The following speech was delivered by Sergeant Major Steven McDavid for the keynote address to the Class of 2021 at the Commencement Ceremony on May 22, 2021. Learn more about McDavid, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces veteran of the Global War on Terrorism, here or watch his speech via livestream here.
Good Morning! What an honor to be here! The Commencement Ceremony of the 132nd Corps of Cadets, and, my Alma Mater. What a truly amazing opportunity!
I would like to thank General Geraci for inviting me to be here and speak to you today. General Geraci — I sincerely appreciate your faith and support, for selecting me as the appropriate person to deliver this year’s Commencement Address. In addition, I would like to thank COL Grabowski, the MMA Board of Trustees, and the faculty and staff of Missouri Military Academy for inviting me back, and allowing me to speak today, and for everything, they do each and every day to make MMA a successful, enduring institution. Furthermore, I would like to say thank you to my wife Jentrie for being here and supporting me today.
A friend and mentor of mine, LTC Ken Nielson, once stated, “Families are as strong an asset to us as our Soldiers.” His words could not be truer! Jentrie has been the cornerstone and a constant pillar behind my personal and professional accomplishments. Throughout numerous deployments, she has steadfastly proven that not only is she an asset to me, but an asset to supporting my unit, the Army, and the United States. Just as important though, she endures late-night Zoom meetings and long weekend phone calls in support of my role on the MMA Alumni Association Board of Directors. An organization that directly impacts MMA, and its cadets on a daily basis.
Finally, I want to say welcome to the cadets of the Class of 2021 and their families. To the cadets, whether this is your first year at MMA or your sixth year at MMA, what an accomplishment! You have persevered through trials and tribulations which few know the truth and hardships. You will find that from this day forward, you are an anomaly, a member of an elite comradeship. You have endured and accomplished deeds that are shared only by a select few — attending a military high school. Now, at the end of this journey, I can tell you emphatically, that you have realized feats that only a few have the fortitude to endure, and displayed courage at times when many others would not.
COURAGE! A term that brings forth many images in our minds. As a soldier. When I think about courage, there are only but a few days in the history of the United States that come to mind. The courage of the men that stood against the British at Lexington and Concord. The courage of the men that held steadfast during the Battle of New Orleans, and those staunch few, who stood with determination at the Alamo. The word also brings to mind the acts of those who stood so bravely on the battleground at Gettysburg, a decisive point in the American Civil War, as well as the men who gallantly stood on the front lines at the Battle of San Juan Heights during the almost forgotten Spanish-American War.
COURAGE! So easy an expression to utter from our lips, but yet something that appears so distant to achieve. Again, in the twentieth century, men and women of the United States exhibited acts of courage on the front lines while sacrificing their livelihoods and families during not only one, but two World Wars. As well, we must not forget, the courage displayed by many individuals in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, and of course, the Global War on Terror. Courage is easy to display when expected, and when you have time to prepare for it. However, it is those times when you must display courage without warning, that it is most valued.
December 7th, 1941 has been referred to as a day that will live in infamy. As we all know, this was the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; an attack that propelled the United States into its involvement in World War II. The unexpected attack by the Japanese propelled our men and women to display courage without warning in the face of unforeseen odds. President Roosevelt chose the word infamy to describe the attack on Pearl Harbor to emphasize the historic nature of the event, but more importantly, to memorialize the date, December 7th, 1941.
Each of us, in our lifetime, will have our own December 7th, 1941. For me, that day is October 5th, 2008. On that day my Special Forces Operational Detachment was conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol in Afghanistan. We were tasked with confirming or denying the presence of the Taliban at an abandoned outpost in an area known as Khaki Afghan. No U.S. or coalition patrols had ventured into this area in over two years. The patrol began as any other. Starting well before sunrise, my operational detachment began our trek from our forward operations base to the outlying location, well inside of Taliban territory. Most of us were dreading the mission, not because it was deep in a Taliban held area, but because it was a simple confirm or deny mission, and we had a 10-day follow-on offensive mission planned, in which we were going to have only 48 hours to reset after the reconnaissance patrol.
As a trained reconnaissance detachment, the reconnaissance patrol was directed to us at the last minute, in between offensive operations. Operations which we knew directly provided security to our forces, and that would inflict casualties among the Taliban that would keep their forces at bay. In our minds, the reconnaissance patrol was a check-the-block mission that we were eager to complete in order to return to operations that we knew would strike a blow against our Taliban enemies. However, little did I know that the reconnaissance patrol we conducted on October 5th, 2008 would be a date etched in my memory for the rest of my life.
The details of the battle that ensued that day would fill much more time than I am allotted, but as the dark hours of October 5th, 2008 gave way to the morning light of the next day, 55 Taliban fighters were permanently removed from the fight, and myself and another member of my Special Forces Detachment would receive the Bronze Star Medal for Valor for our actions that day. Why, did we earn those valor awards? Because we displayed courage when it was not expected.
I do not provide this story as a tale of my heroics, but rather as a crescendo to the skills I learned as a cadet at Missouri Military Academy.
We all know that MMA is a school that prepares you academically, as attested to by the $6.4 million in scholarships that cadets of the Class of 2021 have received to some great academic institutions – including the University of Missouri, an institution that is still dear to my heart, and one that I still cheer for their sports teams. Let’s just hope that one day the football team will win the SEC Championship.
However, just as important as the academic preparation you receive at MMA, are the core principles that you have developed, and that you will carry forward for the rest of your lives. Although I did not realize it on the bright, sunny day in May 1997 when I graduated from this institution, sitting in this very Gymtorium, but I would carry away three major core principles from my attendance at Missouri Military Academy. Now, nearly 25 years later, I prefer to refer to them as attributes rather than principles, as they are no longer a foundation for me on which to build, but an inherent part of my behavior as a soldier and as an individual. Those three attributes are: discipline, leadership, and fortitude. I would like to take a few minutes today to speak about these three attributes.
First, discipline — Undoubtedly, each of you has heard the term discipline during your time here at MMA, but what does it truly mean? The first definition of the discipline in the Merriam-Webster dictionary states that discipline is “control gained by enforcing obedience or order,” and to most, this is more than likely how they think about discipline. At MMA, the faculty and staff enforce obedience and order through the use of stick sheets, and tours. No one wants to spend their free time marching off tours, therefore discipline is maintained through this control mechanism. However, discipline is much more than enforcing obedience and order. Merriam-Webster also defines discipline as self-control, and when I refer to discipline as one of my attributes, I refer to it from the perspective of self-control.
During your time at MMA, you learned the rules of the system that governed your activity on a day-to-day basis, and you followed those rules that enforced obedience and order — mostly I assume anyway — but what you really learned, was the self-control it took to follow those rules and keep yourselves off of the stick sheet. So, what does this mean for you, the Class of 2021? Society has rules, but they won’t always be easily accessible to reference in a cadet handbook, or even readily apparent in many situations. In my profession, my teammates and I have been thrust into instances where we must consistently exercise self-control to make decisions that have consequences that can affect the security of our fellow soldiers, the military, and even the security of the United States; we are seasoned soldiers with years of experience and training, this is expected of us. But how did we make the right decision at the right moment? We made the right decision because of our established foundation of discipline. At MMA, you have built the groundwork of discipline. Now, you must learn to embrace what you have learned about discipline, grow it, cultivate it, and turn it into your success, make into one of your attributes, and apply it to everything you do in life.
Leadership, the second attribute I took away from my time at MMA — Isiah, chapter six, verse eight, says, “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, here am I, send me!” Many applaud this message because on the surface it appears Isiah volunteers ahead of others, and there is always something to be said about the person that volunteers first. Oftentimes we may view those people that volunteer first as leaders, but being the first to volunteer does not necessarily make someone a leader. If we scrutinize this passage and understand a bit of the history of Isiah, then we realize that those words are deeper than what first appears on the surface. Isaiah’s exclamation “Here am I, send me” marked the very beginning of his ministry, a ministry that scholars say lasted forty years. To put that in perspective, I probably seem old to the cadets in the audience, but I only graduated 24 years ago.
This passage marks the beginning of a calling that Isiah felt to immerse himself in the ministry of God, but his role as a leader was not born overnight, it is something he refined during his forty years of service to God. Leaders do not just spontaneously appear, but rather they rise to become a leader through their actions. Actions that include: integrity, self-awareness, influence, gratitude, and empathy. All cornerstones that MMA has provided each and every one of you. Isiah’s ministry would have been hollow had he not shown himself as a leader to his disciples, but his ministry had a purpose. Leaders have a deeper desire to achieve results, a deeper purpose than to just be in charge. This desire to achieve and serve a purpose was embedded into me while at MMA, it is embedded into you. You do not always have to be the first to volunteer to show that you are a leader. I have succeeded as a leader not because I sought to be in charge, but due to the drive to accomplish those things I am tasked with and set out to do, and because I have refined my skills over the last 24 years. With care, determination, and a desire to achieve, the cornerstones of leadership that MMA provides, means that the next generation of great, influential leaders sits in this room today. I expectantly await to see the accomplishments that you will attain.
Finally, Fortitude — Fortitude is such an important attribute to me that on the wall in my home office hangs a framed photograph of the Iwo Jima Memorial. Below the photo is embossed the words “Fortitude. The strength to persist, the courage to endure.” You heard me previously mention fortitude, but why talk about fortitude when I have already spoken about courage? Although the words are often utilized interchangeably, there is an important distinction between courage and fortitude. Courage is the ability to act when something seems dangerous and fearsome, and it may be demonstrated in only a single act. We can all overcome a fear or danger once.
Fortitude, however, connotes durability — endurance rather than bravery — character rather than conduct. It is so imperative that Plato identified fortitude as one of the four cardinal virtues over two thousand years ago. It was recognized so long ago as one of the four virtues as it is such a sought-after quality, one that requires a more steadfast, sustained application, but that cannot be attained by everyone. Each can overcome that pang of hesitation in their gut when called upon to display courage, everyone in this room has done that. However, not everyone can unlock and maintain their fortitude, that innate persistence to overcome all obstacles. Fortitude is deeply rooted inside of all of us, and for those that learn to unlock it, they carry it throughout their lives.
As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. It is fortitude that permits these rough men, and women, my brothers, and sisters, to risk their lives, day after day, while standing as a vanguard against those who would seek to do violence against us and those we love. It lives inside of them and urges them onward through thick and thin. MMA has given you the tools to expose your fortitude, and now, as each of you set off to accomplish great things in this new chapter of your life, is the time, that you must unlock it.
Always display courage when danger or fear presents itself, it will make you successful, but achieve renown in your lives through the fortitude that is now imprinted upon you after your time at MMA. You will endure personal and professional hardships in your lifetime. Whatever hardships you experienced at MMA are learning points. Carry everything that you learned forward, and develop the principles that you will walk away with from MMA on this day.
I would like to finish with one final point. After graduation from MMA and prior to my current enlistment, I started but did not finish college, two different times. I then bounced from job to job, and even did a previous stint in the Army for four and a half months, before I was discharged for medical reasons. After all of that, I returned to the Army and am now a successful, decorated, senior Special Forces Soldier who assists in managing the operations of over 2,000 Soldiers in 21 countries throughout the Middle East. I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science Degree from Norwich University, and I have a happy, loving family.
Most people are familiar with Winston Churchill’s quote, “Keep Calm and Carry On” that was a mantra repeated by the British government during the Battle of Britain. However, Winston Churchill is famous for another quote that many have never heard. During a speech in 1941, Churchill stated, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in.” I never gave in, I never quit, and look what I have achieved. Whatever you do in life, NEVER QUIT, it may surprise you what the result will be!
De Oppresso Liber! Thank you!