Remarks at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences Commencement Ceremony

May 16, 1987

Thank you all very much. And Secretary Weinberger, Chairman Olch, Dean Sanford, members of the graduating class, and ladies and gentlemen, I must tell you before I start how relieved I was when Dean Sanford told me that I was going to walk on after the procession. I thought that I was going to come in with the dean, and with his reputation, I'd been afraid that the good news was that we might perch on the backstage rafters and rappel in -- [laughter] -- and the bad news, that we'd jump from 10,000 feet. [Laughter] But it's a pleasure to be here to welcome you the graduates of this the West Point and Annapolis and Colorado Springs for physicians into your new profession as military and Public Health Service doctors.

You know, I hope you won't mind if I pause for a minute, but that reminds me of something. At my age, everything reminds you of something. [Laughter] People will be calling you doctor. And there are all kinds of doctors. I'm even one kind of doctor. Last week down at Tuskegee University, at the commencement there, I was awarded an honorary degree. I am a doctor of laws now. And I told them at that time that they had compounded a sense of guilt I had nursed for some 55 years, because I always was suspicious that the first degree I got, when I graduated from college, was honorary. [Laughter] You know, I was devoted to some other activities, such as football and swimming and campus dramatics. And I've often wondered, since, if I'd spent more time and worked harder as a student how far I might have gone. [Laughter]

But seriously, there's no doubt about what you, with your hard work, have accomplished. The British poet Robert Louis Stevenson, once said: ``There are men and classes of men that stand out; the soldier and the sailor, not unfrequently, and the physician almost as a rule.'' Well, today you become both: soldier, sailor, or airman and physician. Today you enter one of the oldest and most honored ranks in the service of America's freedom. Today you take up the flag once carried by men like Army Major Walter Reed, Rear Admiral Edward Stitt, Air Force Major General Harry Armstrong, and Public Health Service Surgeon Joseph Goldberger.

Yes, ever since the Continental Congress established the Army and Navy medical services in 1775, patriots like these men and women, and like you, have carried their powers of healing onto the battlefields and to swamps and deserts, mountains and plains, all around the world. Their accomplishments reach into almost every area of medicine. For almost a century, for example, America's uniformed services have been the world's leader in the battle against tropical diseases. They entered the fight in the jungles of Panama after Walter Reed and his team took less than a year to determine the cause of yellow fever. Today, after decades of progress, your faculty at USUHS is helping military medicine to continue leading the charge. It is testing new vaccines for malaria as well as for adult dysentery, a major tropical killer.

In field after field, America's doctors in uniform have pushed forward the battle lines of medical treatment, even while under fire. Military physicians developed the use of massive blood transfusions in treating shock and trauma. They pioneered burn research and treatment. They found how man could live at higher and higher altitudes and finally in outer space itself. And again, of course, your faculty continues the tradition, leading in such areas as research on vascular surgery and reconstruction, the development of treatments for lacerated eyes, and in developing computer graphic tools for medical teaching and research.

When I hear about the can-do spirit of America's doctors in uniform, it reminds me of a story about a group of marines. I hope those of you in the other services will forgive me for telling this, but the get-it-done spirit applies to all of America's physicians in uniform. These marines had been sent to the Army airborne school for training. And came the day for the first jump, the training officer told them that the planes would come in at 1,500 feet, they would jump from the plane, hit the ground, and move south. The marines seemed a little disturbed by this, and they went into a huddle. Then one of them as a spokesman for the group went to the officer and asked couldn't the plane come in at 500 feet instead of 1,500? And the officer explained that if they took the plane in too low, it wouldn't give them time for the parachutes to open. And he said, ``Oh, you mean we're wearing parachutes?'' [Laughter]

America's physicians in uniform have always been leaders, and in the 10 years since its first class, USUHS itself has found a place as a leader in American medicine, a leader in teaching as well as in research. As students, you went through one of the most rigorous programs in the country. You took 640 hours of training in military medicine on top of your standard curriculum. You prepared yourselves to treat patients anywhere in the world, under any circumstance, because yours is the only medical school in America that trains physicians to be ready for duty on the bottom of the ocean or on the surface of the Moon and anyplace in between. Recently, the noted Houston surgeon, Dr. Ken Mattox, echoed the medical community's growing esteem when he said, in picking interns and residents: ``Give me a USUHS student any day.'' Yes, today USUHS is the kind of school that Congressman F. Edward Hebert had in mind during his 25-year crusade to establish a military university for medicine. It's helping our military become, in medicine as in so many areas, the best it's ever been.

You know, among the most gratifying parts of my job is visiting our Army, Navy, and Air Force bases around the world. Time and again, I've been told that our young recruits are the best we've ever had -- the best educated, the most dedicated -- and I've seen it for myself. For a long time, some people said that the weak economy was the reason. But then we began on what is now 54 months of economic expansion, along the way creating over 13,600 million jobs and still counting. Today a greater proportion of Americans is at work than ever before in our history, and yet we're continuing to get the best recruits.

A new burst of quality -- that's what I've heard about USUHS applicants, too. USUHS has always selected outstanding classes, from that first class of 32 over a decade ago to this year's entering class of 163. But I understand that the quality of the total pool of applicants from which the classes are chosen shot up 6 years ago, just as the quality of all those who wanted to enter the military did. And again and again, when you ask why, the answer has come back more or less the same: It has something to do with patriotism, service. It's again a proud thing to wear the uniforms of the United States. It's again a noble thing to serve in the cause of freedom and the defense of liberty around the world.

There are some who say we've been in a period of ``me, me, me'' the last 6 years. Well, I say they should go to any American military base in the world or they should come here today. They should meet you, America's young patriots. You're the best we've ever had. You carry on a more than 200-year-old tradition of service, and you carry it as proudly today as it has ever been carried. And that goes for your faculty as well. USUHS has more than 1,500 faculty members, most of them affiliated with other schools or institutions, but who donate their time to USUHS, donate it because that's a way to serve our country.

A quarter century ago, Douglas MacArthur gave his farewell address to the Long Gray Line, the cadets of West Point. He stood in the vast hall of the academy, below the balcony they call the poop deck, and spoke about the soul, not just of the Army but of all the services that you now enter. ``The Long Gray Line,'' he said, ``has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: duty, honor, country.''

Duty, honor, country -- the motto of West Point. And like the men and women of West Point and all of our military institutions, our physicians in uniform have never failed us. They've been ready when called; ready for hardship and sacrifice, for adventure and exploration; ready to extend the hand of compassion and healing care; ready, if called, to give the last full measure of their devotion. And you now join that company. You now enter the service of your country in one of the world's most honored professions: that of physician.

And so, as your Commander in Chief, I say to you today, on behalf of a grateful country, good luck, congratulations, Godspeed. Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:05 a.m. in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger; David I. Olch, Chairman of the University's Board of Regents; and Jay P. Sanford, president of the University and dean of the School of Medicine.