In 1969, after having already been held hostage for four years, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy faced a lonely choice in a North Vietnamese prison camp: how to prevent his captors from using him in a propaganda piece. James Stockdale chose to smash his own face in with a stool rather than give “aid and comfort” to the enemy.
In the early years of Stockdale’s seven-year imprisonment, the current president of the United States was enjoying the comforts of Wharton Business School, having received four draft deferments to attend college (he received another after graduation for supposedly having bone spurs in his heels). He would later go on to make fun of POWs of that era, claiming John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured.
In 1972, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy named John Ripley low-crawled and pulled himself along the underside of the Dong Ha bridge for over three hours, making multiple trips with explosives. His actions, all done under fire from the North Vietnamese Army, earned him the Navy Cross for valor. In 1972, Donald Trump, who took over his father’s apartment rental business, was a year away from being sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments in one of his buildings to black people.
On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy steeled themselves for a mission to bring violence to our enemies. After the World Trade Center Towers fell, Donald Trump bragged on TV that a building he owned was now the tallest in downtown Manhattan.
On Feb. 1, 2003, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy named William McCool was at the helm of the space shuttle Columbia when it broke up during reentry. The current president was then gearing up to become the host of a reality TV show called “The Apprentice.”
In late June of 2005, two USNA graduates named Erik Kristensen and Mike McGreevy insisted on being in the lead aircraft riding into a hot landing zone in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley to come to the aid of their wounded, outnumbered and about to be overrun team of SEALs. The helicopter was shot down, and they and more than a dozen others lost their lives. A few months later in that same year, the current president of the United States was captured in a recording bragging about assaulting women: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ‘em by the [crotch]. You can do anything.”
These are just a few of many examples of graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy making big choices laden with courage and self-sacrifice that come from a history of countless small choices: to be truthful, to stay committed to a code of honor and duty, and to choose a harder right over the easier wrong — even if the choice is contrary to their own short-term personal interests. These are the choices that make one fit to lead.
Contrast this to the personal and professional honor of the sitting president of the United States, who time and again makes small choices guided by self-interest, ego, impulse and immediate self-gratification. He could never do what we ask our U.S. Naval Academy graduates to do. He is a physical coward, a liar and no leader at all.
It is right and fitting that the president of the United States give a commencement address to a service academy’s graduating class. It is also right and fitting that citizens of the democracy for which these graduates will soon be charged with protecting point out the personal cowardice, narcissism and incompetency of the current president.
Those of us who have served in this nation’s wars owe it to our new graduates to point out how better served we would all be if in 2020 our small choices as citizens added up to one big choice — one that will deliver us a leader whose personal choices and conduct are more in keeping with the honorable traditions of our alma mater.
Dr. Daniel Barkhuff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Veterans For Responsible Leadership, a 2001 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a former Navy SEAL. William Burke is the general counsel for VFRL; he was also a 2001 graduate of USNA and served as a submariner from 2001-2006.