Thank you for that very kind introduction. And a special thanks to all those who have made tonight’s event possible.
I was assured that I would receive a warm welcome – and you have certainly not let her down. Especially y’all from Texas. It is a real pleasure to be here. Too often when I have a speaking engagement in Washington it starts with someone asking me to raise my right hand and pledging to tell the truth.
There’s a full agenda this evening, so I’d like to keep my remarks on the short side – which reminds me of a story about the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw once told a speaker that he had 15 minutes to speak. And the speaker replied, “Fifteen minutes? How can I possibly tell them all I know in 15 minutes?” And Shaw responded, “I advise you to speak very slowly.”
I want to start by recognizing two soldiers receiving awards tonight: Major Elizabeth Mann, who works for the Army Burn Center in Texas, and Major General Gale Pollock, the Deputy Surgeon General for Force Management. You will hear more about them in a few minutes, but I would personally like to thank them for everything they have done for our wounded warriors. I also thank Colonel Suzan Williams, the branch chief of the Army Nurse Corps, for her two and a half decades of service; she is accepting the award on behalf of Major General Pollock.
The other honorees tonight have also done great things to help our men and women in uniform. And they are all deserving of recognition for their selfless actions.
So too is this organization as a whole. Although D.A.R. is dedicated to preserving and transmitting our nation’s history, it has also written a fair share of it. Your members are a part of a legacy of service that spans American history and includes such towering figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Clare Booth Luce. The first female United States senator, cabinet secretary, and attorney general were all members. Mothers and wives of presidents, too – wherever you find the most important work of government being done, you will find nearby a Daughter of the American Revolution.
And wherever you find troops in need, you will find this organization. Your members volunteer more than 60,000 hours each year to help our veterans. Whether through care packages or your focus on Landstuhl hospital, I can assure you that your deeds do not go unnoticed by our men and women in uniform.
Daughters of the American Revolution, however, is about more than just acts of kindness. Since its inception more than a century ago, D.A.R. has served the nation by ensuring that our citizens never forget the spirit of 1776 – a spirit that is interwoven in the very fabric of this great republic. That spirit reminds us every day of the bedrock values of liberty and justice upon which our country was built. And it reminds us also of the men and women, past and present, who have fought and are fighting in foreign lands to defend our way of life – to defend home and country.
We sometimes forget that when we talk about national defense, it is the men and women who have chosen to serve who make the discussion possible – for they are the ones who will ultimately carry out the decisions of the president and other policy makers. They are the ones who will shoulder the burdens of this complex and dangerous world.
For nearly 19 months, I have been blessed to work with our troops and on their behalf. I have visited them in posts across the world, where the arduous work of this nation’s defense requires their vigilance on the front lines far from hearth and home. We have now been in combat in Afghanistan for nearly seven years, and in Iraq for more than five. This is the longest conflict America has waged with an all-volunteer force since the War of the Revolution. And frankly, our military, our government, and our country were not prepared for such a long and grueling conflict.
Despite this, our troops have persevered and overcome incredible obstacles. Often, they live in spartan quarters, work in combat theaters, and face the uncertainties of nontraditional war in an era when any mistake, even the perception of a mistake, can be transmitted around the globe in seconds. In these campaigns, our troops have assumed the roles of warriors, diplomats, and development officers. The pressure is unrelenting, and the stakes are incredibly high.
But, in the face of these challenges, they have maintained a steely resolve. On numerous occasions, skeptical reporters have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan amazed at the high morale and discipline they see in our troops. Recruiting targets are being met. And high retention rates continue to be nothing short of remarkable, especially when considering that those most likely to re-enlist are those most often deployed.
Whenever I meet with troops, I am impressed by their resilience, their good humor, their courage, and their determination in the face of personal sacrifice. And that is especially true of our wounded. To be honest, before I went to Walter Reed to visit our wounded warriors for the first time, I was very apprehensive. I didn’t know if I could handle it. But people kept telling me, “No, you don’t understand, they’ll lift you up.” And they did. And they do whenever I visit. And I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences.
There are stories of valor – only a fraction of which we have heard. The sheer number of medals gives some idea: five Medals of Honor; 38 Service Crosses; nearly 700 Silver Stars; and almost 5,000 Bronze Stars with valor. Each represents a story of bravery and sacrifices so great they are almost impossible to comprehend – from men who have fallen on grenades to save their comrades to others who have sprinted through firefights to save a buddy. It brings to mind the words of General Douglas MacArthur, who said that the American man-at-arms “has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast. . . . From one end of the world to the other, he has drained deep the chalice of courage.”
But you’ll never see our heroes talking about their own actions. Quite the contrary. One Silver Star recipient took a bullet through his shoulder while trying to rescue a unit that had been pinned down. He refused a medic and hopped on the back of a tank to continue the rescue. And when he ran out of ammunition, he started throwing rocks. He later said, “All I needed was a Band-Aid.”
There are stories of ingenuity and determination – one of the central reasons we have seen progress in Iraq over the past year. When all hope seemed lost in Anbar province in Iraq, the unit in charge of Ramadi dramatically changed its tactics – moving out of heavily fortified bases and into combat outposts in the middle of the fight. “I was a bit of a drowning man,” explained the commander. “I was reaching for anything that would help me float.” And float they did. Through heavy fighting, through great sacrifices, they won Ramadi back from Al Qaeda. Many of the tactics successfully employed there would be replicated across Iraq.
Of course, on occasion ingenuity has paid unexpected dividends. An Army staff sergeant, a field artillery radar specialist, was elected a sheik by an Iraqi village for his work in their community. He was given white robes, five sheep, and some land. He was also advised to take a second wife – a suggestion frowned upon by his spouse back in Florida.
There are the stories of great compassion. Beyond their day-to-day sweat and toil, many troops have volunteered in hospitals or other areas where Iraqis need help. One national guardsman visited an orphanage and befriended a young Iraqi with cerebral palsy. Facing no small bureaucratic hurdles, he adopted the child and brought him to the United States. He explained, “I could not, as a Christian man, walk away from that little boy.” When he got home, he began working so that other Iraqi orphans could have the same opportunity.
There are the stories of patriotism. Since September 11th, thousands of non-citizen U.S. residents have volunteered to serve the country they have adopted as their own. One current Marine lance corporal fled Iraq with his family when he was nine years old – and ended up in California to start a new life. He was given the oath of citizenship a few months ago in one of Saddam’s palaces – not far from where he was brought up. It was, he said, one of the three proudest days of his life. The other two? The birth of his child, and the day he became a United States Marine.
Then there are the stories of endurance – exemplified best by the tens of thousands of families that have been affected by multiple deployments. Words cannot describe how grateful our troops are for their wives and husbands, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers – the network of love and support that carries on in their absence. Despite the great additional burden these families bear, they still manage to buoy the spirits of our troops from halfway across the world with short phone calls or e-mails or pictures. They are the nation’s unsung heroes.
And, of course, then there are the stories of citizens like you – citizens whose support plays a pivotal, if rarely discussed, role in this narrative. Hundreds of grassroots organizations are supporting our troops – providing homes or plane tickets or supplies for Iraqi school children. One group leads an international effort to bring back to the United States dogs that have been adopted in theater – and that units are loath to leave behind. It may seem a small thing, but in the midst of war, cats and dogs become part of the unit. As one soldier said, “Even the gnarliest dudes turn to putty around [our dogs].”
Anecdotes like these, of troops, and families, and citizens alike, repeated in so many places and so many times, inspire us and make us proud and hopeful about the future of our military – and the future of our nation. It is all part of a larger trend of support and appreciation. America has come a long way since the late 1960s and early 1970s during our last protracted and controversial war. You see it in airports all over the country, where soldiers are met with standing ovations by passengers in the terminal. I’ve been there and seen it myself. There are free meals and rounds of drinks – at least for those over 21. And, above all, simple thank yous. You also see it in efforts by the Congress to make sure our wounded have all they need to make the transition to the next phase of their life – and by bipartisan legislation signed into law last week that greatly increases the benefits of the G.I. Bill for our troops and their families.
Thomas Jefferson said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and [the blood of] tyrants.” Whenever the tree of liberty has been in need, whenever our nation has called, there have been in every generation those who have stepped forward – those who have been driven by a fire in the soul. And that fire is an abiding spirit of honor and patriotism – one that gave resolve to those who fought in Lexington and froze in Valley Forge. And today it gives courage to those who defend our friends in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deter our enemies wherever they may be.
A couple of years after Daughters of the American Revolution was formed, one of your local leaders said at an annual gathering that “It is principles, not surroundings – deeds, not words – that make good patriotic men and women.” In both principles and deeds, our men and women in uniform exemplify the best this country has to offer. And we are truly blessed to have among us citizens of such tremendous and awe-inspiring courage.