s campus. And let me tell you, it was dismal. It was pouring out. The rest of the week had been perfect, but that day Zeus had seen fit to open the flood gates.  But it didn’t matter. I immediately fell in love with the place. Even in the midst of a torrential downpour, college walk was bustling with people. This, I knew, was not a place of mere quiet contemplation. This was a place of action, of dynamism. That night I wrote to the Naval Academy and to the Vice President who had nominated me and regretfully informed them that I had decided on a different path.

When I finally arrived at Columbia the following fall, I had no idea where that path would take me. There wasn’t much yet written in stone. But I knew one thing that was, and that was the inscription etched into Low Library.

King's College Founded in the Province of New York
By Royal Charter in the Reign of George II
Perpetuated as Columbia College by the People of the State of New York
When they became Free and Independent - Maintained and Cherished from Generation to Generation
For the Advancement of the Public Good and the Glory of Almighty God

 “For the Advancement of the Public Good,” It was that phrase that informed and shaped my collegiate experience, and that soon spurred me to action on the matter of ROTC. Knowing that ROTC wasn’t available on campus, I reached out to other programs in the area and, the Navy not being an option back then, that eventually led me to Fordham in the Bronx, where I enrolled as an Army cadet a few weeks into September. But it also led me to question “Why?” Why, at a university so world-renowned and with such a great emphasis on public service, was there no ROTC program to be found?

As we all know, the answer to that question is complicated, and abstruce, and enormously interesting. In pursuing this line of inquiry my colleagues and I had to grapple with questions over the role of the university in society, the fundamental purpose of the military, and discordance between the law and the ethical and social mores of the community. In advocating for our proposal to reestablish ROTC, which I had the privilege of presenting to President Bollinger and the University Senate back in 2004, we had to engage that community, which itself was extraordinarily diverse and conflicted and opinionated. And we had to do so in the broader context of a public still reeling from terrorism and the commencement of two wars. 

It was an illuminating, enlightening, and exhilarating experience. It helped to define my time here at Columbia, and, I’d argue, did as much to prepare me for my later success in the military as did any of the classes I took. And it led to meaningful friendships with all of the people who made this happen. Alumni like Ted Graske, Eric Chen, John McClelland, Learned Foote and Mickey Segal, and faculty like Allan Silver, Jim Applegate, and Peter Awn. Their work, both with ROTC and Columbia MilVets, has produced a highly supportive and welcoming community for veterans, both those who have served and those who will soon do so. Indeed, Columbia has by far the largest community of Veterans in the Ivy League, something I enjoyed boasting about while attending grad school at our peer institution in Boston. 

I am so grateful for the fantastic education I received at this university, and the unforgettable experiences this community gifted to me over those four years. And I am delighted that the university will have the opportunity to educate, nurture, and develop many more future military leaders - Naval Officers in particular - in the years to come.. 

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