Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

69th Annual Joint Service Presidential Awards

Category: Regional
May, 2019
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Good morning, and welcome to the 69th annual Presidential Joint Service Awards Ceremony. It is my great privilege to be here, and to celebrate our award winners and the 40 senior midshipmen and cadets from the New York Capital Region Naval, Army, and Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

To the family members and guests joining us today, we are delighted to share your deep sense of pride in these young men and women.

I welcome the cadets and midshipmen who have joined us from our neighboring colleges and universities—as well as those we have educated here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I applaud each one of you for your selflessness and patriotism.

At Rensselaer, we are honored to prepare active duty and reserve officers for the military. We also are conscious of how much the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, has transformed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and helped to make it the world-class technological research university it is today.

Our Naval unit, which today hosts midshipmen from Union College as well as Rensselaer students, was commissioned in 1941, just three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The ROTC was founded to encourage more of the most talented young people in the nation to join our uniformed military, and Rensselaer, which had been educating Naval flag officers, particularly in the Civil Engineer Corps, since the 1860s, was a natural choice with such a goal in mind. Indeed, excepting the United States Naval Academy, Rensselaer has trained more U.S. Naval Flag Officers than any other school in the nation.

During World War II, thousands of Rensselaer graduates served in active duty. We trained students in the Navy V-5 Program, which specifically prepared future aviators, and the Navy V-12 Program, which provided a college education for future officers.

Rensselaer’s contribution to the war effort was not limited to the preparation of military leaders. We also offered training for thousands of defense production employees—including 100 women who, while working as employees of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, also studied aeronautics on our campus. The Curtiss-Wright Cadettes, as they were known, were the first sizable group of women to take classes at Rensselaer—and they then went on to produce military aircraft, engines, and propellers to support the war effort.

Indeed, the emergency represented by World War II—which included the departure of large numbers of young men to military theaters—resulted in a new appreciation for the capabilities of women in mathematics, science, and engineering. In 1942, Rensselaer enrolled the first two women in degree-granting programs, Lois Graham and Mary Ellen Rathbun of the Class of 1946. Of course, our academic founder, Amos Eaton, had tried to prove to the Rensselaer Board of Examiners in 1835 that young women were just as adept in mathematics as young men!

So the arrival of women at Rensselaer was a long overdue, but extremely positive event. It is important to know of others who have come before you—whose legacy you carry.

I think of Rear Admiral Lewis Combs of the Class of 1916, a civil engineer. He volunteered for service immediately after the U.S. entered World War I, and served in the Navy Yard in Washington, DC. Opting to remain in the service after the armistice, in the late 1930s, he and his friend, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, began planning for a new branch of the service—a mobile construction battalion, or C.B., that could build the battle infrastructure for a “two-ocean Navy.” 

The bombing of Pearl Harbor made the “Seebees,” as they would come to be known, an instant necessity. The fighting Seabees rapidly built bases, docks, landing strips, roads, field hospitals, and other essential facilities in every theater of operation during the war, often under fire. Their ingenuity was legendary. Their unofficial motto was, “The difficult we do at once. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Before the war, Admiral Combs would say that he was acquainted with every one of the 120 civil engineering officers in the United States Navy. By the end of the war, he commanded 10,000 officers and 325,000 men. Among the many technological innovations he helped to pioneer were floating dry docks, which allowed damaged ships quickly to return to service, saving many lives.

In 1948, Admiral Combs returned to Rensselaer as professor and head of the Civil Engineering Department and remained for 15 years. As an officer, an engineer, and educator, Lewis Combs elevated his field of civil engineering, and forever changed the way the United States supports and protects its troops stationed around the world.

World War II transformed Rensselaer in other profound ways. As the first thoroughly technological war, World War II brought a new focus and attention to the kind of education Rensselaer offers. We helped leaders in government and education understand that while we were preparing our students for “the application of science to the common purposes of life,” and the creation of essential infrastructure for commerce and industry—we also were preparing them to address sweeping global challenges that were societal, political, and military in nature.

World War II also marked an important transition for Rensselaer, from a university that emphasized teaching to one that also conducted groundbreaking research. With a new understanding of the impact of scientific research on national security, the government funded wartime projects at technological universities. This funding laid the foundation for a three-way research partnership—among government, academia, and industry—that powered a great economic expansion after the war, turning the United States into the most technology-intensive economy on Earth.

The Rensselaer contribution to the war effort was honored with a Mark of Commendation from the United States Navy—and after the war, other branches of the military also began educating talented young officers here. In 1947, our Army ROTC commenced with an affiliation with the Corps of Engineers, Transportation Corps, and Signal Corps. Today, our Army ROTC students are proud members of the Mohawk Battalion based at Siena College.

In 1949, the Air Force ROTC Detachment 550 was established at Rensselaer, and today we serve as the host school for young men and women from 22 regional colleges and universities.

At Rensselaer, we are very proud of our history with the military, and we are very proud of you—the cadets and midshipmen we honor today.

Both my husband and my father served in the United States military, so I am familiar with the depth of the commitment you are making.

Putting duty first means making sacrifices. It means that your obligations will take precedence over some of the options available to your civilian classmates.

For example, all of you will soon graduate with degrees, training, and experience that are highly prized in the world. You possess deep knowledge in scientific and technological fields, which always has cut a short path to success—a path which our current employment market and the possibilities of entrepreneurship are making even shorter.

However, as you well know, it is not merely the American economy that is in great need of technological talent. Our national and global security, as well, are deeply enmeshed with emerging technologies. As we consider violent non-state actors that use social media to recruit and to publicize their attacks; cyberwarfare and threats even to the integrity of our elections, the very basis of our democracy; the development of drones and lethal autonomous weapons systems; and the resurgence of nuclear threats—it is clear that the United States must employ the most advanced possible technologies in its defense.

So, we need the most talented young people working on our behalf and protecting the world we live in.

Fortunately, we have you. You are creative and prepared, and you have chosen to serve. You have opted for duty, and you will help to hold our world together as the pace of change escalates. Your sacrifice may involve passing up an opportunity to develop a new technology in the commercial sphere, or it may be more personal—missing birthdays, anniversaries, a child’s concert or sporting event—but please know, your service is worth more than we can say. We are, as a nation, honored by your commitment.

It is important to note that some of the people who came this way before you have made even greater sacrifices—including Air Force Captain Carmen Lucci of the Class of 1975, the first female ROTC cadet at Rensselaer. Captain Lucci became a flight test engineer and lost her life when her A-26 Invader aircraft crashed northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in 1981.

We mourn, as well, Army Major Jeffrey R. Calero of the Class of 1995, who in 2007 was leading a combat reconnaissance patrol and supply convoy in Afghanistan. When the convoy approached a low-lying area, he dismounted and went ahead on foot to investigate. The IED [improvised explosive device] that took his life was buried at the bottom of the depression.

And we mourn Major General Harold Greene of the Class of 1980, who was shot in 2014 on a routine visit to a military training facility in Afghanistan. He is the highest ranking military officer to be killed in combat in our post-9/11 wars—and he was a great friend to Rensselaer. In 2010, he returned to the Rensselaer campus for the opening of the Rensselaer-based Army Research Laboratory Social Cognitive Network Academic Research Center, and in 2013, he served as guest of honor at the 62nd annual New York State Capital Region ROTC Joint Services Military Ball.

We know that each of you leaves here with the courage of these fallen friends. We also fervently hope, and we always pray, that you remain safe.

Your careers, though they will not be without danger, will also offer breathtaking opportunity to change the world.

You, too, will have the opportunity to use the knowledge you have acquired in your chosen fields, to advance the state of the art, to innovate for the benefit of our nation, to lead others in order to accomplish great things, to protect the people you love, and to better our world.

I wish all of you godspeed, and thank you for the service you are about to embark upon. We, do, indeed place our trust in you, and are so grateful that you accept that trust.