(Senate - June 07, 2016)

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[Congressional Record Volume 162, Number 89 (Tuesday, June 7, 2016)]
[Pages S3535-S3537]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []


  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, one of the formative parts of my life was 
being a student at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. It was 
especially so because of the people I met there. One of my most 
memorable classmates is Dr. Frederick Burkle.
  Skip Burkle was one who cared greatly about what he was learning and 
showed moral leadership even then. As students, we both lived in dorms 
that resembled World War II-era barracks. Fortunately, the living 
conditions for students at Saint Michael's have improved since then.
  Last month, now-Dr. Burkle, spoke at Saint Michael's College giving 
the commencement address. Everyone who was there actually listened to a 
man who spoke of his own background. He spoke also to the moral compass 
he has developed both in school and since in the military and in his 
scientific work.
  So much could be said about his career. I agree when he said, ``My 
humanitarian work was the most meaningful I've ever done.'' That makes 
so much sense because few people I have ever known have begun to 
approach his life as a humanitarian.
  Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that his speech to the 
graduating class be printed in the Record because I want those beyond 
Saint Michael's College to read what an outstanding person has said.
  There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in 
the Record, as follows:

              Saint Michael's College Commencement Address

                   Colchester, Vermont: May 15, 2016

                   frederick m. burkle, jr., md, mph

                    physician, scholar, humanitarian

       Greetings to you all!
       There are many reasons to celebrate this day. This 
     graduation is a milestone for you and your entire family.
       Saint Michael's also needs to be celebrated and commended. 
     As an academic, I do not know of any other college or 
     university this year, or in recent memory, that has shown 
     both the insight and courage to declare ``Service to Others'' 
     as the theme of graduation. Only at Saint Mikes! . . . I'm 
     not surprised!
       The implications of this decision are many and must be 
     applauded . . . Most importantly it brings great hope and 
     wisdom for the future of this generation and those that 
     follow . . . .
       I have been asked to speak to you on what in my life and 
     college experiences influenced my humanitarian career. My 
     first concern when asked was: How does someone who graduated 
     in 1961, 55 years ago, tell his story to the class of 2016? . 
     . . .
       Let's give it a try
       In truth, if you knew me in high school you would have 
     voted me the ``least likely graduate to ever give a 
     commencement address.'' . . .
       I attended an all male Catholic High School in Southern 
     Connecticut. I was painfully shy, occasionally stuttered, was 
     easily embarrassed, struggled to be an average student, and 
     was hopelessly burdened by what is known today as severe 
     dyslexia. I only began to read in the 5th grade.
       My Father, emphatically and loudly said ``No'' to the idea 
     of college. He had labeled me a ``lazy dreamer'' . . . so to 
     him college was a waste of good money. You would agree . . . 
     I was certainly not a prize academic prospect!
       So here I am . . . and now I've got to explain to you how I 
     got onto this stage as a Commencement speaker.
       I would not be here today without the help of some very 
     unselfish people . . . I call them my own personal 
     humanitarians . . . we all have them.
       Not going to college was a serious blow I could not live 
     with. For years I had held on to an otherwise quite 
     impossible and secret dream of being a physician. A dream 
     which simply arose many years before from viewing very early 
     Life Magazine photos of doctors treating starving children in 
     an African jungle hospital.
       Having been born 2 years before WWII, all my life was one 
     war after another with equally dire photos of both World War 
     II and Korean War casualties. And soon after, during high 
     school, emerged my generation's war . . . in a strange and 
     unheard of country named Viet Nam . . . a war which actually 
     began to build up as early as 1954.
       My story, in great part, is a love story. I met an equally 
     shy girl when she was 13 and I was the older man of 14. We 
     went steady during high school and secretly dreamed of our 
     future together. With College off the table the military 
     draft seemed inevitable. She urged me to plead my case to the 
     High School Academic Dean, a stern gray haired Brother of 
     Holy Cross, to both loan me the application fee and forward a 
     decent recommendation. I was shaking in my boots. He silently 
     pondered the circumstances yet nodded his head and agreed to 
     accept the personal risk despite the potential anger of my 
     Father . . .
       The very next day there was a check waiting for me!
       There were others . . . while working as an orderly in a 
     local hospital I met two very caring physicians. They 
     embodied everything I wanted to be. They introduced me to a 
     small French Catholic Liberal Arts College named St. Michaels 
     in rural Vermont that I never heard of. Both were WWII 
     veterans who attended St. Mike's and then medical school on 
     the GI Bill. Despite their busy schedules they took time to 
     counsel and encourage, spoke highly of the quality of the 
     education but also cautioned that the academic experience 
     would demand much more.
       St. Mike's was the only place I applied. With luck, I was 
     accepted. My girl friend's parents, not my own, took me to 
     campus . . . There was no turning back!
       Falling in love with St. Mike's was a little slower and not 
     nearly as romantic! Matriculation at St. Mike's was a shock . 
     . . and at first a disappointment. Maybe my Father was right 
     . . . Will I fail and embarrass myself once again?
       From the outset, the St. Mike's academic faculty made it 
     clear that everyone on campus was required to take 4 years of 
     liberal arts. This included a long list of the world's 
     literature, history, arts and philosophy from the beginning 
     of written time. This included a comparative study of all 
     religions, and a compelling semester of logic that forced us 
     to deliberate the philosophical ``how'' and ``why'' problems 
     that stressed the minds of every adolescent, like me, whose 
     brain had not yet matured . . .
       It took me 3 trips to the bookstore to carry all the 
     required reading back to the small shared room in a former 
     WWII poorly heated wooden barracks that once stood where we 
     are today.
       We desperately asked why such torture was necessary. I'm to 
     be a scientist. Why did I have to study the liberal arts? I 
     pleaded . . . something must be wrong! With my reading 
     disability, my anxiety level was palpable to everyone.
       The science faculty made it quite clear that to pass the 
     rigorous requirements for recommendation to graduate school 
     required excellent marks in both the sciences and the liberal 
     arts. They offered us multiple examples of notable Statesmen 
     and Nobel Laureates alike who, empowered by incorporating

[[Page S3536]]

     the lessons learned from the liberal arts, made major 
     breakthroughs for mankind . . . such as human rights, freedom 
     of speech, the splitting of the atom, penicillin, the Magna 
     Carta, the Geneva Conventions, and the U.S. Constitution 
     itself . . .
       Slowly, St. Mike's, without my knowledge, began to hone, 
     tame and humble me by introducing new ways of thinking and 
       I, like all my classmates, had to give up that concrete 
     black and white thinking of youth to meet the demands of the 
     outside world.
       Most students incorporated those new concepts to one degree 
     or another over the next 4 years. Confidence was built 
     through testy debates on what our increasingly complex world 
     demanded of us. The process re-introduced me to the academic 
     world I thought was unfriendly . . . and gave me a new love 
     for books which were once the enemy of every dyslexic 
       Less than a month into my freshman year a profound 
     geopolitical event occurred that no one had anticipated or 
     was ready for. On October 4, 1957 we huddled around the one 
     radio available in the barracks to listen to the faint 
     battery powered beeps of the Russian satellite Sputnik. The 
     following day the faculty held an `all student assembly' to 
     discuss the impact of the satellite launch on mankind and 
     openly asked if any students would consider changing their 
     major to the sciences. The Space war had begun in earnest. 
     Everyone's sense of security suddenly changed and with it 
     many Cold War humanitarian crises sprang up around the world 
     . . . many of which, in a short decade, I became mired in 
       Every generation has their own Sputnik moments. Your 
     generation already has more than your share.
       The liberal arts and the comparative religion courses 
     prepared me for my life as a humanitarian more than I ever 
     realized at the time.
       Yes, we all read the Bible and debated its meaning . . . 
     but we also found a certain solace in understanding that 
     similar beliefs were universal among many other religions and 
     the cultures they were tied to.
       All religions that have survived over the centuries 
     collectively teach ``social justice'' . . . a language all 
     its own that defines the fair and just relationship between 
     the individual and society. It is that shared social justice 
     that I have in common with my humanitarian and volunteer 
     colleagues on every continent . . .  might they be Muslims, 
     Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists 
     and whether they live in the Middle East or rural Vermont.
       All the major wars and multiple conflicts that I became 
     engulfed in over my lifetime were all fought over ``whose god 
     was the true god!'' Unfortunately, these wars continue today.
       Admittedly, and probably somewhat selfishly, I fell in love 
     with the challenges of global health and humanitarian 
       And yes, that shy girl friend who supported my application 
     to St. Mike's and I were married my first year of medical 
     school and we had 3 children by the time I finished my 
     residency at the Yale University Medical Center.
       Service to one's country was mandatory then . . . and the 
     government obliged by drafting me into the military. In 1968 
     I was rapidly trained and rushed, within 20 days, into the 
     madness of the Viet Nam war as a Combat physician with the 
       Subsequently I was recalled to active duty as a combat 
     physician in 5 major wars, and over the years moved up the 
     invisible ladder of leadership in managing conflicts in over 
     40 countries. I've worked for and with the World Health 
     Organization, the International Red Cross and multiple global 
     humanitarian organizations. I found myself negotiating with 
     numerous African warlords and despots including Saddam 
     Hussein in Iraq.
       I set up refugee camps, treated horrific war wounds, severe 
     malnutrition, scurvy, the death throes of starvation, and 
     cholera, malaria and blackwater fever, to name but a few . . 
     . When I was only a few years older than you, I had to manage 
     the largest Bubonic Plague epidemic of the last century.
       Eventually, in 2003 I served the State Department as the 
     Senior Health Diplomat and first Interim Minister of Health 
     in Iraq where I was the target of 3 assassination attempts by 
     the same Sunni military that now, more than a decade later, 
     make up today's ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. Yes, it is 
       Obviously, my work was often quite dangerous. Making 
     uncomfortable but real decisions over who survives and who 
     doesn't, simply because there are scant resources, is always 
     a nightmare. Over 1,000 fellow humanitarian aid workers have 
     been killed during my time . . . many, many more than any 
     United Nations Peacekeepers.
       I have seen more senseless death and suffering than anyone 
     my age should be allowed to witness. The same ``how and why'' 
     issues that I first struggled with in Logic class at St. 
     Mike's were now re-framed in very basic daily struggles of 
     both ethics and morality.
       As such, I moved more and more to care for the most 
     vulnerable . . . the children, women, the elderly and 
     disabled who make up 90% or more of those who flee or become 
     ill, injured or die in every war. This became my calling.
       While some of this may impress the budding healthcare 
     professionals in the audience, everything I experienced in 
     war was preventable . . . it need not have happened. War is 
     not the answer.
       But, my humanitarian work was the most meaningful I have 
     ever done. I have no regrets. The saving of lives when the 
     victims themselves have given up . . . and working with some 
     of the most self-less people in the world, is addictive . . . 
     and for a physician the adrenaline rush, intensity of the 
     work and the diagnostic challenges are comparable to nothing 
       As Medical Director of the last Orphan Lift out of Saigon 
     in 1975, I was secretly slipped into a refugee crowded, 
     already surrounded and hostile Saigon during its last days to 
     find abandoned and ill infants . . . many alone and starving 
     in dank and dirty orphanages. We airlifted out 310 nameless 
     infants in file boxes . . . 20 years later, by chance, I met 
     an attractive and ebullient Asian woman, now a graduate 
     student who had been the valedictorian of her college class. 
     She was one of the infants I rescued . . . Life comes full 
     circle . . . it was a really good day.
       The scientific research that defines my academic career has 
     me closely working with like-minded colleagues in Iran, 
     Israel, Iraq, China, the European Union and many others. And 
     Yes, another example of life taking full circle . . . the 
     Nobel Laureates, once touted in 1957 as examples for us to 
     emulate by the St. Mike's science Professors, selected a 2013 
     research study I co-authored to be presented and debated at 
     their World Summit in Spain last year. Good people are 
     listening and reading your work. So for the future academics 
     and scientists in the audience. . . . Never give up!
       Hopefully, my now fading career allows me to reflect and 
     offer some parting Grand-Fatherly advice:
       The essence of volunteerism is found in understanding the 
     culture of the people we engage with, even within our own 
     communities. In my experience, we did not understand the 
     culture of Viet Nam or Iraq, and when General Petraeus was 
     asked at the 10 year mark in Afghanistan what he would have 
     done differently he said ``I would have learned more about 
     the culture!'' . . .
       Graduation marks your movement from the protective culture 
     of the campus to a culture that is more complex, unforgiving 
     at times, but also very exciting and worthwhile.
       Most young volunteers are understandably burdened by the 
     non-action they have reluctantly inherited from my 
     generation. . . . . Burdens that shamelessly stem from 
     worldwide political neglect of both the health and science of 
     the planet.
       You should be disappointed but also challenged. . . . 
     However, a very hopeful characteristic of your generation is 
     that you more often than not see yourselves less as 
     nationalists . . . and more as global citizens. This marks a 
     significant shift from my generation and a hopeful game-
     changer in the global landscape.
       As your volunteerism matures, use whatever bully pulpit you 
     have to expose and change those inequities that you see in 
     the world. The risk is worth it.
       I spoke up in Iraq over blatant human rights violations of 
     the Geneva Convention and was called a ``traitor'' in the 
     political Press. I am most proud I made that choice.
       Remember, those who do have the political power to make 
     change frequently do not know what they don't know. 
     Instinctively, all volunteers are also educators and 
     advocates. . . . It comes with the title.
       The MOVE program, run by the Campus Ministry, and the Fire 
     & Rescue Squad represent realistic ``real world models'' that 
     one can neither assume nor get from the classroom alone. I 
     wish I had experienced them myself. These inspiring volunteer 
     initiatives have changed the culture of the College and more 
     broadly and accurately re-defined ``American 
       Harvard, where I teach today, has recently taken a page 
     from the St. Mike's playbook by placing more emphasis on 
     accepting students to College who value caring for the 
     community over individual extracurricular achievements. They 
     claim that ``community service'' and the ethical concern for 
     the greater public good!'' is a more sensitive and true 
     measure of an applicant.
       I agree! St. Mike's, emphasizing ``service to others'' has 
     owned and promoted this belief for many decades.
       Aid to the oppressed has never stood still. Volunteerism, 
     in general, is increasingly moving toward prevention, 
     recovery and rehabilitation. . . . . Your role models must be 
     those distinguished recipients of the honorary degrees today. 
     I applaud their self-less commitments to others.
       St. Mike's was an unselfish gift to me. My class of 1961 
     was unique in producing many leaders in science, education, 
     government, law, the military, industry, the social sciences, 
     and medicine and dentistry to name but a few. They are all 
     great citizens who still argue incessantly over politics . . 
     . some things never change. . . . nor should they!
       Please promise me that you will see your classmates often . 
     . . call them, email them and return to the reunions . . . 
     it's a great time to brag and see that everyone is equally 
     aging and putting on weight. I do miss many of my friends and 
     colleagues and also the professors who I tried to model 
     myself on who passed away before I could thank them.
       And yes, . . . as a bonus, there is another Harvard study 
     this year that shows that both volunteers and their 
     recipients increase social connections, reduce stress . . . 
     and live longer lives!

[[Page S3537]]

       I must close now. . . . As a 31 year Navy and Marine Corp 
     veteran I wish to leave you with a saying that we, in the 
     service of our country, always thought was strictly a 
     nautical blessing. . . . In point of fact, it is a universal 
     phrase of good luck as one departs on a voyage in life. . . . 
     It reads: ``Let me square the yards . . . while we may . . . 
     and make a fair wind of it homeward''. I wish you all in this 
     audience ``Fair Winds and Following Seas''. . . . God speed 
     to you and St. Mikes . . . and thank you for listening . . .