Notable Speech

The Meaning and Honor of Service

By John J. Smietana, Jr.
Silhouette of a man saluting the American flag. ©

It is both an honor and a privilege to be here today. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity. The Border Patrol Museum is a proper memorial, if you will, for all those who have sacrificed. Their names are listed inside, and it stands here every day as a reminder to all of us of what they did. You know, when I first heard that I was invited to speak, I was a little nervous. I was nervous because I didn’t think that I would be able to pick the appropriate words with the appropriate dignity to honor those who have fallen. I asked myself, “What do I do?” I realized that as long as it comes from my heart, as long as the words convey the meaning, then those who have given their lives will appreciate them, and I hope that you do too.

We are here today to honor fallen Border Patrol agents and to honor everyone who has given their life in the service of this country. For us, that means Clarence M. Childress and Robert W. Rosas, Jr. All the watchmen, patrol inspectors, agents, and aircraft pilots. We owe a great deal to them. For those of us in law enforcement, we made a commitment, and I want you to know that law enforcement is an honorable and noble profession.

Stop and think about that. You and all those who have gone before you have volunteered to follow a higher standard with higher degrees of integrity, honesty, and conduct. You have volunteered to protect this nation, its citizens, and those unable to protect themselves. You volunteer every day to run toward danger, to the sound of gunfire, when everyone else runs away from it. You volunteered to subject yourselves to the scrutiny and questions from just about everyone out there. They do not have the knowledge, experience, or understanding of what you do every day. They never have had to make a split-second decision that may mean life or death. So, you are very, very special people. Very special people! As are all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

You know, every day when you go to work you risk injury or death. There are a lot of professions that have that same risk, but you go to work knowing that there are people out there who target you for the uniform that you wear and the ideals that you stand for. Not because of who you are, but because of what you represent. And, that is truly noble, and I thank you. All law enforcement officers, members of government, members of the service, and those who have fallen, on their very first day of employment have one thing in common—they took the oath of office. The oath of office is the cement, the mortar, that binds us to the foundations of our government, to the principals of the Constitution, our founding fathers, and all those who have gone before us and the legacy that they left.

Chief Patrol Agent John Smietana
Chief Patrol Agent Smietana of the U.S. Border Patrol delivered this speech during the agency’s annual memorial observance at the National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso, Texas, on May 21, 2010. 

When I have an intern class come in, one of the things that I ask them about is the oath.  I was at an IACP conference, and there were over 200 law enforcement officers in the room, and they were asked about the oath. Where does the oath come from? Why do we take the oath? What does the oath mean? And, you know, not one person in the room raised a hand. They may have known the answer, but they did not raise their hand. Not one trainee or intern raised a hand either. Do we all know where the oath comes from? Why it binds us? Well, the oath comes from Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, last paragraph. Basically, it states that we will be bound by oath to support the Constitution. When you stop and think about that, it is rather remarkable that it is found in the Constitution. That requirement comes before the Bill of Rights, the individual rights. It comes in the sections that state the authorities and limitations of the government. That is one of your jobs. That’s one of the reasons you are so special. We are not above that law or those we serve. All who serve must understand that. Their job is to protect this country and its Constitution. 

Now, that Constitution did not say what the oath was, but, again going back to how important that oath was, the very first bill passed by the very first Congress and signed by the very first president, George Washington, in June of 1789, was the oath of office. It required that within three days of appointment that the government employee takes that oath. That is pretty powerful stuff, very important, and, just like each of you, our fallen heroes took that oath and sacrificed and gave their lives to support it. So, I ask each of you to think about that every day when you start your shift.

Another thing that I ask the trainees when they enter on duty is, “What is the meaning of the badge you wear? What does it mean to you?” More important, “What does it mean to everyone else?” It’s a shining beacon, but what does it mean? The answers that I get are, “Sir, it means honesty.” “Sir, it means sacrifice.” “Sir, it means integrity.” “Sir, it means duty.” “Sir, it means authority!” All those answers are good, it means all those things, but that is not the answer I was looking for.

I went to the Border Patrol Academy to speak to the graduating class, and I asked them that same question. There were 50 brand new agents there, all sharp, polished, in shape, and ready to go. They gave me the same answers. I turned to the instructors and the other law enforcement officials in the audience, and I asked them the question. They didn’t have the answer either. Finally, I saw a hand in the back row, a mom who was there watching her son graduate. She raised her hand. “Yes ma’am?” “Sir, it means trust!” She was absolutely right, it means trust! Trust that those who wear the badge will have honor and integrity, that they will do their duty, that they will have courage and be willing to make that sacrifice. Trust that you are going to do the right thing when there is nobody else around. Trust that you’re going to do the right thing when it is something very tough, even when all your partners are against it. Trust that you will live up to the oath that you took on that very first day. Trust that you will not tarnish this badge and all those heroes who have spilled their blood to polish it. Trust!

So, I ask all of you in law enforcement, every day when you get ready for your shift, whether on days, evenings, or nights, when you look in the mirror and pin on that badge or put it in your pocket, stop and think, “Am I going to earn the trust today? Will I live up to the legacy of those who have gone before me, who have laid down their lives to polish this badge?” When you can look in the mirror and say yes, then you are ready to start your shift. With that, I would like to close by saying thank you to all of you who are here, for the jobs that you do. Men and women of law enforcement, men and women in the military, thank you for what you do, for protecting this country and for protecting my family. I appreciate that! Honor first! And, God bless the United States of America!