High-ranking military alumni share purpose, advice for next generation of leaders


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When Four Stars Align Panel 03 1200
Laura McAleer (center) moderated the conversation with Adm. Christopher W. Grady (left) and Gen. Bryan P. Fenton (right) during a panel discussion presented by the Notre Dame Alumni Association, the Notre Dame International Security Center and the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Two University of Notre Dame alumni who are four-star officers in the U.S. armed forces — and in the company of only 41 other active-duty military members who currently hold that rank — spent time on campus sharing how the values of Notre Dame have complemented their years of military and public service.

Adm. Christopher W. Grady, the 12th Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a 1984 graduate, and Gen. Bryan P. Fenton, the 13th Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and a 1987 graduate, spoke to a standing-room-only audience at the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library on Friday (Sept. 22) as part of a panel discussion. Laura McAleer, Notre Dame’s associate vice president for federal and Washington relations and a 1998 graduate, moderated the conversation.

Grady, who received his commission through Notre Dame’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), is the nation’s second highest-ranking military officer in his position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fenton, who was commissioned through the Army ROTC program, serves as the 13th Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Both four-star officers offered their time afterward to answer questions on how their Notre Dame education prepared them for their military careers, and what can be shared for future generations of leaders.

How would you describe the special relationship Notre Dame has with our Armed Forces?

Grady: In this era of changing priorities for colleges, it’s important that Notre Dame has stayed true to its commitment to the ROTC program. And if you look at the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment alongside Notre Dame’s core values of God, country and Notre Dame — they really fit well together.

Fenton: It is definitely a unique bond that we have, and there is a special thoughtfulness that Notre Dame puts into its relationship and partnership with our armed forces. It goes all the way back to Father William Corby as a Union Army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War, and it continues even today at Notre Dame.

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Presenting the Corby Award to Gen. Bryan P. Fenton are Liz Trantowski, president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association Board of Directors, and Dolly Duffy, executive director of the Alumni Association. Fenton is joined on the field by military leaders of Notre Dame as well as his wife, Dawn, and their two daughters, both cadets of the Notre Dame Army ROTC program: Nora (class of 2021) and Cecelia (class of 2024). (Photo by Heather Gollatz-Dukeman)

[Father Corby was the University’s third president and is the namesake of the Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., Award, which was bestowed upon Fenton during the Ohio State home football game on Sept. 23. Grady also received this award in 2019.]

It is also reflected in the idea of providing service to something bigger than yourself, whether it be to the military or to any other type of public service. Notre Dame appreciated that service and invested in it — and they’ve done that with their military connection.

How did your Notre Dame education prepare you for the unique challenges of your military life?

Grady: It provided me with that questioning academic environment that taught me to think beyond just facts to the real issues and to look at what’s most important. If you translate that into any professional walk of life — certainly the one I’m in — then we can’t think the same way every time. We have to think and act differently — especially if we’re going to win.

It also taught me to be prepared and to focus on becoming a master of your craft — whatever it might be. And to be passionate about that craft, because passion makes a big difference.

Fenton: At Notre Dame, there are high standards that are set and that have to be met in order to succeed. Having that experience as a student has been very helpful as I’ve gone into my military career. It helped me stay true to my commitment because I knew it was going to be a grind and I was prepared.

Second, it’s the people. You’re surrounded by other folks who are also working to meet those high standards, and it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, makes you a better person just by being around them. That can also be said about the military. A large reason why I’ve stayed in for 36 years is the people — who each and every day are just trying to do the right thing.

Why does the world need a place like Notre Dame right now?

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While on campus, Adm. Christopher W. Grady spent time with students from the Notre Dame International Security Center. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Grady: The University’s new strategic framework is very insightful to me. The world we live in now — as connected as it is, and as potentially disconnected as it is — is a place where we need to bring the ethical thoughts to the fore. When you look at that strategic framework under the pillar of building and sustaining a strong foundation, it talks about the humanities, the arts, democracy and ethics. And it’s those last two that come together, which I find really powerful — and this is a space that very few can occupy like Notre Dame can. If you pair ethics with the democracy piece, then we can bring that strong, ethical Catholic voice to problems of national and international security and public policy. And it’s a place, I think, where we could be louder.

Fenton: More than ever, the world needs courageous acts. Every day, Notre Dame steps out on really important issues and finds a place to let everyone hear their voice. This is important not only in today’s world, but in any era.

It’s also about leadership. The world needs leaders. And it needs a vision and a way to get there. Notre Dame does that on so many fronts by convening a diverse group of individuals to talk about an issue, and then it provides a North Star for others to point to and move toward.

What can we teach our students today to make our leaders for tomorrow?

Grady: Students need to leave here knowing how to think, how to read and how to analyze. What I value most in the people who work with me is the idea of discernment — the ability to digest and synthesize things down to the key issues that we can then take action on. I think Notre Dame can do that for them, but it has to be taught and practiced. And it builds on that strong, questioning academic foundation that we’re so good at bringing here.

Fenton: Courage. Don’t be afraid to step out on an issue and take a stand and put your voice out there. Next would be respect. Show dignity and respect for everyone and use it as your golden rule. Then, service above self. We want students to serve in any capacity. The world needs people that are willing to step up and do something on behalf of a greater good.

I think it’s equally important to be a happy leader. Be upbeat, be energetic and optimistic — that infects an organization and can take it a long way.

What is one piece of advice you would tell students at Notre Dame as they begin making career decisions?

Grady: I’ll share a piece of advice that my grandfather gave me. He worked for 67 years at the Boston Globe newspaper. He was really good at it, but the work itself was a chore and he hated it. He said he would have been far more successful, and would have been far happier, if he had done something that he was truly passionate about. That was really good advice — for me, personally, since I came to Notre Dame and thought I’d be a physics major but switched when I felt passionate about studying history. So, find your passion.

Second, don’t let your four years here at Notre Dame pass you by too quickly. The sooner you sink yourself into what Notre Dame has to offer, what academics have to offer, what your friends have to offer, the better — don’t waste that time. Get through that initial adjustment — that’s part of growing and why we go to college — but then dive in. It will enrich your time here and lead to greater professionalism later on.

Fenton: Coming from Notre Dame where service above self is prized, students know they can do many things that fit that calling — it could be in the clergy, in a diplomatic position, in the military or even at a corporation. In any one of those realms, if you’re about yourself, then it won’t be the right place for you. But if you’re about the team, then we’re going to get along just fine.

There’s an old African proverb that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” And in the Special Operations Command, we like to say both: “We want to go fast and far together.” But that means you’ve got to be part of a really incredible team. And we have teammates who are out there right now, throughout the South Bend community and throughout the world, serving in so many different ways. And we ask them, “What would you fight for?” And Notre Dame instills those ideas of teamwork and service together. 

Originally published by Tracy DeStazio at news.nd.edu on October 04, 2023.