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American Patriot Award

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, DC, Friday, November 05, 2010

There are so many distinguished guests here tonight, but I would like to mention one in particular.  I’m told that General Paik Sun Yup traveled all the way from the Republic of Korea to be with us tonight.  For those of you who don’t know, General Paik was the ROK Army’s youngest (and fiercest) division commander during the Korean War, and for nearly six decades has been one of America’s most steadfast friends in Asia.  Sir, I am so pleased that you came so far to join us – and thank you.

My thanks to the NDU Foundation for this singular honor.  It is quite humbling to be counted with the leaders and statesmen who’ve received this American Patriot Award.  But nothing is more humbling – or more inspiring – than to be here with your young honored guests from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.

I’d like to start with a few words about the two men – two great American patriots – who spoke so graciously on my behalf tonight.  Senator Boren has been a mentor and friend for nearly three decades.  I got to know David well when I was at CIA and he was a member and later chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  David played a critical role in my confirmation as Director of Central Intelligence in 1991.  He also introduced me to the Senate Armed Services Committee for this post nearly four years ago.

Now, let’s talk about football.  So David goes to Oklahoma, and he has all these academic aspirations, and what’s the first thing that faces him?  Firing Barry Switzer.  And I called him, I said David, I don’t know anybody in America who knows less about football than you do.  Except maybe me.  So I get to Texas A&M and after the first season, I fire the football coach.  I told the press, you know, I’ve overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy.  David and I worked together a lot in the government, but where we really bonded was as fellow university presidents. And I should mention in this context that Oklahoma plays Texas A&M tomorrow at A&M.  Now my first year as president- David talked about my second year as president – my first year as President, Oklahoma came to Texas A&M ranked #1, and unranked Texas A&M beat them.  And I thought, you know, this works.  But A&M’s been paying the price ever since, and it’s been painful.

I must add on that note, seeing David here fills me with no small measure of envy.  David gets to go back to Oklahoma tomorrow, dealing with Regents, faculty, students, the state legislature, alumni, and football fanatics.  I, on the other hand, get to stay in a town built on a swamp, and that still often resembles a swamp, with many dangerous creatures.  David is one of the great public servants of his generation, who set the gold standard for bi-partisan congressional oversight of national security, and I’m deeply honored by his presence and kind words.  Thank you.

Whenever the subject of President George H.W. Bush comes up, beyond his many historic accomplishments in the national security arena, I always come back to his extraordinary decency, his integrity, his remarkable sense of humor, and his talent as a raconteur.  He often tells the story of a conversation in 1990 with then French President Francois Mitterand about German reunification.  Mitterand's response was “I like Germany so much, I think there should be two of them!”

On that same subject, not too long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a reporter in Helena, Montana asked Bush what he thought of the idea of a unified Germany and the president replied that Germany had changed a lot over 45 years and, “if the Germans want it, I’m all for it.”   So right away – I was with him in Helena – I immediately called Brent Scowcroft – then the National Security Advisor.  I said “Brent, do we have a policy on reunification?”  Brent told me it was still being worked through the interagency.  I told Brent, “Well, you’ve got a policy now, and we’re for it!”  As I wrote later, the mind reels at the thought of a less steady, experienced, wise hand at the helm of the ship of state during that turbulent period.  And as I’ve said before, I’d walk through fire for President George H.W. Bush anytime, anyplace. 

I’m grateful to see our military so well represented here tonight.  Thank you for being here.  You know, I’m often asked about the relationship between senior military officers and their civilian leadership.  I reply that the relationship is dramatically better than it used to be.  Just listen to the words of General George McClellan describing his boss, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton: “He is the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard or read of.  I think that had he lived in the time of the Savior, Judas Iscariot would have remained a respected member of the fraternity of the apostles and that the magnificent treachery and rascality of E.M. Stanton would have caused Judas to have raised his arms in holy horror and unaffected wonder.”   I’ve got to tell you, our generals just don’t talk like that anymore.

I know time is short – and I’m leaving for Australia in about two hours – so I would like to offer just a few brief reflections on my service in this post.  I’m truly honored by this award, and have thought long and hard about how to respond.  I could take Jack Benny’s approach, when he was honored one time and said, “I don’t deserve this award, but I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either.”  Or the approach of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir who told a minister being honored, “don’t be humble, you’re not that great.”  But the most apt line for me tonight is from the great New York Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, who observed that he got the credit “for home runs someone else hit.”

While I was certainly flattered, and deeply moved, by the video’s depiction of my tenure as Defense Secretary, any accomplishments in the final analysis are not about me.  They are about all the young men and women who have decided to serve their country in uniform at a time of war, young men and women such as your honored guests tonight.  Young Americans now deployed in distant, austere, and often dangerous posts far from home and their families.      

Every day I have been in this job, the simple question I have asked of the Defense Department is, are we doing everything we can do to get these troops everything they need to succeed in their mission, to come home safely, and, if wounded, to get the best possible care when they get home?  In some instances, the answer I received was satisfactory.  In too many other cases, including some of those depicted tonight, it was not.

Whoever is privileged to hold this position, indeed anyone elevated to high civilian or military rank, must never forget what one of my heroes, General George Marshall, once said about the obligations that come with committing our military to war:  “We must do everything we could to convince the soldier that we were all solicitude for his well being.  I was for supplying everything we could and [only] then requiring him to fight to the death when the time came … you couldn’t be severe in your demands unless [he] was convinced that you were doing everything you could to make matters well for him.” 

Tonight we sit and enjoy this wonderful occasion and each other’s company.  But we must never forget that our comfort and safety are borne on the brave and broad shoulders of those young men and women in uniform.  More sacrifices will be required of them to defend the security and freedom of our country in this dangerous new century.  It is our duty – it is our sacred obligation – in Marshall’s words, to “make things well” for them.  And it is on their behalf and their well-being as my continuing highest priority that I accept this award.

Thank you very much.

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