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Marine Corps Birthday Ball

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Gaylord Convention Center, MD, Saturday, November 12, 2011

General Amos, thank you for that very kind introduction.  This is truly an honor to be here this evening and be able to enjoy this wonderful celebration of the birthday of the Marine Corps.

And it's an honor for several reasons -- first of all, because of this guy that just introduced me.  I've had a chance to work alongside him these past months, and I've truly benefitted from his advice and his counsel, his good humor.  But most of all, he's got a great perspective of what our national security and our national defense needs, and I really appreciate it.

By the way, if you didn't know it, General Amos is celebrating his birthday today.  Happy birthday.

It's also an honor for me to be here with another great Marine, somebody that I thank for his friendship, his counsel.  He is my senior military assistant, Lieutenant General John Kelly.  And he too has been a great friend, a great adviser, and somebody who comes with me on all the trips, and he never ceases to help lift my spirits.  And besides that, his name may be Kelly, but he's half-Italian, so I appreciate that fact. 

Most of all, I am honored to be here because of all of you.  The men and women of the Marine Corps are, I believe, one of the finest fighting forces on the face of the Earth.  You are fighters, you're warriors; most of all, you're Americans.  You're brave, you're smart, you don't take any crap from anybody, and you're, frankly, the salt of the Earth. 

There's a great story that I heard from one of General Amos's predecessors.  It involved a group of Marines that were out on patrol in Iraq.  These Marines came upon three men who were digging a hole along the side of the road, and obviously the Marines suspected the worst.  And they spread out and approached them, and at that point the individuals scattered and took off and disappeared. 

And a cart that they had that was being pulled by a donkey was there loaded down with extra material.  Well, a sergeant walked over to the donkey and unhitched the beast, and the donkey went trotting off, and the Marines followed the donkey.  And sure enough -- sure enough, it led to a little mud hut, and there were the insurgents.  And without firing a shot, they were able to bring the bombers to justice.  They surrendered, and they brought them back to the base.

And a delighted senior officer at that point praised them for their cleverness.  And he asked one of the sergeants, what on earth made you think to unhitch the donkey.  Sir, the Marine replied, I grew up on a farm; I enlisted at age 17; I've been following jackasses most of my life.  Yes, indeed.  Salt of the earth. 

Most of all, I've come here really to thank all of you for your service, for your patriotism and for being Marines.  It is, as I said, an honor to be able to celebrate the 236th birthday of this great United States Marine Corps.  And it's always an honor to be able to enjoy a piece of the Marine Corps birthday cake.  I think I ate part of my office, but it wasn't bad cake.

This is a great tradition.  And you know, as General Amos pointed out, Marines all over the world enjoy the same moment, to take the time to eat a piece of cake and celebrate the birthday of the Corps.  And it's something that, wherever they're at, they're going to take that moment, even in the middle of battle, the general pointed out, to be able to do that.  I've always admired the Marines because of their respect for tradition and for their unyielding devotion to a set of bedrock values:  honor, courage and commitment, most of all to their fellow Marines.

Tonight I'd also like to focus on something that is equally important:  toughness.  As they say, Marines don't avoid hardship, they embrace it.  My Italian father used to tell me, you've got to be tough; you've got to be tough in life to handle everything that life throws at you.  And it's true.  It takes a truly motivated individual, someone who can draw on that inner reserve, that inner mental fortitude to make it through the grueling challenge of the Crucible.  It takes something special in a person to earn the right to wear the eagle, the globe and the anchor.

It's that quality which reveals itself when the chips are down.  It's measured by the stiffness of the spine.  It's measured by the direction you face when the enemy's guns open up.  And our enemies have learned time and time again that the reply to their guns when they're facing the U.S. Marines is that they start charging straight at you.  For the call "Send in Marines," that call has echoed across the country's history.  We've always sent in the Marines.  They've been our shock troops.

As you saw from the clip in the video, in the darkest days of Pearl Harbor, the pride of the fleet had been sunk; the country was reeling.  America relied on the seasoned Leathernecks -- the Old Breed -- to bring into battle a new generation of recruits.  This Old Breed, one veteran wrote, “were gamblers, drinkers, connivers, they were brawlers, and they had fought soldiers and sailors of every nationality in every bar from Brooklyn to Bangkok.”  These were my kind of people. 

It was those tough old salts, that Old Breed, along with a legion of new recruits, who launched the first major counter-offensive in the Pacific, on the island of Guadalcanal.  They were led by Marines like Archer Vandegrift and Chesty Puller.  For months they fought in that small perimeter till they were able to break out. 

And in the skies above Guadalcanal, Marine pilots of the Cactus Air Force battled overwhelming odds in aerial combat against the Japanese, Marines like Joe Foss, who piloted those tough old Wildcats.  They weren't the best fighter planes in the world, but they could take a beating and keep flying.  They had a 50-caliber machine gun that could saw a Zero in half, and that's exactly what Joe Foss did.  In three months, he shot 26 planes down over Guadalcanal. 

Tonight we celebrate that rich history with the proud traditions of the Marine Corps.  We celebrate the Marines of the past; particularly we celebrate those of the present, today's Marines, who are part of what I call the next Greatest Generation, those who have served in the decade since 9/11. 

And they are symbolized by the courage of Sergeant Dakota Meyer, who's with us here this evening.  I had the honor, the unique honor, to pay tribute to him when he received his Medal of Honor.   He is truly an inspiration for all of us.

Also with us here tonight are members of a generation whose sacrifice has been especially great.  And to them, our wounded warriors, I want to give you my personal thanks for showing us all the unforgettable inspiration that you've provided, the inspiration of resilience and strength and toughness in the face of enormous challenges which you have borne.  And Baghdad to Fallujah to Anbar to Helmand, time and time again, you've built another chapter to the Marine Corps roll of honor. 

I have said this because I believe it deeply.  I guess as the son of immigrants, I was taught how important it is to give something back to this country that gave my parents the opportunity that so many have enjoyed coming to this great country of ours.

But our democracy depends on the willingness of every generation to fight for what's right, to fight for our country, men and women who've answered the call of duty to uphold the fundamental values that this great country of ours is all about.  This is a new great American generation, and it's proven its patriotism and its strength and its determination on the battlefield.

They've done everything they've been asked to do, and that's what makes them a great generation that follows the tradition of service to country.  So thank you for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for your patriotism, thank you for the work that you do every day to protect the United States of America.

And I also want to thank the Marine families for their support and their sacrifice and their love.  Marines couldn't do it without the support of their families, and these families are as much a part of the Marine Corps legacy as those who fight on the battlefield. 

Our country owes the Marine Corps and all of the Marine Corps community an incredible debt for what you've been able to accomplish throughout our history and during these past 10 years.  You have helped to make America safer.

 I used to ask my father why he traveled all of that distance to come to this country.  And he used to say, "Because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life."  That's the American dream.  It's what we want for our children.  It's why we fight.  It's why we care for this country.  And you, Marines, have helped give our children a better life, by making them safer.

God bless you.  God bless this nation.  And God bless the United States Marine Corps.  Happy birthday.  Semper fi. 

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