Harvard ROTC Commissioning Speech
29 May 2013
Lieutenant Colonel David R. Downer, USAF (Retired)

Good morning President Faust, distinguished guests, ROTC graduates, families and friends.

It is a distinct honor and pleasure to address you this morning as you who are about to be commissioned join the ranks of hundreds of officers who have gone through the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Harvard over the decades and you who are being commissioned through the Platoon Leaders Class.

Congratulations to all of you!  You have reached a worthy goal.

How did I get to speak to you this morning?  I met the three primary criteria:  I’m a member of the 50th Reunion class; I’m a graduate of ROTC at Harvard and I made the military service a career.   I’m pleased to have been the one chosen.

You will get a lot of advice as you begin your post-Harvard careers.  I’m here not so much to give advice (although I have a few thoughts to offer) as I am to share some of my experiences in my country’s service.  Service in the armed forces offers many experiences available nowhere else and on active duty, you will have many opportunities to learn, to grow and, in fact, to have a significant impact on others.  These are certainly not unique to the military, but there are differences, due in part to the authority structure and the discipline that goes with it.

My main point today is simply that decisions have consequences.  Your decisions will impact you and others.  In wartime those decisions obviously can mean life or death.  In peacetime, they can, in fact, have the same consequences.

Growing up in the post-World War II period – the 40’s and 50’s – there was still an awareness of military service very much in evidence.  The Selective Service system still required men to register for the draft at age 18.  There was a strong sense of patriotism and of an obligation to serve if needed.

The influence of parents and others shaped how we felt about all of that, and I was influenced to feel that service as an officer – if I were to serve at all – would have its advantages.  I therefore decided to enter ROTC at Harvard.

It was a very enjoyable experience for me and before graduation I had an unusual opportunity to apply to go directly to further education to get my degree in Architecture.  I was offered three schools as options and instead I chose to suggest to the Air Force that they send me to the Harvard Graduate School of Design even though they didn’t have a contract with that part of the University – and they found a way to do it.  My success in that endeavor led to me attending the GSD for two years of a three-and-a-half year program for the professional degree.


Following those two years I was assigned to a Columbus, OH base now known as Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base.  Here I began learning the civil engineering career field – the usual place they put architects.  Two years here gave me the foundation I needed. 

I then went to Eielson AFB, Alaska, located near Fairbanks. I had joined the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) and went to a national meeting of that group at Cape Canaveral during this assignment.  There I met the head Civil Engineer of the Air Force, a Major General Goddard, and spoke with him about my career.  He invited me to write to him about a follow-on assignment as I approached the end of my stint in Alaska.  I never wrote that letter.


My next assignment was a real surprise:  I was to become a missile crew commander @ Minot AFB, ND.
[At this point, someone in the audience made a remark about that being another cold place, after Alaska.  I therefore than added this story:
Yes, and there’s a story I like to tell people about North Dakota:  It never snows in North Dakota!  It snows in Montana, and blows across into Minnesota, and three day later it blows back again, but it never snows in North Dakota.  You can fly over it and look down and see diagonal white & brown lines of snow and dirt, blown by the wind.]

(Continuing original script):  I might have gotten out of that but decided to take it.  In the Army, it’s always been considered important to be in the “combat arms,” such as infantry or artillery.  In the Air Force, the rough equivalent is being a pilot or navigator; if you weren’t one of those, missiles was about as close as you could get.

Accepting that assignment meant that I had opportunities that I would otherwise have missed:  FIRST, I met my wife, an AF nurse who had just returned from Camh Ranh Bay, Vietnam.  I met her on my first day at my first training assignment for missile duty and, believe it or not, I proposed before I left 30 days later and we were married two months after that.  SECOND, I decided to enroll in a master’s degree program available to missile officers and earned a Master of Arts in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. THIRD, I accepted an opportunity to perform additional duty as a protocol officer.  Protocol work is high-exposure stuff; I worked on visits by general officers, congressmen and other VIPs.  Do that type of high-visibility mission well and it has a positive impact on your career – and it did on mine.


Near the end of this assignment, four years further into the Vietnam conflict, I felt it was important to get to Southeast Asia as service in this conflict appeared to have become essential for a career officer.  I volunteered and was sent to Ubon AB in Thailand.

Here the war was relatively distant for me though aircrews at the base were constantly flying into harm’s way.  Besides my duties, I had the opportunity to do such things as take night classes in the Thai language, go to the annual elephant roundup at Surin and visit the bridge on the river Kwai.

Halfway through this tour of duty I returned to the States for leave, going the European route, with stopovers in such places as Delhi, Karachi and Beirut. That also meant that, upon return to the States at the end of that assignment, across the Pacific, I had literally completed two trips completely around the world.  That was a fun opportunity.

When activities at the base started to wind down in 1974, I decided to set up the civil engineering control room with a wall-sized map of the base on which I illustrated the plans for various structures on the base.  When the wing commander found this tool, I became a briefing officer for all high-level visitors to the base, including the U.S Ambassador to Thailand, the Commanding General of U.S Army forces in Thailand and the 4-star Commander of Pacific Air Forces.


I was assigned to Langley AFB, VA on my return to the States.  During my first two years there my job was to assure on-time completion of all facilities work needed to activate the first operational wing of F-15s.  After successful completion of this mission I held other positions, one of which was the most responsible position in the squadron under the Squadron Commander.  When I was offered this position I was well aware of the challenges involved, but accepted it.

My point here, without going into any detail, is that you must accept greater responsibility when it comes your way, whether you feel up to the challenge or not.


Speaking of greater responsibility – it comes with promotion; it’s very important to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s important to promotion opportunity.  The year before I would meet the Lt. Col. promotion board, I took a look at that year’s board statistics.  There were three major criteria:  Officer Efficiency Reports (OERs); Professional Military Education (PME), e.g. Air War College (AWC) and post-graduate education.  I was in good shape on everything except that I had not completed Air War College.  I was enrolled in the seminar program to reach that goal and was nearly finished.  Statistically, the difference between completing AWC and not completing it was a 75% chance of making that promotion and a 25% chance.  You better believe I made sure that AWC was completed in time to be on the record when the board met.

And don’t forget that the services, in a broad sense, don’t promote people; they promote folders full of records and a photo.  Do what you can to manage the contents of that folder.


In 1978 I was assigned for duty in Tehran, Iran, working to support facilities construction for the Navy’s F-14 aircraft and the Phoenix missile system used by the Iranian Air Force.  That didn’t last long as I was evacuated following the revolution in early 1979.

When the dust settled after that evacuation I spent two years in staff duties at Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt AFB, NE, working on various projects at SAC bases around the country and a number of units overseas.  I was then tapped to take command of the 601st Civil Engineering Squadron at Sembach AB, Germany.  This presented a whole set of new challenges.  For the first time since my missile days I was reporting to an officer who had come out of the Pentagon, had no experience with civil engineering regulations and processes and a truly different perspective.  I adjusted and had a wonderful time in Europe.  That assignment was a real capstone to my career which was nearing its end.

I returned from that assignment in 1984 and transferred to 15th AF Headquarters at March AFB, CA, where I was Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Engineering and Services.  I retired after two years there and began my civilian career.

Whether you make the service a career, or turn to civilian pursuits, much awaits you.  You’ll have many decisions to make, and you’ll make mistakes – we all do – but look for challenges, take them on and have a great time. There’s a lot of fun ahead as well.

God bless you and good luck!