Secretary of the U.S. Army Dr. Mark T. Esper visited Virginia Tech as his first stop on a campus tour of the nation’s six senior military colleges. Virginia Tech has congressional designation because of the Corps of Cadets and had the privilege to host Esper on Friday, April 5. Meeting with the Corps of Cadets as well as the school’s military officials, Esper observed the Corps’ program and experienced the campus where many Hokies call home.
Collegiate Times (CT): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mark T. Esper (MTE): I grew up in southwest Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. (I) went to West Point, graduated in 1986 then served in the active army for 10 years in the infantry, both in war and peace, left after 10 years, joined the (National) Guard and (Army) Reserve. During that time, I also worked in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill and the private sector. It has been a good run. I am very privileged to be where I am right now.
CT: The Army Vision Statement states that the Army wants to “develop smart, thoughtful, and innovative leaders of character.” How do you believe the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets program best prepares future young Army leaders to meet this goal?
MTE: I think the Corps specifically, and the school generally, does a good job of emphasizing character. I mean, it goes back to the early days of Virginia Tech and what it was designed to be. When I spoke today to the Corps, I spoke about character probably being the most important attribute that any leader, whether it’s Army, Navy, Marine or Civilian leader, needs to have as they take on their first leadership assignment. I think the school does well; you have your own set of core values –– they marry up fairly well with the Army values, and so it shows there is a lot of harmony between what this institution does and what the Army expects of its leaders and I think it is very important.
CT: How has the military shaped your character?
MTE: The military does educate you and trains you on its core values — duty, courage and selfless service, things like that — and then expects you to live up to it. We serve a common higher purpose of defending the Constitution and the American people so even that in itself, in the fact that you swore an oath to the Constitution, are all selfless acts, and that's emphasized in everything we do and everything we talk about. It had a big impact on my character and taught me the importance of taking care of your people, the duty you have. Courage, not just physical courage but it's moral courage, things like that I think again are important to stay in a military for a career or get out like I did after a certain amount of time. It has always served me well.
CT: The Army Vision Statement says that the Army of 2028 will employ modern technology to meet its end goals. How do you see research centers at universities, such as Virginia Tech, contributing to this goal? And, on what research areas would you like to see universities put their focus in the near future?
MTE: It is very important. One thing we need to do to modernize the Army is to reach out to these innovators and to centers of excellence, and Virginia Tech is one of those places, those institutions that really has strong, very strong engineering depth. I talked to (President Tim Sands) about this as well and about some of the collaboration we are doing now. He talked about (Virginia Tech’s) efforts on robotics. I talked to him about how we are building semi-autonomous vehicles and aircraft. We talked about artificial intelligence. These are important technologies we need for the future and of course the Army does a lot of research through them and with Virginia Tech, and I think there (are) opportunities to expand based on what a great base of experts you have here and researchers.
CT: What is the most important quality a military trainee, like our cadets, should possess and more broadly, any civilian should have when considering enlisting?
MTE: Again, character. You don’t come in with a fully defined, refined sense of character, but you should go out. When you take over your first platoon, when you lead your first group of civilians, you should have a pretty well established character that kind of guides you. What are those principles? We talk about not lying, cheating or stealing; those are the basics. But, there are other principles as well: taking care of your people, moral courage. Things like that I think serve leaders well. If I were to go beyond that, I’d say that you have to have an optimistic “can-do” attitude because people are inspired by that approach. Not by the cup is “half-empty” approach. I think third, you gotta be resilient in the sense that you got to expect to face challenges and failures and obstacles. Your challenge as a leader is to take that on and figure out a way around it, a way to overcome it and lead you folks to success.
CT: What is one thing you hope our generation can learn from people wearing the uniform?
MTE: It is an interesting question. Your generation wears the uniform as well. You walk around campus as a freshman and you have counterparts that are wearing the uniform every day, and at one point, in a few years, they will matriculate to be officers in any of the branches of service. I think they are great role models amongst you and folks are doing wonderful things. And you can do it out of uniform as well. I can’t help but have a soft spot in my heart for all these young men and women who are pursuing careers in the military because again, clearly, they are without a doubt putting service above self and in many cases, willing to risk their lives, to defend all of us. That speaks a lot to me.