It’s a real pleasure to be here this evening. It’s especially good to get out of the Pentagon for a few hours – especially at the height of the budget season.
First, let me thank Admiral Steve Abbot, the president of the Relief Society, and everyone who has had a hand in making this such a spectacular event, year in and year out. It does so much to sustain the incredible work of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society – an organization that, for more than a century, has supported the men and women of our sea services through myriad programs at home and abroad.
Of course, the founding of the Relief Society has somewhat inauspicious roots for this gathering. The original funding for the Relief Society actually came from the proceeds of the 1903 Army-Navy football game. (Applause) Hold your applause. (Laughter) You do not remember the score. (Laughter) The score was 40 to 5. In front of this crowd I won’t say who won. (Laughter) But, I’m happy to say that in recent years times have been kinder to the Navy. (Applause) In fact, I had a chance to go to the game in December. That was a real nail-biter. (Laughter)
Well, 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 that I know in 15 minutes?” And Shaw responded, “I advise you to speak very slowly.” (Laughter)
There’s also the story that Ambassador Bob Strauss, former chairman of the democratic party, told me a long time ago – actually, over drinks in Moscow – about a dinner speaker who was notoriously long-winded. There’d been a lengthy reception with lots of cocktails and lots of wine with dinner. Sounds kind of familiar. (Laughter) The speaker was at one of those table-set podiums, people seated to both sides. And the speaker, as expected, rose to his feet and droned on and on. And finally the drunken guest on his right got up – fed up – and grabbed an empty wine bottle, and swung it at the speaker. (Laughter) But he missed. And he hit the chairman of the event who was seated to the left of the speaker. (Laughter) The chairman fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. The drunk got down on his hands and knees, crawled over to the chairman to apologize. And the poor guy opened one eye and said, “Hit me again – I can still hear the son of a bitch.” (Laughter)
Then there are the perils of drinking at public events. A European foreign minister who shall remain nameless and who was a notoriously heavy drinker, was on a trip to South America and he showed up quite drunk at a reception in Peru. There was music playing and he invited a passing guest to dance. The guest somewhat haughtily replied, “First, sir, you are drunk. Second, this is not a waltz – it is the Peruvian national anthem. (Laughter) Third, I am not a woman. I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.” (Laughter)
I want to express gratitude tonight to the three groups of people we celebrate: The Relief Society, the Navy, and the United States Marine Corps.
During my tenure as secretary of defense and on visits to bases and communities around the nation, I am constantly amazed by the commitment of time and energy that so many citizens make to improve the lives of our military families. It takes a special kind of person to be so devoted to that cause – to help during their deployments and when they return home.
The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society does just this with its numerous programs and thousands of volunteers. Whether through grants and loans – more than $1 billion worth since its founding – or counseling and nursing, this organization’s reach is incredibly long.
Reading some of the testimonials of families who have been helped, one sees a theme: dogged determination by the Relief Society volunteers to help families who are often too proud to ask for it. There are countless stories of your good deeds: service members who have needed a helping hand with loans or repairs to their house; family members who have been able to get an education; injured troops who have gotten transportation for doctors’ appointments; or just the spiritual nourishment of a kind word or a good deed. For those whose lives the Relief Society has touched, every gesture, no matter how small, has a tangible impact. Your work lifts spirits in the face of dangers and stresses of the battlefield and at home.
I know you all do this because you feel, as I do, a deep pride in a new generation of Americans who, when faced with extraordinary challenges, have answered a call to duty, honor, and country. Wherever sailors and Marines are deployed – even to the far corners of the earth – it is a safe bet that the Relief Society is there in some form or another. And so to everyone involved in this great organization, thank you on behalf of the American people.
Now let me turn to the men and women of the Navy – aviators, surface warriors, submariners, and all the rest. Right now, sailors are deployed across the globe, from Iraq to Afghanistan to the littorals and the deep blue sea. Every time I visit the war theaters, I am struck by the number of sailors on the ground – one of the great under-appreciated stories of this war. Indeed, in the Central Command AOR, there are 50 percent more sailors deployed on land than on ships. Along with the SEALs, there are “devil docs,” riverine crews, engineers, logistics experts, ordnance disposal specialists, and countless others who are making this mission a success and helping to ease the strain on our ground forces – and doing so without fail and without complaint.
At the same time, the Navy is always at work defending America’s vital interests and responsibilities in other parts of the globe. With our ground forces so committed to the campaigns in the Middle East and Central Asia, the weight of America’s strategic military strength has moved to our air and naval forces. Despite the removal of many of our Cold War bases and garrisons, the U.S. military – and in particular, the Navy – is probably engaged with more countries in more productive ways to build relationships and improve security than at any time in our history. This pattern is reflected in the range of activities around the world that would no doubt leave Alfred Thayer Mahan spinning in his grave: partnership stations in Africa; coordination with Indonesia and Malaysia to secure a vulnerable shipping lane; sailors leading Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan; and the work of sailors who have treated some 320,000 patients in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.
And then there’s the traditional role the Navy plays in keeping sea lanes across the planet open and secure – highlighted in recent months by the acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia – an enduring mission for America’s sea services that goes back to the earliest years of our republic. The need to show presence and project power from a piece of sovereign territory called a United States Navy ship will never go away.
Of course, ships and shipbuilding are all tied up in politics – from homeport decisions to the health of domestic shipyards. I take some comfort from the fact that this has been so since America’s founding. When Henry Knox, the first secretary of war, ordered the first six heavy frigates for the Navy – for the accountants among you – the total cost was $688,000. They were built in six different shipyards, in six different shapes. ... So you know, some things just never change. (Laughter)
Ironically, the value of the Navy was perhaps best and most succinctly described by United States Army General Ulysses S. Grant. In his memoirs, Grant wrote, “Money expended in a fine navy not only adds to our security and tends to prevent war in the future, but is very material aid to our commerce with foreign nations in the meantime.” Admiral Roughead, that sounds like a good quote with which to begin your first congressional testimony this spring. (Applause)
Now, I’m guessing we have a few “devil dogs” with us this evening. Since 9/11, more than a quarter million Marines have been deployed to battlefields large and small. To put the figure in some perspective, there are only 240,000 Marines total – active and reserve, representing about 10 percent of all military personnel. That’s what I call punching above your weight – but that’s what Marines have always done.
In recent years, the Marines have been operating essentially as a second land army in both Iraq and Afghanistan – evolving to become one of the most effective counterinsurgent forces ever. As General Conway has noted, we now have young, battle-hardened Marines with multiple Iraq tours who have never seen the inside of a ship. Their contributions to the war we are in have been extraordinary stories of valor that will go down in the annals of military history: victories won in places like Fallujah – often block by block, house by house, and, too often, hand by hand. As we speak, a new chapter is beginning in your storied history with major Marine deployments to Afghanistan, as we focus on that war.
Your successes have not been without great loss. Too many Marines have given the last full measure of devotion. Like many of you, I have sat at the bedside of injured Marines at Bethesda. I have hugged moms and dads and husbands and wives who have received a folded flag. Those wearing the “eagle, globe, and anchor” on the front lines of freedom deserve to know how much the country – how much all of us – appreciate their dedication, their service, and their sacrifice. (Applause)
Just a few weeks ago, President Obama visited Camp Lejeune to pay tribute to members of the military – all the services – and pledged to support our troops and their families on a wide variety of quality-of-life issues, from child-care and job-training, to implementing a 21st century bill for veterans – the GI Bill – that will, in his words, “help our veterans live their dreams.” He also promised a pay raise, which I must say got the biggest applause of the entire speech. He called these past years for our military “one of the most extraordinary chapters of service in the history of our nation” – a sentiment with which I could not agree more.
In closing, right around the time of that football drubbing I mentioned earlier, Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most forceful advocates of American naval power, had a chance to meet with members of the Naval Academy’s 1902 graduating class. That evening he spoke at a here at a banquet in Washington and paid tribute to “those gallant Americans wearing the uniform of the American Republic who … uphold gloriously the most glorious traditions of the past.” A few years later, at another event, he said, “I believe in what counts most in the Navy – the officers and enlisted men – the man behind the gun, the man in the engine-room, the man in the conning tower, the man, whoever he is, who is doing his duty.”
Serving as the president of a great public university actually has made doing this job much tougher for me. For four-and-a-half years, I watched young Americans aged 18 to 25 going to class, with t-shirts and shorts and backpacks, following their dreams. And now I see 18 to 25 year olds in full body armor in Fallujah, and in Kandahar and elsewhere. I see them wounded and in our hospitals – at Walter Reed, at Bethesda, or Brooke, and elsewhere. And I see the price of freedom. With each condolence letter I write, I know the price. And I know the sacrifice.
And so all of our sailors and Marines who are doing their duty – and all of our service members across the globe and the families who support them – you have our deepest gratitude. You have the respect and admiration of all Americans. They know that because you put your lives on the line, because of your service and your courage, your contemporaries – those your age – are safe, secure, and free to pursue their dreams.