Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Ret. Gen. Richard Cody, a 1968 graduate of Montpelier High School, addresses students at the school Friday during an assembly on service and leadership in the 21st century.
MONTPELIER — Gen. Richard Cody, a retired four-star general who came up through the ranks at Montpelier High School, returned to his alma mater Friday afternoon to share with students, staff and faculty his story, as well as inspiration for how the coming generation of young Americans can serve their nation as leaders, whether or not they choose to wear a uniform.
Cody is a graduate of the Class of 1968, and the message board in front of the high school was changed to welcome him back for the day’s events. After high school he went on to West Point and ascended through the ranks to become a four-star general and the 31st vice chief of staff of the Army. He retired in 2008, and serves today as the chairman of the board for “Homes for our Troops,” a national nonprofit organization which builds handicapped-accessible homes for disabled veterans and their families.
Cody served in the Army for 36 years, and was one of fewer than 40 four star generals in all of the armed forces combined at the time of his retirement.
His visit was sponsored by the Montpelier High School Boosters, who are also hosting a dinner tonight in Cody’s honor at the Capitol Plaza Hotel as part of their Celebration of Excellence program.
A short film presented to Cody at his retirement, about eight minutes in length, was shown, with photos of him as a young boy growing up here to his high school sports accomplishments in newspaper headlines of the day, his high school photo, shots of him during his career in the Army and during his time at West Point, at his wedding, with his children, and with the troops with whom and for whom he served for nearly four decades — including several returning soldiers whose bodies had been tangled by war, and were in military hospitals with the General visiting their bedsides.
Cody was known as the “G.I.’s General, ” and at one time former President George H.W. Bush introduced Cody, quipping, “Take a good look at him. I’m glad he’s on my side!”
The film ended with Cody stating, “You can’t ever leave the Army, you just take the uniform off.”
After the film, Cody shared stories of what it was like to be the second in command of the U.S. Army, with more than 1.1 million American men and women in active duty, the reserves and National Guard being his responsibility.
“It’s great to be back at Montpelier High School with the Solons,” he said, offering a walk-back through his life before and after the Army by way of providing some life lessons to the hundreds of young people sitting before him in the same seats he once sat in.
“I think back on all the things I learned in the schools here,” began Cody, saying as he came of age and entered West Point, the United States was in troubled times, with riots playing out in Detroit and elsewhere and an unpopular war in Vietnam being waged. He said he enrolled at West Point with a desire to learn to fly helicopters, thinking he’d be back home in Montpelier in five or six years working at his family’s car dealership washing cars and changing oil. Instead, he rose through the ranks and ended up in the halls of the Pentagon.
“I had no idea that I would spend four decades in uniform and travel all over this world,” he told students, coming down off the stage with a microphone in hand to answer questions after he spoke for some time.
Cody credited his upbringing and family, and his teachers and coaches here with helping him to succeed, saying many of the people who supported him through the years in the city’s schools “saw potential in me,” and encouraged him, as he encouraged the students before him in the assembly to “choose the harder right over the easier wrong.” He told the group that really everything they need to know in life they learned as little kids, from saying please and thank you to not cutting line, to holding hands with a friend going out to recess, to sharing toys, and cleaning up your toys when you’re done. He urged the high schoolers to be kinder to one another, to support one another, to honor and respect the people in their company now — and always.
“My hope is you will reach the highest potential you have, no matter what it is,” said Cody. “Do what’s right when everybody else wants you to do something different,” he urged. He told the students to “seek the whole truth versus the half truth” in life.
Having traveled the world, including war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Cody said “People want what you have,” from clean water to plentiful food, sewers that work, books, schooling — including for females — and peace and safety. “This is a great country. We need to make it better,”
“What type of American citizen do you want to be?” Cody asked. He urged them to be the type that “goes into this world to make a difference.” He told them to be the people who can look themselves in the mirror “and say, ‘I did good.’”
Shelby Copans, 18, a junior, asked the general about the lessons he learned, and he responded, “As a leader, you have to believe every day that everyone in your unit will do well. Everybody has great potential. ... It’s your job to help them reach that potential.” He also said he learned to not play favorites, “because that really erodes team work.”
“Respect for each other,” was another critical component, he said.
Students asked him about the Middle East, about the recent shooting at Fort Hood by a military man, and conflicts around the world.
Of Aghanistan, he said, “It’s not any better today than it was on 9/11, and I could make the case it’s worse.” Some of the hopes to really change conflicts in other parts of the world are so deep culturally they are things that will take a century to try to change, but the U.S. over and over works to reduce violence, to “stop things from boiling over,” he said.
A major problem worldwide, he said, is the lack of job opportunity for young people, leading to unrest and recruitment by terrorists.
Samantha Flanagan, 15, a freshman, asked Cody about the recent shooting at Fort Hood, where Cody was twice stationed. That shooting left four dead, including the shooter, all members of the military.
Cody said the man was likely suffering from post traumatic stress, saying, “When you mix guns and you have medical issues and mental health issues, it’s tragic. We need to figure out why can’t we get medical and mental help they need to them faster?”
In closing, Cody told students, “You don’t have to join the military to serve this country. You can serve this country in many ways, but if you go into the military, you’ll grow faster.”
“Treat each other well, take care of each other,” he said, thanking those in the auditorium as they rose to their feet, applauding their hometown hero.
As the event closed, it was announced that Cody is donating a new custom-made, illuminated scoring table to his alma mater.
After the auditorium event, Cody was given a tour of the high school, and there was a reception for him in the library. Later Friday afternoon, Cody was celebrated during a meet and greet at VFW Post 792, an event sponsored by the Montpelier High School Boosters and the American Legion Post 3.
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