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The Center for Public Leadership’s April 21 tribute to military veterans, "Honoring Those Who Have Served: A Tribute to Student Veterans from the Harvard Kennedy, Business, and Law Schools,” was not simply a matter of local significance. Gen. David Petraeus, who, as Commander of U.S. Central Command, heads our nation’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the gathering — a sequel to an event the Center sponsored in 2007 to acknowledge the role of military service in the overall work of public service — as important enough to attend in person.
"Throughout our military ranks there are innumerable brave, skilled, smart, dedicated professionals who have volunteered to perform the hard tasks that our country has assigned to our military — and there have been countless times and countless places, in the past eight years in particular, when uncommon valor has been a common virtue,” he said, acknowledging the dedication of the more than 150 current and former service members who attended the day’s events. "We have some true national treasures patrolling the halls of Harvard these days. Our nation will benefit as a result of your time here."
The United States “needs leaders and world changers in our civilian ranks more than ever before,” Petraeus continued. “And I know you will take the knowledge and experience you have acquired here at Harvard to the civilian world with an eye toward serving the greater good that you have already served so ably in the ranks of our military. I am sure that you will use your experience in uniform to inform the security and foreign policy you help develop, the legal interpretations you help write, the commercial innovations you help pioneer, and the social change you help forge."
CPL director David Gergen also acknowledged the role that military students have at Harvard.
"The decision by General Petraeus to join this tribute pays great honor to the young men and women who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and are now studying at Harvard,” said Gergen. “His visit highlights the sacrifice and the commitment that so many of our fine students have made for their country and also calls attention to the university’s long tradition of public service and leadership."
Earlier that afternoon, Petraeus was the featured speaker at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. In her introduction of the general, Maura Sullivan — a George Fellow and joint degree student at HKS and HBS, as well as a Marine — noted that some 1,200 Harvard graduates have lost their lives in the line of duty. A capacity crowd listened as Gergen and Petraeus engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on military leadership, the challenges Petraeus has faced in his own career, and the prosecution of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Earlier in the day, Petraeus held a private conversation with George, Reynolds, and Zuckerman Fellows about the need for adaptive leadership in both military and civilian life. The moving tribute dinner that evening began with a presentation of the colors by Harvard ROTC students. Dean David Ellwood, professors (and former HKS deans) Joseph Nye and Graham Allison, as well as Lt. Gen. Tad Oelstrom and John White and many more from the Harvard military community were on hand to express their gratitude.
Dean Ellwood summarized Harvard's appreciation. "We are the ones that are privileged to have all of you here,” he said. “I thank you for your service, not only to our nation and to the world, but also to hundreds and hundreds of other people who you will touch while you are...here at this university."