'Live a Better Life,' U.S. Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho Tells Graduates at 2012 Pitt Commencement

Issue Date: 
May 14, 2012

This is the print version of the April 29, 2012, University of Pittsburgh commencement address delivered by Pitt alumnus U.S. Lieutenant General Patricia D. Horoho (NURS ’92G), the 43rd Army Surgeon General and the commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command. Horoho became the first woman and the first nurse to hold these positions when she was sworn in on Dec. 7, 2011, following her nomination by President Obama and her confirmation by the U.S. Senate. During the Commencement ceremony, Pitt conferred upon Horoho the degree of Doctor of Public Service Honoris Causa.

commenceThank you Chancellor Nordenberg, Provost Beeson, Dr. Smith [Jack Smith, president of the Pitt Alumni Association], distinguished alumni and faculty, guests, family members, friends, and, finally, the University of Pittsburgh graduating class of 2012. It is my honor to be here today. I am humbled to receive this honorary degree from this extraordinary institution and thank you for allowing me to be part of the commencement ceremony.

Also, thank you for allowing Congressman Murphy and me the honor of participating in the commissioning ceremony of nine University of Pittsburgh ROTC cadets yesterday. The Army is proud to welcome them as our newest lieutenants.

I recognize that the last few months here at the University have been difficult, with countless evacuations. Your presence here today, and that of your family and friends, reflects your resolve to challenge and overcome the efforts that have sought to disrupt student life. You celebrate not only the graduating class of 2012, but demonstrate the character of the University of Pittsburgh, the spirit of the city of Pittsburgh, and the resolve of America to overcome adversity.

I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to return to this University that I love.

And in case you think that “love” is too strong a word, let me reassure you, it is not. It was here at Pitt that I met the love of my life, my husband of 22 years, who taught military education here and who joined me walking around the campus yesterday. This is a very special place.

As I sat down to write this speech, I reflected upon the 225-year history of the University of Pittsburgh and my personal experience in those very seats [you are now occupying] 20 years ago. I can’t remember who spoke at my graduation, so I am under no illusions that what I say will be remembered even an hour from now.

What I clearly can remember, even 20 years later, are the people from Pitt, my fellow students, friends, teachers, mentors, and the Pittsburghers who shaped my experience and whose influence continues to shape my life today.

Like me two decades ago, you stand with your toes dangling over the proverbial edge. Behind you are your formative years: your childhood, your education, your life to this point. My task today is to talk about what lies ahead as you step over the edge and into the next phase of your lives. And to reassure you that your feeling today of joy, confidence, and enthusiasm is a good thing. Hold on to it, and use it!

In 1992, at the age of 32, I left Pittsburgh with a master’s degree in trauma nursing. I knew that I was on the path to bigger things, and I was open to new experiences. Maybe, I thought, if all goes well, I could be the chief nurse of a medical center.

I didn’t leave here thinking, “I’m going to be a three-star general, medical advisor to the Secretary of the Army in a time of war, and the leader of one of the most comprehensive medical research and development programs in the world.”

That was not the game plan when I graduated.

There is no doubt—I have been on an exciting although admittedly unorthodox journey since I left Pitt.

I don’t know precisely what each of you will face as you move on, but I do know this.

You are going to be challenged in ways that you simply cannot imagine—professionally and personally. Trust the journey.

The experiences of your time here at Pitt and your life experiences with your family and friends will be far more instrumental in how you respond to the challenges that await you than you can imagine today.

I didn’t know—and never would have predicted—what I would face after walking off this campus.

Two years after graduating from Pitt, I was serving as the head nurse of the emergency room at Womack Army Medical Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the home of the 82nd Airborne Division. One spring afternoon, I was in the ER taking care of a sick child with a high fever and a concerned mom.

Suddenly, the ER “crash” phone went off. I was on the receiving end of one of those phone calls that you remember for the rest of your life.

A C-130 cargo plane and an F-16 fighter jet collided in midair. The C-130 was able to recover and land safely. The F-16 pilots ejected from their damaged jet, but their aircraft careened down the runway and collided with a cargo plane loading paratroopers for a training jump. More than 500 paratroopers were in the area when the cargo plane exploded in flames.

Within 15 minutes, casualties were streaming through our hospital doors. Twenty-four soldiers lost their lives that day. Before the afternoon was over, we treated 134 severely burned young soldiers—men and women, younger than most of you graduating here today.

Little did I know that my experiences at this University, including what I thought was adversity, would prepare me for that day.

I had originally planned to do my master’s thesis on “critical incident stress debriefing.”

I loved the subject. But, I couldn’t gather enough patients to make this a valid research study.

My second research study subject was alternative treatments for severely burned patients. I couldn’t complete this study either, due to a host of unforeseen circumstances.

Initially, I thought those two stalled efforts were an enormous waste of time and energy.

But right there, while I was standing outside Womack’s emergency room doors, that knowledge, that hard work steeled me as young American soldiers with horrific wounds arrived needing a medical team that knew what worked best for burn victims. And, when the crisis was over, I understood that the injured, and those who cared for them, also needed attention of a different sort.

My education here at Pitt helped build the emotional armor I needed.

Don’t ever forget that your education here—your triumphs and your setbacks—will have done the same for you. It has done more than made you smarter; it has made you stronger. It’s made you ready. Ready to face the challenges and opportunities that await you. Your education has made you ready to be an active contributor building better lives … a mission Pitt has been doing for 225 years.

Building—this is not a word used in the past tense. It tells us that the job of creating and renewing doesn’t end. It never ends.

Better—this is a word filled with hope, filled with expectation and confidence that whatever we face, we can do better.

Lives—that’s an important word. It’s not better careers, or better paychecks, or better houses, but, rather—better lives.

What are the ingredients of a better life? Three simple things—service, health, and relationships.

Service comes in many forms.

Service requires that your work have meaning.

Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

I would submit that this statement embodies the character of Pittsburgh.

This city was founded on that principle. The men and women who built Pittsburgh—for some of you, your grandparents—literally helped build this country. They worked long days—in a city that needed streetlights on during the middle of the afternoon to see through the smog from the smokestacks of the steel mills—in order to defeat Nazism and Fascism.

That work had meaning.

This same spirit transformed Pittsburgh from its steel-mill days to its current status as an economic influencer in the fields of health care, education, technology, financial services, and robotics.

So, if you are heading off to corporate America, provide economic stability to our nation and employment opportunities for a new generation. Wherever you work, make it have meaning.

If you are heading to the West Coast to work in the entertainment industry, PLEASE make us laugh, make us think, make us sing. Make it have meaning.

If you are heading down the street to UPMC or to any other health care organization across the nation, God bless you. There has never been a greater need for medical research and the delivery of quality care. It has meaning. Make it world-class.

The second step to a better life—health.

Your health—and the health of your family, friends, and community.

I’m a nurse. I’ve lived most of my life in hospitals.

Hospitals are not where health happens. They’re where you go when health doesn’t happen.

There’s a health crisis in this nation, not a hospital crisis. I strongly believe that our country must shift its focus from health care to health. We need to influence behaviors that occur outside of our hospitals and clinics, what I call the “white space.”

People who care about and attend to their health are stronger—not just physically, but mentally. Health is a key component to personal resiliency. You need to take charge of your health. It’s going to help you build a better life, and you can positively influence those around you.

The third step to a better life—relationships.

Relationships matter.

Keep cultivating them, just as you did here at Pitt. Don’t just take it from an alum who met her spouse at Pitt.

Studies bear this out.

One study I recently read about sought out the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent among us. The researchers found this—and I will quote it: “There was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships.”

UofPMy life was enriched in each of these ways during my time at Pitt.

And, I will tell you that all of these things take work—to find the meaning in what you do; to focus on health as a personal goal; to sustain and expand your social relationships, not based on how many Facebook friends you have, but on meaningful, personal connections.

You will be a stronger and more resilient person.

You will be an important member of your community.

You will build a better life.

This University has built better lives over the past 225 years. You follow in a proud tradition.

You deserve the congratulations and the recognition that will be showered upon you.

You honor me by allowing me to share today with you.

Congratulations! God bless each of you, the University of Pittsburgh, and the United States of America.