An officer's advice

Sunday, December 17, 2006
Abby Pfefferkorn of Sikeston, Mo., walked with her guide dog, Faith, in the processional at winter commencement for Southeast Missouri State University on Saturday. (Fred Lynch)

The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps spoke to future leaders among the 585 newest graduates of Southeast Missouri State University on Saturday.

And possibly some commanders in the armed services.

Gen. James T. Conway, a 1969 graduate of Southeast, said that out of about 60,000 soldiers in the Marine Expeditionary Force that he commanded in Iraq, more high-ranking officers graduated from Southeast than any other college.

In an informal poll, Conway found the Naval Academy produced three officers ranked lieutenant colonel or above, the Citadel produced three and Virginia Military Institute produced two.

Southeast Missouri State University produced six.

"Don't ask me to explain it," he said to the cheering crowd.

All those officers shared a passion for excellence.

"If there is one thing in life that you can be sure of, it is that performance counts," Conway said.

The four-star general told graduates to "enjoy today." While a diploma is a valuable asset, he said, it only gets a foot in the door.

"America is a democracy, but it is also a meritocracy," he said. "How much you produce, how novel your ideas and how well you inspire those around you will dictate how far you go."

One graduate who has already inspired those around her is Abby Pfefferkorn of Sikeston, Mo. An education major, Pfefferkorn is blind and received her diploma Saturday with the help of Faith, her guide dog.

Faith also wore a specially fitted cap and gown for the event. "She deserves it. She's helped me all the way," she said of the dog.

Pfefferkorn, who hopes to be a teacher, did all of her studies on audio books or with the help of volunteers who read for her. That, she said, had some drawbacks.

"I had great readers, but it does make it harder. You don't always want to do the reading at the same time, so it can take a little longer," she said.

Conway did not have to overcome any such hurdles in college. He said if someone had asked about him on campus he wouldn't have been known for much more than being a fraternity brother and liking to party.

"I was pretty amorphous," he said, laughing during an interview.

But when he graduated he knew there were two things he wanted to do: serve his country and marry his college sweetheart, the former Annette Drury of Ste. Genevieve.

He accomplished the second less than two weeks after graduation, but the first proved more difficult.

Conway went to the local draft board and was told he wasn't needed.

"I said, 'You don't understand, I want to go.' And they said, 'No, you don't understand. If you want to join, go do that, but we're not going to draft you for another two years,'" he said.

So he went to speak to a Marine captain in St. Louis and was again told his services weren't needed. The captain reeled off a number of problems facing the Vietnam-era Marine Corps.

"It requires real leadership, and besides, I'm not sure you could even make it through the training," he told Conway.

But Conway was up to the challenge.

He began his career as a platoon commander in 1970 and rose rapidly through the ranks.

Most recently, he served two tours of duty in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The general believes the current conflict is one the United States cannot afford to leave behind without first establishing peace.

"If we as a people think we can walk away like we did in Somalia or Vietnam and it won't have an impact," we're wrong because the enemy in Iraq believes it will, Conway said.

He encouraged the audience to go outside the mainstream media and talk to U.S. troops about Iraq.

"I am convinced that a knowledgeable American public will instruct our leaders to do the right thing in this crisis," he said.

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