Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen told cadets graduating from West Point on Saturday they should build bridges to a public that doesn't always understand the "full weight" of military service after a decade of deadly conflicts.
The U.S. Military Academy is commissioning 1,031 Army second lieutenants in a ceremony at the football stadium here near the Hudson River. Mullen praised the cadets — many of whom will eventually deploy to Afghanistan or other conflict zones — for choosing a military career in a perilous period and assured them the American public appreciates their work too.
"But I fear they do not know us," the Navy admiral added. "I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle."
Mullen said the military represents less than 1 percent of the population and can be a "fairly insular" institution with its own language and culture. He said the young officers no longer have the luxury of assuming their fellow citizens fully understand the sacrifices of military service, so they should reach out. They need to work alongside civilians, stay in touch with their former troops, make sure families of fallen soldiers are cared for and be statesmen, he said.
"I guess we've been a little busy," said Mullen, who is retiring at the end of September. "But that doesn't excuse us from making the effort. That doesn't excuse us from our own constitutional responsibilities — as citizens and as soldiers — to promote the general welfare, in addition to providing for the common defense."
Mullen echoed some of the duty-related themes touched on Friday night by first lady Michelle Obama, who urged the graduating cadets at a banquet to keep in mind the families of the soldiers they will lead.
Mullen noted that the gray-clad graduates before him were just 11 or 12 during the Sept. 11 attacks — "getting your braces off" — and that the country has been at war for nearly half their lives.
"Yet, all of you made a choice, freely, to serve your country, to come here to West Point," he said.
Graduates interviewed in the elated moments after they tossed their caps into the air said the years of international turmoil while growing up actually strengthened their desire to serve.
"I think if anything it made me want to do it more because I saw there was a need, and people need to step up," said Laura Chachula of Beavercreek, Ohio.
"I think it's something we've grown up with and it's part of our identity," said graduate Jessica Coiffard of Lynchburg, Va.
Emmett Tischmak of Mandan, N.D., had already served in Iraq before attending West Point. But he said he and his friend Daniel Yu of Yorktown, Va., who had been deployed to Afghanistan, look forward to what's ahead.
"We understand how important it is, the job of taking care of soldiers," Tischmak said.
Mullen, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, also poked some fun at himself, noting that he had something in common with the famous West Point graduate George Custer: they both accumulated a good number of "demerits" during their service academy days.
"I just hope our stories end differently," he said.