Thank you for that kind introduction, Pat, and I also want to thank the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce and the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance for inviting me to this event.
It is great to be in Killeen, and to be back in Central Texas. We are not far from College Station, where I spent four and a half wonderful years as president of Texas A&M. And it is clear that there are some Aggies with us tonight. Of course, visiting Texas in November is another reminder that out here, football is practically a form of organized religion. The first fall when I was at Texas A&M, and we changed the football coach, I told the press that I had overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy. And Chancellor McKinney, I’m glad I’m not there now.
Of course the Texas Hill country has it all over Washington. A place where, as Senator Alan Simpson used to say, “Those who travel the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic.” A place where there are so many lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory. Where people say “I’ll double-cross that bridge when I get to it.” The only place in the world where you can see a prominent person walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.
This is my first visit to Fort Hood as Secretary of Defense. And it is an honor. Few Army posts have given as much to the defense of this nation as Fort Hood, home to some of the biggest and most well-known units of the United States military. And I would have to say there are a couple of legends here tonight. First and foremost, General Bob Shoemaker. And I would add – and he would be very embarrassed by this -- also Lieutenant General Pete Chiarelli. Who cannot be awed by men with such records of service, and sacrifice, and success. But General Shoemaker, you may need, as you may have hinted to me earlier, to recruit a better class of football players for the high school named for you.
Deployments from this post – of the First Cavalry Division, the Fourth Infantry Division, and other elements of the “Third Corps”– have been constant. Come this spring, it will be five solid years that at least one of these two divisions has been deployed in support of the Global War on Terror. They have been in the thick of the battle against the jihadists – fighting in some of the toughest campaigns and doing some of the most difficult work to bring stability and reconstruction to the fledgling democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The troops of the Fourth ID were in Tikrit when a dictator was fished out of a hole in the ground. And the men and women of the “Iron Horse Division” were there when Zarqawi – one of the world’s most vicious and dangerous terrorists – met his end.
“The First Team,” as it is called, quelled the uprising in Baghdad’s Sadr City in 2004, and stayed on to bring a measure of security and improved conditions to the people there. The First Cav was led at that time, as you know, by General Chiarelli.
The troops from these and other Fort Hood units watched Iraqis vote for the first time in real elections, adopt a constitution, seat a democratically elected prime minister, and form army and police forces that have increasingly taken on the task of securing their country. Acts of ethnic and sectarian violence have diminished in recent months, in part due to the work of tens of thousands of soldiers from this post and across the nation.
Tonight I’m here for a special reason, and that is simply to acknowledge what it is that makes all of those accomplishments possible: the support that Fort Hood soldiers receive from their families, and that both soldiers and the families receive from the people of this community.
America owes a great deal to those who have been called “the power behind the power” – the spouses, children, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters of our men and women in uniform. They, too, make a significant contribution – and pay a price – in the cause of protecting the United States and its allies. They are the ones who remain back home, wrestling with the challenges of day-to-day life that come up in families and households that have a very important member missing. As President Bush said of military spouses, their service to the country “begins as soon as they say two words: ‘I do.’” The multiple overseas deployments out of Fort Hood have lengthened family separations and put an even heavier burden on Fort Hood spouses and other kin.
And yet they have borne that burden with grace and patience and an amazing ability to organize and rely upon one another. We see this in so many ways, not least in the “care teams” made up of family members from the units that go to those who have been notified of the death or injury of a loved one. The care team members are there to help them grieve, offering a kind word, a cooked meal, a shoulder to cry on. Army families take care of their own and Fort Hood families are no exception. They are strong. They endure. They are bound together by their shared experiences, by sacrifice, and by the pride they rightly feel in the noble work their soldiers do. They are an example to us all.
But military family members are not, and could not be, completely self-sufficient. That’s where many of you come in. Fort Hood has grown by over 10,000 soldiers since 2003, and has added more families and more children. But instead of calling for the federal government to respond, the citizens of Central Texas stepped up, on their own, to welcome the newcomers.
Acts of kindness that make headlines in other parts of the country are engrained in the very fabric of your communities. The church dinners, the social events, cutting the lawn for a family whose soldier is deployed – hundreds of events, large ones and small, every day of the week, for five years. You do these things without being asked and without asking anything in return.
Community members faithfully attend ceremonies that are held on the post for changes of command, the awarding of the Purple Heart, retirements, and other milestones.
They are also making weekly trips to the Brooke Army Medical Center to visit wounded Fort Hood soldiers and present them with caps, and t-shirts, and bathrobes. Those items don’t come free, you know; and I understand the cheerleading squad of Harker Heights High School raised money to help purchase them.
Then there are the more than 490 Fort Hood units that have been “adopted” by businesses, individuals, and civic clubs of Central Texas through the Association of the U.S. Army. The local AUSA chapter and Sprint have joined forces to give scholarships to soldiers and their families.
The Chambers of Commerce of Greater Killeen, Belton, Temple, and many other towns and cities, also give scholarships, as well as initiating awards such as Soldier-of-the-Quarter.
There is also the “Living in the New Normal” initiative of the Military Child Education Coalition, which started right here as a coalition between Fort Hood and the Killeen Independent School District. It grew from that small seed, and is now an extensive non-profit organization that helps military kids across the United States and abroad, by making counseling and other services available to these children to ease their frequent transitions to new schools.
Through the teamwork of Central Texas communities, Fort Hood, and Dell, 50 spouses of Fort Hood soldiers became virtual customer care agents for Dell under the Army Spouse Employment Partnership program.
Every one of these forms of assistance matters. This is a tough time for our troops and their families – and I can assure you that your aid and your assistance does not go unnoticed.
Thinking back in time, to the late 60s and 1970s, we remember that civilian appreciation for the United States military has not always been there. As one who was in the military at the time, I cannot express to you how heartwarming it is to see civilians united today in their admiration of our men and women who have volunteered to serve at such a challenging time for our country. You see it in airports all over the country, where service men and women are met with standing ovations by passengers in the terminal. There are free meals and rounds of drinks, at least only for soldiers over 21. And, above all, simple thank yous. The appreciation is real, it is sincere, and it bridges any political divide.
No one can tell what lies ahead for our nation in the conflicts in which we are engaged. But we do know that great challenges remain.
An immediate challenge the Defense Department faces is the ongoing delay in the Congress over the war funding bill. The facts are simple. Without these funds, Army operations and maintenance accounts will be exhausted by mid-February, and similar Marine Corps accounts about a month later. We cannot wait until mid-February to figure out how to deal with the consequences of these accounts running dry. For example, under certain of our contracts, civilian employees must be notified sixty days in advance of a furlough, and that means mid-December. We’re not trying to scare anyone, or play politics. That’s not the way I do business. But I am responsible for prudent management and planning. And that means prior planning just in case we don’t get this funding in a bill that this President will sign. The Defense Department is like the world’s biggest supertanker. It cannot turn on a dime, and I cannot steer it like a skiff. I don’t want to create anxiety among our employees. But we have to plan, and we have to prepare.
Turning to a brighter subject, one result of the improved Iraqi security situation is the beginning of a lowering of U.S. troop levels. A brigade of the 1st Cav is in the process of coming home, and its battle space is being assumed by another unit in country. The members of that brigade, and of every other unit throughout the U.S. armed forces, have been giving this effort everything they’ve got. And they’ve gained something in return: They know that they are defending our country and shaping the course of history.
Let me point out, as well, that more help is on the way: with bipartisan support in the Congress, a bigger Army, more funds to mitigate the stress of six years at war, and new programs and commitments to make the Army’s covenant with families a reality.
We want every family with a loved one overseas right now to be reunited with that soldier and we look forward to the day when it will be possible. Until then, Fort Hood soldiers and their families will be doing what they have always done: their duty. I express my deepest admiration for, gratitude to, and pride in the soldiers and the families of Fort Hood, and the generous community that stands behind them.