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Cotton Delivers Keynote Address at Air Force Officer Commissioning Ceremony at University of Arkansas

May 12, 2017

Thank you very much. It's an honor to mark this special occasion with all of you: Chancellor Steinmetz, Lieutenant Colonel Wolfe, Mrs. Wolfe, Dr. Coleman, Admiral Johnson, Major General Berry, Mrs. Berry, Colonel Stefancic, airmen, and-most especially-the cadets and your families.

It's also a pleasure to be here with you, and I do really mean that: most Army guys have to make Air Force jokes behind your back, but I get to do it right in front of you. Now, some of you might say that's just lingering bitterness. After all, you airmen got to stay on the C-130 when I had to jump out of it. But it's more than that. Once I got elected to Congress and got to tour a C-130 cockpit at Little Rock Air Force Base, it was just what I thought: coffee makers and microwaves.

And don't even get me started about life downrange. I spent a few days at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan when I deployed to Afghanistan. For the life of me, I still can't figure out why the airmen got to have beer, and we didn't.

But putting aside good-natured service rivalry, I have only the warmest feelings for the Air Force. The way I see it, we're comrades in arms. When I was in Afghanistan, my provincial reconstruction team was Air Force-led and -staffed by outstanding airmen. Our lives were in your hands, whether you were providing close-air support for our patrols or critical intelligence.

Every one who enlists in our Armed Forces-every one who raises his right hand and swears that oath to the Constitution-shares a special bond: All of us chose to serve.

Of course, I'm proud of all the graduating seniors this weekend. I know they're going to do great things. They're going to become doctors and teachers and engineers. But there's no denying you're doing something especially noble-because the profession you've chosen is the one that makes all the others possible. Your classmates will improve the lives of our fellow citizens, but you'll do something more: you'll protect them. You will stand guard over our way of life.

Whether it's employing precision fires to ground troops in the Middle East, delivering essential supplies to far-flung bases, or deterring our enemies with two-thirds of the nuclear triad, American lives will rest in your hands. That's a mighty responsibility for a group of pretty young-looking folks. But I want you to remember-today and every day-that everyone who went before you sat where you sit now and felt what you feel now. They did their duty, and you will too.

I had an old tough-as-nails drill sergeant who rode us so hard. One night, in a moment of candor, he explained that he rode us so hard not because he wanted to see us fail, but because he wanted to see us succeed. He'd carried the ruck sack of responsibility for a long time, you see, and he was ready to hand it off. But he wanted to make sure we were ready to pick it up. And just so, your leaders and your country wouldn't be pinning those bars on your shoulders today if you weren't ready to do your duty.

You will inherit a noble tradition of honor, courage, and heroism. Your service produced great Americans such as Leo Thorsness, a man who single-handedly held off four MiGs in Vietnam before being shot down and enduring six years in the Hanoi Hilton-and who later received the Medal of Honor. And General David Goldfein, who as a young pilot was shot down in Serbia, evaded capture, and escaped enemy territory with a combat search-and-rescue team-later to rise to the highest office in the force, the chief of staff. And Spencer Stone, a young airman who was off-duty on a train to Paris when he rushed to danger to stop a terror attack-for which he received the French Legion d'honneur and the Airmen's Medal. The men and women of the Air Force are the stuff of legend-the right stuff. I have every confidence that you have that stuff inside you too.

Starting today, you'll have a chance to show your stuff. If I can claim the privilege of being the first to use your new titles, we have three future pilots: Lieutenants Ward, Overdorf, and Jones. You worked hard to earn those competitive slots, and we congratulate you-and suggest you get your sleep in now. It'll be a luxury in UPT.

We have a combat-systems officer in Lieutenant Wilkerson. As more advanced threats grow, your job running an aircraft's offense and defense is critical in keeping control of the skies.

Lieutenant Smith will serve as a clinical nurse-and there are few duties more important than saving the lives of your fellow airmen

We have a civil engineer, Lieutenant Kelloms, who will learn the demanding task of keeping airbases open and operating. In a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year Air Force, that is no easy lift.

One of you-Lieutenant Jenkins-will be entrusted with an awesome responsibility, holding the keys to our nuclear deterrent as a missileer. Lieutenant, remember to study your EWO and don't surf too much out at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Lieutenant Gardner will forge ahead in a new and untested domain of warfare as a cyberspace-operations officer.

And finally, Lieutenant Daniel will serve as a recruiter before going into intelligence. You'll reel in our best and brightest for the Air Force-and then join the Air Force's best and brightest in the intelligence community.

You're all ready for the tasks ahead of you.

That said, you're also just starting out, and you can always learn from others' hard-won experience-which is a fancy term for "mistakes." So if you'll indulge me, let me offer you a few lessons learned.

First, listen to your NCOs. The Air Force has trained you to lead and your airmen need good lieutenants. But remember you'll be the least-experienced airman in your next squadron. Your NCOs earned their degrees in the school of hard knocks. They want to help you succeed and they will if you respect them and listen to them.

Second, never quit, not on yourself and not on your wingman. You won't often have the chance to literally say, "I quit." But you'll have many opportunities to give up silently, to quit on a problem, a mission, an airman. Don't do it. Quitting is a bad habit to start.

Third, remember to call home. I mean that literally and metaphorically. I'm sure your parents are excited that, unlike some of your classmates, you actually have a paying job starting today. But they're still going to worry about you-and they're going to worry a lot. Call them, let them know how you're doing, and-most important-thank them. It may be the airman who wears the uniform, but it's the whole family who serves. So let's start you off on the right foot by taking a moment to thank all your family and friends for their love and support.

Finally, have fun. The defense of our nation is serious business. Many of you will operate in a zero-defect environment. But you're embarking on a great adventure. The coming years will be filled with excitement. You'll make the best friends of your life. Your memories will truly last a lifetime. Enjoy it. For those of us who have uniforms hanging in the attic, we cannot but feel a bit of envy watching you today. One day you'll look at a new class of lieutenants and feel the same way. So don't squander a day now.

There is no more noble calling than the defense of a free nation. Americans are a proud people who answer the call, and Arkansans even more so. We love our freedom, and we harbor no illusions about what it demands from all of us. And yet there is no sense of deprivation or being put upon. We give of ourselves freely and without remorse. But then, I can understand it easily, because for all the sacrifices you make-and there will be many-there is no greater privilege than to serve this country-no greater satisfaction than to stand guard in the watchtower of freedom. There is no greater pride than to be the ambassador of your country and to know that you've done your part to make sure, all across the globe, there's nothing more encouraging-or more frightening-to hear than "The Americans are here."

I'm confident you will serve our country with pride and distinction. So on behalf of a grateful state and a grateful nation, I want to say to all of you, "Good luck and Godspeed."