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Deputy Salutes Troops' Courage, Devotion

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 7, 2000 – In times of crisis, people do some incredible things. Some display what's called "true grit."

In the face of the Oct. 12 tragedy aboard the USS Cole, the ship's crew displayed just that. Without question, their discipline and training came through, Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon told members of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Dec. 1.

The crew's story exemplifies the quality of today's men and women in uniform, de Leon said. He described what happened immediately after a suicide bombing killed 17 sailors, injured dozens of others and blew a 40-by-40-foot hole in the destroyer's side. He told the business leaders the Cole "was a ship in crisis."

"It was taking on water," de Leon said. "All of the electrical power on the ship was gone. The generators were out. There was no air conditioning in the heat. No food in the galley. You really couldn't sleep below deck." The crew worked around the clock, never gave up and saved their ship, he said.

When a ship takes on water and starts to list, de Leon noted, a person's first impulse is to head for the highest deck. He said it takes a rare courage to head below deck. Yet that's exactly what the Cole crew did.

"Think of the discipline," de Leon stressed. "It's dark. The ship is listing. You're still searching for some of your crew. Some are injured among you. So what do you do? With a flashlight you go below deck and you find out what is the source that is challenging the ship, and you find a way to keep the ship afloat and to secure it until help comes."

Members of the Cole worked 72 hours straight, until a British ship arrived, he said. They caught whatever sleep they could on deck. Whatever food and water they could get came from British and French military personnel who had arrived on the scene.

"This is the kind of professionalism the young men and women in our armed forces today possess," de Leon said. "These are extraordinary young men and women."

On a personal note, he said, it's been an honor to work on behalf of America's troops as they stand watch around the world. "Seeing our young men and women in uniform in action has been a constant source of inspiration," he remarked.

Prior to taking office in March 2000, de Leon served as defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, undersecretary of the Air Force, and special assistant to the late Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Last year, instead of spending Christmas with his family, he went to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, where a storm had just deposited 50 inches of fresh snow.

"If ever there was the personification of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, it was what our young men and women were bringing to Kosovo," de Leon said. "Whether they were helping children cross boundaries to school in the morning or standing watch at a Serbian wedding in an Albanian community, they knew that the fact that they were there was having a tremendous impact in that environment."

The more directly the troops see their impact, he noted, the higher their morale. "Our highest re-enlistment rates today are the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that are serving in Bosnia and Kosovo."

Overall, the 25-year career government servant concluded, service members' devotion to duty has made a lasting impression.

"You see their dedication in Kunsan (Air Base), Korea, where they spend a year-long assignment away from their families because it's considered so dangerous. You see their devotion to duty when you stand on a carrier deck in the Persian Gulf with temperatures that are over 120 degrees and you see our sailors launching jet after jet to patrol the skies over Iraq."

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