Milley Tells Cadets What It Takes To Be Winners

Gen. Mark A. Milley tells 300 ROTC and U.S. Military Academy cadets his winning philosophy. Milley spoke during the George C. Marshall Award and Leadership seminar on Fort Leavenworth, Kan., March 31, 2015. (U.S. Army photo/ David Vergun)
Gen. Mark A. Milley tells 300 ROTC and U.S. Military Academy cadets his winning philosophy. Milley spoke during the George C. Marshall Award and Leadership seminar on Fort Leavenworth, Kan., March 31, 2015. (U.S. Army photo/ David Vergun)

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan.  -- Clearly dating himself, Gen. Mark A. Milley told 300 ROTC and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, cadets that his childhood hero was Green Bay Packers' winning football coach, Vince Lombardi.

And, he added, Lombardi had advice that can make Soldiers champions too, on or off the field of battle.

Milley, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, spoke during the George C. Marshall Award and Leadership seminar here, March 31.

When Lombardi was younger, he looked up to World War II heroes like Gen. George Patton and Gen. Douglas MacArthur and tried to pattern himself after them and their leadership techniques, Milley said. 

In a nutshell, the two points Lombardi took away from those heroes was, first, "you're in it to win, so winning matters and your team matters." The second was, "We don't break the rules," Milley said.

Here is a brief excerpt from Lombardi's winning philosophy, in the coach's own words:

"Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all-the-time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. 

"I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don't ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win."

"Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization - an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win - to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don't think it is."


You are going into a way of life that's "unbelievably serious," Milley told the cadets. "I can almost guarantee you'll be in the thick of it within a few years," and the Army takes winning very, very seriously.

A question cadets and young Soldiers often ask me, he said, is, "I want in on the game. Can you get me deployed."

That is an understandable urge, he said, as the Army is an action-oriented profession and "I do the patch charts." Patton himself once said he didn't want to tell his grandchildren he served out the war in Louisiana.

"No one wants to sit on the bench," he said. However, out there, it's not like playing a video game. "This is nasty stuff. Kids get hurt, they lose legs, they die, and those who don't, often suffer great psychological pain. There are second- and third-order effects" from being in combat. "It's not all glory."

And, he said, "Soldiers are not sprinkled with magic dust." Just because you're a U.S. Soldier and the best in the world, doesn't mean you're invulnerable. 

Milley explained that after World War II, it was thought that defeating a minor enemy like North Korea would be relatively easy. But it turned out to be a major war with many casualties. 

Being a winner means putting in a lot of training to prepare for anything, he said. Anything could be a humanitarian mission following a flood or earthquake or fighting a contingency operation. Preparing for that "takes a lot of work."


Playing by the rules involves internalizing the warrior code of ethics, Milley said. It is something you have to practice at 24 hours a day.

Unethical actions not only can get you or your Soldiers killed, they can also hurt the Army.

He provided examples where the actions of a few did irreparable harm to the Army, including the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse incidents in Iraq.

Milley opened the floor to questions. A cadet wondered about the Army's role in the so-called Pacific pivot. He said he understood the role of the Navy and Marines because they are a naval and amphibious force and there's a lot of water in the Pacific.

During the last 75 years, there were three major wars in the Pacific, Milley replied: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In each of those wars, Soldiers played the predominate role. In fact, the Army during World War II had more amphibious landings in the Pacific than the Marines.

As of today, eight of the 10 largest armies of the world are in the Pacific, he said. So the Army will have a big role to play. To emphasize the point, he said the top Army leader's position in the Pacific was recently raised from a 3- to a 4-star level.


The discussion of the Pacific led Milley to reminisce about his father, who served there as a Marine during World War II, fighting on islands that included Saipan, Tinian and Kwajalein. He said his father was 400 yards away from the famous Mount Suribachi flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945. 

Besides Lombardi, Milley said his father is his other hero. "He used to tell us 'you've got to plant the flag,'" meaning, "no matter how hard the task, no matter how wide the river, you've got to win. You're joining an organization that takes winning very seriously."

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