Paul Rieckhoff '98: “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome”

Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you, Professor Hunt—I appreciate it very much, that introduction. If you’re standing, come on down; there are plenty of seats. … Thanks, man…

So, I know the rain sucks. But there’s an old saying in the Army, that if it ain’t raining, we ain’t training. [Laughter] And I think every time it rains on a day like this, as an old infantryman, I’m grateful I’m not outside somewhere in the woods trying to live off the land for about a week. I know that’s no consolation at Amherst, but it does help me keep things in perspective. And it always—when I was in the Army, whenever it rained, the more it sucked, the closer the bonds became, the deeper the conversations, and it always made for a good story. So I hope this graduation weekend will do the same for all of you.

Thank you for having me here today. I’m humbled to be here again this weekend; I’m humbled to be back in this room. My good friend Ben Lieber, who I am happy to say is here today, tells me the carpet is red to cover the bloodstains from the faculty arguments that go on in this room, which are the stuff of legend. And for me, I remember being in this room a number of times for different classes, falling asleep for some of them, being challenged in all of them. It’s always been a very special room to be in.

I actually was here, I think, about six years ago with a few other Amherst alumni who had served in the military, soon after a classmate of ours, a guy named Josh Gross [’98], had passed away in a training accident as an naval aviator. It was a tough time to come back, but the power in this room and the support in this room buoyed us all, and we used that opportunity to help educate people about what was facing our country, facing our military, and also to create a scholarship program soon afterward, that a young man named Jacob Worrell [’12E] was the first person to take advantage of. He graduated a few years ago—he had served overseas as a combat medic and came to Amherst and added a definite amount of diversity. When he graduated he decided to come work with us, and he works with us in New York supporting veterans. I think he continues to serve Amherst proudly.

A few folks I need to thank first: My family is here today. My dad, who has always been by my side and still, to this day, tells stories about “how the heck we were gonna afford Amherst” and a lot of conversations where he said, “You’re going to Amherst? OK, we’ll figure it out.” And we figured it out, and they got me through this place and supported me all the way and have supported me ever since. My stepmom Sharon is here as well. My amazing girlfriend Lauren, who has been by my side through all the political and personal fights through the past—in the past decade. My work is not even easy. Like the military, I signed up for it, and she got drafted. [Laughter] She’s been by my side the entire time. My colleague Michael Carey, who is in the fight with us every single day for social justice and support for our community and our country. My friend Michael Cusack and so many other folks here today. It’s really great to be back. But most of all: Seniors, where are you? Raise your hands. [Applause]

This weekend is all about you. Sort of, right? When I graduated, I got to tell you, I did not go to any of the honorary degree recipients’ speeches. I was probably still asleep somewhere right now, and it was sunny out. So this whole thing about honorary degrees and speeches is kind of new to me, too. But somebody told me when I graduated, at one point: There’s a lot of pageantry, and maybe you’re hungover and it’s hot or it’s cold, but at the end of the day, graduation really isn’t for you. It’s for the folks who supported you. There’s a lot of weird things about Amherst, a lot of wonderful things about Amherst, but they’re all incredibly proud of you. You didn’t get here on your own, for sure, and you didn’t get to be who you are on your own, for sure. This weekend is about celebrating not just you but the folks who helped you get to this point where you’re graduating, and I hope you keep that in mind this weekend and just be grateful to them, because this can be a difficult place, and it’s your obligation to give back to them, and I’ll talk a little bit about that today.

I hope now, now that you’re at that end of your Amherst career and you move into your new status as Amherst graduates, which is a very interesting role to be in—I spoke to you all that raised your hand about four years ago when you first got here, and I gave you 50 things to do while you were at Amherst. That was my recommendation. Some of you were probably sleeping then, too. [Laughter] But a couple of things I recommended that you do: Learn about Robert Frost, and take a class from Austin Sarat and Hadley Arkes; maybe you did both of them in this room. I encouraged you get them to debate … I don’t know if they’ve ever debated. I encouraged you to get them to fight—that didn’t happen either, at least not physically—but I also asked you to do things like find the tunnels. I heard some of you did. I hope it didn’t result in a criminal record. But I hope you found some of the many wonderful gems that exist within this school and this community. I also asked you to learn about the Hurricane Class of 1938. As this weather hits us, I think we can all reflect on the Hurricane Class of 1938, that came into this place when it was decimated. The entire area was decimated; every tree was down; the destruction was legendary. And as they got here, that Class of 1938 rebuilt Amherst. They rebuilt this college, and many of them went on to serve in other capacities. I think that spirit of service drove them further [during their] time [at] Amherst and through their lives.

As a veterans’ advocate, it’s part of my responsibility to encourage everyone to reflect on what Monday means, which is Memorial Day. Now Memorial Day can be a very complicated time for the veterans’ community. One of my friends, a good friend, once said it’s when we go to the cemetery and everyone else goes to the beach. Unfortunately, that’s the case often. What we try to do in our work is just encourage people to reflect on the sacrifices of the people who died, in whatever way possible. We’re using new media to ask everyone on social media—Twitter, Facebook—just to go silent for one minute on Monday at 12:01. When the wreath is laid at Arlington Cemetery, we will have a young veteran named Angela King laying a wreath in memory of the fallen. I encourage you all to do the same. And if you get a couple minutes while you’re here this weekend, walk over to Memorial Hill, because I did not do that when I was here. I really did not understand or appreciate the history of Amherst; as I’ve gotten further from it, I think I’ve learned more of it. But just go take a walk over there and reflect on the folks from that Class of 1938 who walked in here—and many of them walked into World War II—and the tremendous burdens they endured.

I talked about those 50 things to do while you’re at Amherst, and you did some of them, but today I just really want to talk to you and share some advice. I’m talking to seniors, because your parents and your friends and family put a lot of money into you. Now this investment is about to be unleashed on the world, and the best thing that I can do in the limited time I have with you today is maybe just give you some advice, share some stories and do what I can to help you avoid some of the land mines that I hit.

When they asked me to come up with a subject of the talk, in typical Amherst fashion, I kind of pulled it out at the last minute. And I thought about the common slogan of the Marine Corps: Improvise, adapt and overcome. I think that’s what we’re going to do together today, what we are going to do all weekend, because right now, as rough as it is for you all, can you imagine what it’s like for the folks who work at Valentine? Or the AV folks who had all those wires laid across the quad and the folks at LeFrak who still don’t know if you’re going there or to the quad? And President Martin’s got a tough call: I think, like, at 8 a.m. she’s got to make the call: Are we going to LeFrak? Maybe now there is a text message way of communicating or maybe a bat signal or something, but we’re going to do a lot of improvising adapting and overcoming today—and, I think, the next two years, because that’s what is, quite frankly, going to be required of you, as a generation of leaders that leave Amherst.

I challenged you, when you were coming to this place, to think about big things, good things, and I think, now more than ever, this generation of leaders is needed. You are the post-9/11 generation, and a friend of mine said a line a few months ago to me that sometimes rubs folks the wrong way. He said the World War II generation built this country, the generation afterwards it screwed it up, and it is your generation’s obligation to save it.

There’s some truth in that. We face tremendous challenges for the nation—I would not blame it on a generation in particular—but I think, if you look across the world, at what we face, and the economy, and the environment, issues of equality and fairness, there are many fights to be had, many important fights, many good fights to be waged, and we’re going to need you on the front lines of those social, political, economic fights. And one of the things that I learned at Amherst is that you have an obligation to serve, and there’s that great motto Terras Irradient. I encourage you to share that light with the rest of the world, because we need it.

I’ve seen it in my work. Many of you have heard my story, but after I graduated from Amherst I really did not know my calling was going to be. I went to Wall Street. I didn’t think that was going to be a call per se, but it was where I wanted to go. It was the right choice for me; I learned a lot about business. I was there at a very exciting time, but there was still something in my heart that I was looking for. I was looking for my calling. For a while I was worried that my generation was going to be a generation where nothing important happened. There was no call for us to answer.

My father was telling us a story over lunch today. In 1968, when he was drafted, he was living in the Bronx, and we said, “How do you know you were getting drafted?” And he said they lived in a one-bedroom walkup in the Bronx, on Chapman Avenue, and my grandfather had been drafted during World War II and served three years in the Pacific—came to this country when he was 17 years old, I believe, spoke very little English and was an incredible man—said that when the envelope came he looked at my father [and] said, “Paul, you’re gone.” I said, “Dad, how did you know?” He said he held up the envelope, and he felt in the corner and there’s a subway token. That’s how you knew you were drafted. He was going down to the city a few days later. In that month, he said, 43,000 people were drafted in one month. So he was called, my grandfather was called; on 9/11 I was called.

When I left my job on September 7, 2001—I worked at J.P. Morgan doing equity capital markets—and I’d been in the National Guard. At that time, the National Guard was kind of this weekend warriors group: they thought we just hung out in the woods and drank beer once a month, and in some units, quite frankly, that’s what it was. They weren’t really called on to respond. By September 11, I was called. And I was at Ground Zero for a few weeks after that and then volunteered to go to Iraq, and I served there. When I came home, one the first places I came back to was Amherst, and I didn’t know how I was going to be received. It was 2004; the presidential campaign was happening with tremendous political debates; this country was divided over the war. I remember Ben Lieber met me down in town. I said, “Ben, this is Amherst. How are they going to react to me? I’m in uniform.” This is the place where huge antiwar protests happen; the senior class [of 1966] turned their back on Robert McNamara, famously. And I said, “Then are they going to throw tomatoes at me?” I spoke at the Octagon, and he said, “No, they are very excited to see you.” And they were.

I tell you the story because Amherst is always welcoming. Amherst is always supportive. Amherst always looks out for their own. When I got to that speech, there were two Vietnam vets who lived in town and walked up to me, who I’d never met my life, and they said, “Welcome home, man.” And then they said, “Now we need you to serve again.” I didn’t really understand at the time, but I’ve understood since. I spent a small amount of time in Iraq, less than a year. But, the way I look at it, I had to find ways to serve when I came home.

And that’s what I’ve been doing in my work at IAVA. I’m inspired by the people I work with every day; I think they set a model for this generation of young leaders. When we think about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, they run to the sounds of gunfire, they run into problems. You saw that most vividly in Boston a little over a month ago: when explosions went off, veterans ran. Wounded veterans, who’d been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, ran in to help wounded civilians. A quote from Mr. Rogers went around, and maybe many of you read—it went viral. He said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You always find people who are helping.’”

Our veterans are the helpers, and we see that every day. We are empowering and supporting a generation of men and women who we believe are the helpers, and we are dedicated to educating and assisting and making people aware of the issues that they face, these folks and their families, and we are engaging the American people. We are their voice in Washington, and we’ve had some tough fights on issues, like passing the GI Bill, advance funding at the Veterans Affairs department. We passed the only jobs bill in Congress a few years ago. The only jobs bill that went through was a veterans’ jobs bill that provided tax credits and incentives for hiring veterans. We fought to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And now we are fighting to reform a broken bureaucracy in the VA that has about 600,000 veterans stuck in what is called “backlog.” If you file a claim for disability benefits in places like New York or Reno or Los Angeles, you’re going to wait 600 days. We think that’s bullshit. We think that’s unacceptable, and we think our country can do better.

So we are taking on these types of issues, and military sexual trauma and military sexual assault, which is an incredibly important issue that cuts at the fabric of who we are as a country and who our military is, and an issue that Amherst has had to face in the last year especially. Personally, I’m proud of the way that Amherst is taking it head-on; I think that’s the responsibility that Amherst has, and that’s the responsibility that we all have as folks that are part of the Amherst community, not just to walk away from the problems, but to run towards them and to try to create lasting changes that we can leave behind. They were calling on the president to step up and fix some of these challenges, but what I see every day is folks in their 20s who are stepping up and trying to find solutions to problems. They are tired of the partisanship, they are tired of the rhetoric out of Washington, and they have incredible tools at their disposal that we did not have at our disposal when I was sitting in your seat.

What I found out a few years ago is that I’m what’s called a “social entrepreneur.” I didn’t even know what that was before I was called it. In a bar once, I was trying to explain what I did: “Yeah, I run a veterans’ group, and I write some books, but fundamentally what I have tried to do since I’ve left Amherst is come up with solutions to social problems.” I think social entrepreneurs are what is badly needed in this world right now in a variety of problems. It could be AIDS, it could be poverty, it could be rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. You all now have the tools and the energy and the networks to tackle these problems and come up with solutions. And that’s really what Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, coined the term social entrepreneurs about. What I believe is that every one of you who’ll be graduating this year are social entrepreneurs. Whether you choose to do it full-time, or if you go to business school or you work in finance or are you a scientist, there’s an opportunity for you to be a social entrepreneur and find a way to give back to the community, to find a way to give back to the world. Because that’s what’s required of you, and that’s what’s required of all Americans.

Another story that I want to share about my community, the veterans’ community, our community, is that we often get stereotyped, and at Amherst you’re going to get stereotyped. I think, when I was here four years ago, I told you Amherst was named the number seven “douchiest school in America.” [Laughter] I didn’t call it that. This might be a good time to take a drink…. It was called the douchiest school because Amherst has a reputation at times, and I think that’s a stereotype of Amherst. In our world as veterans, we are often stereotyped. We’re stereotyped as fragile, or violent, or stupid, or robotic, or we had no other options graduating from college or high school—oftentimes people say, “You must have joined the military because you had no other options.” I say, “I did not join the military because I had no other options. I went to Amherst.”

When Gabby Giffords was shot—we all remember when Congress[wo]man Gabby Giffords was tragically shot—the immediate reports said the shooter was a veteran. The screen popped up, this young guy, and everyone said, “OK, that makes sense: violent, tactical, proficient—that makes sense.” It fell into that stereotype that we have about our nation’s veterans.

Well, the shooter was not a veteran. The shooter was rejected from the military, and the person who was a combat veteran was the trauma surgeon that saved her life. The trauma surgeon that put her head back together was a veteran who’d served on the fields of combat and came home and tried to use these skills to make the world a better place. Now, not everybody coming out of the military is an angel, and I’m not recruiting for the Marine Corps or anyone else. But I think that I’m inspired every day by the people that I work with because I see that energy, I see that drive, I see that leadership, and I see that they are all helpers.

That’s what I think you are. I think you all can be a generation of helpers, that run into the problems, that run towards the challenges, that get things done. That’s really what I see in this generation of leaders. So you are the helpers, and we need you to serve. There’s some pretty serious challenges out there, but you must face them, and you can do good. So be brave. And stick together: I think you may not realize it, but the folks you met at Amherst—I said this when you came in four years ago—some of you are going to be married, some are going to speak at your weddings, and some of you are going to meet the folks who will speak to your funerals. The bonds you have at this place, you’ll have for a lifetime. You can call them: when I graduated from Amherst, I heard from people who I never met in my life. I got letters in Iraq, checks in New York from people who I’ve never met, but they knew I was from Amherst and they wanted to give back. I think that’s true of anyone in Amherst community who steps forward. When you step forward to take on a challenge, whatever that challenge is, you will see the Amherst community respond.

When I was at Amherst—one quick story that I think showed me something that I learned at Amherst—I lived at Drew House for two years, and I played rugby. And it was about this time of year there was a tournament, called the “Beast of the East” in Providence. We all went down, rugby still unfortunately a club sport, so we drove our cars—some people probably hitchhiked, but there were no buses going down like with some of the other sports. If you want to talk about a group that’s improvising adapting and overcoming, it’s usually our club sports people.

So I went down to Providence, and we lost a really tough game—I think it was to Harvard, in the rain, similar to this—and we were a bit depressed, and we figured we had to drive back [when] we were going back to Amherst, and I walked over to my car, which was a 1982 Delta 88, which was almost as big as this room … you could probably get half the rugby team in that car. As we walked up, the window was busted. Somebody had busted in the driver’s-side window and stolen my car radio, and that sucks. OK, I have to drive back from Providence. I will tell you, no one wanted to drive with me, so I drove back from Providence with half of a garbage bag over my window, no radio, freezing cold, drove back to Amherst, and I was feeling pretty bummed.

I went to sleep, and when I woke up in the morning … there was an envelope under my door, and it was an envelope full of cash, and a note on it that said something like, “Everybody in the house has been using your car and has gotten rides from you over the years. We wanted to pitch in and buy you a new window.”

That was the community that I felt at Drew House, that was the community I felt at Amherst, and that’s the community I still feel now, so I think you can adapt, improvise and overcome together. That would be my message to you as you graduate and go out into the world: stick together, be brave, do big things. It is a motto that we hear a lot: Terras Irradient. Thank you.