Good afternoon, Hammer Brigade!
Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Sandy. It's always -- it's always a great pleasure to be able to -- to be with you, but in particular to be with you here at Fort Benning. You have shown tremendous leadership in Congress in supporting Fort Benning and its soldiers and the families that are all part of our military family.
And I'd like to particularly recognize your work as co-chair of the Congressional Military Families Caucus. That's an extremely important caucus in the Congress that tries to look out for the families that are so important to supporting those who serve in our military.
Twenty years of service -- we thank you for all you've done.
I also want to express my thanks to General Brown. Thanks for your -- for hosting me here. It's been a great treat to be able to be with you and to relive some old memories and to see a lot of the new things that make Fort Benning the best installation in the world.
It's an inspiring sight to be here and see so many dogface soldiers gathered in one place. This is a big crowd. But one thing I've learned in life, especially as a member of Congress, is that you never, never have enough sledgehammers.
You never engage in a fair fight. You always got to have a hell of a lot more power than the other guy.
When I heard that I was going to be here and see you, I asked someone who'd spent a little time on Kelley Hill, what should I expect? And he said this brigade is not fancy, but they're tough.
He also told me a little about each of the units that make up this storied brigade.
And Colonel Johnson told me that you like to sound off.
So I'm going to -- I'm going to try it out, see whether that's true.
First we've got the queen of battle, the 1st of the 15th, the can-do battalion. (Cheers.) Present and accounted for. Second, the 2nd of the 69th is here. You remind all of us that armor equals speed and power. (Cheers.) The 3rd battalion, 1st cav. I know you are, like all cavalrymen, you're always courageous, and you're always faithful. (Cheers.) And the 1st of the 10th Field Artillery, the rock support. (Cheers.)
And the king of battle. (Cheers.) And then there's the 3rd STB. We count on you to execute the mission with vigilance and honor. (Cheers.) And finally, the mighty eagles of the 203rd ESB. (Cheers.)
It's an honor to be with all of you, and it's an honor to be here, as I said, at Fort Benning. This is my first time at Fort Benning as Secretary of Defense, but it is not my first time here at Fort Benning as a soldier. Like you, I had the opportunity to come here in a previous capacity, as a young Army lieutenant back in 1964, almost 50 years ago.
And at that time, I spent 10 weeks in basic training, here at Fort Benning; went through the drill; went through escape and evasion, which I understand they moved away from here -- thank God, for all of you -- been through the swamps; been through the red mud; been through the humidity. Yes, I have lots of warm memories of Fort Benning.
And like many of you, Fort Beginning was the first introduction to real Army life. And it made me a soldier, and it made me understand what being a soldier was all about.
I've had a chance to be able to visit here, and I have to tell you that the treatment I'm getting today as secretary is a hell of a lot nicer than what I got here as a lieutenant -- although the chow's about the same.
The main reason I'm here today -- the main reason I'm here today, and it's the main reason -- when I go to other posts and when I visit the battlefield, the main reason is to thank you, to thank you for making the decision to step forward and to serve this country.
Each of you has made a very courageous and important decision to serve this nation at a time of war, and I'm a big believer in public service. Our democracy from its very founding depends on those who are willing to serve and make this country a better place for those that follow.
I'm the son of Italian immigrants, and my parents, like millions of other immigrants, came to this country in the early '30s. I used to ask my dad: Why would you do that? Why would you travel all of that distance to a strange country? They came from a poor area in Italy, but they had the comfort of family. Why would you travel all that distance? No money, no skills, no language ability. Why would you do that?
And my father said the reason that he and my mother did that is because they believed they could give their children a better life. That is the American dream. That's what all of us want for our children and hopefully what our children will want for their children -- a better life.
This country -- this country depends on men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to give our children a better and more secure life.
We depend on you to make sure that you protect this country, that we keep America safe, so that our kids can enjoy the opportunity this country has to offer.
So I thank you for your willingness to put your lives on the line.
And I also want to thank your families. They have to sacrifice as well: long periods of absence, long moments away on holidays, special events within the family. On behalf of the American people, as your secretary of defense, I thank you and I thank them for their sacrifice, for their dedication and for their loyalty to this great country. As far as I'm concerned, families -- all of your families -- are part and parcel of our fighting force.
This country has asked the soldiers of this brigade and the mighty 3rd Infantry Division to shoulder a heavy burden over a decade of war. The Hammer Brigade deployed four times to Iraq, as much as any other BCT. From the initial march to Baghdad in 2003 to the worst days of the insurgency, to Operation New Dawn, soldiers of the Hammer Brigade fought and, yes, died to give Iraq the opportunity to secure and to govern itself.
Many of you deployed there.
Many of you lost brothers and sisters in that fight. Seventy-seven heroes from the Hammer Brigade gave their last full measure of devotion in Iraq. And we will never forget, never forget these brave men and women, nor we -- will we ever forget what they accomplished. They put their lives on the line to achieve an important mission. Because of their sacrifice, the American people are safer today. Because of all that you've accomplished, we were able to bring Iraq and the Iraq War to a responsible and honorable conclusion last December.
This week, as many of you know, the president made an important trip to Afghanistan. And we are now working to try to bring that war to a responsible end as well.
Last year was in many ways a turning point in our effort in Afghanistan. Violence levels decreased for the first time in years. Transition to Afghanistan, to their security responsibility so that they could secure their country, that began as well. The Taliban has been weakened. They've been unable to organize an effort to regain any of the territory that has been lost.
They've been weakened, and their momentum has been broken. Al-Qaida's leadership, including bin Laden, has been decimated.
We recognized the first-year anniversary taking down bin Laden. Let me tell you, that was due to the military professionalism of soldiers who went in there and did a mission that they do time and time and time again in Afghanistan. It was for that reason that I was confident that that mission would be accomplished.
The Afghan national security forces have been growing steadily, and they are more and more and more capable of being able to engage in operations to provide security and to do the job that they have to do if their country is going to be able to be strong and sovereign and independent in the future.
We've accomplished transitions in areas. We've now transitioned areas in Afghanistan that represent 50 percent of the population, and we will in May do another series of provinces that will be transitioned that by the end of summer will mean that 80 percent of the Afghan population will be under Afghanistan security and control.
The strategic partnership agreement that President Obama signed in Kabul this week affirmed that this transition plan is on track. It sends a clear signal -- sends a clear signal to our enemies and to our partners that we will finish the job right in Afghanistan.
We have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan and to the Afghan people. And if we keep our eye focused on this mission, as I know you all will, we will defeat al-Qaida; we will deny them the ability to rebuild; we will deny them the safe haven that they used to plan an attack on our country. They may have attacked us once; they will not do it again. Too much precious blood has been spilled, too much progress has been made to lose sight of the mission now.
And there's no doubt that there will be considerable challenges ahead. We will face a determined adversary. We will face extremists who will continue to try and attack America. The reality is that our enemies are losing on the battlefield and they will seek any opportunity to damage us.
In particular, they have sought to take advantage of a series of troubling incidents that involved misconduct on the part of a few, on the part of few who do not represent -- who do not represent the vast majority of those in uniform who serve this country.
And that brings me to the last point that I want to make. I need every one of you, every one of you and all of your fellow service members to always display the strongest character, the greatest discipline and the utmost integrity in everything you do.
In visiting the Infantry Museum, you have a chance to see those Army values as you enter that museum: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, courage. Those are the standards -- those are the standards that mark men and women who serve in our military. And I know that you are proud, proud to wear the uniform of your country and that you strive to live up to the highest standards that we expect of you.
But the reality is that we are fighting a different kind of war and living in a different kind of world than when I was a lieutenant here at Fort Benning.
These days it takes only seconds -- seconds for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline. And those headlines can impact the mission that we're engaged in. They can put your fellow service members at risk. They can hurt morale. They can damage our standing in the world, and they can cost lives.
I know that none of you -- none of you deliberately acts to hurt your mission or to put your fellow soldiers at risk. You are the best. And that's why I'm here today: to tell you that I need you, that I need your leadership, that I need your courage, that I need your strength to make sure that we always abide by the highest standards.
I know that these incidents represent a very, very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do across this world. I represent 3 million people, 2 million in uniform. It's a very small percentage of people who sometimes make these terrible mistakes. But these incidents concern me, and they have to concern you, and they do concern our service chiefs because a few, who lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership can hurt all of us and can hurt all of those men and women who serve this country with distinction.
They concern us because our enemies will seek to turn them -- these incidents in their favor at the very moment that they are losing the war.
So I want all of you to always remember -- always remember who you are and the great country that you serve and that we are all part of. You are part of the best fighting force on the face of the earth. Never forget that.
Its greatness lies in the quality of our people. We've got great aircraft. We've got great tanks. We've got great technology. But let me tell you something: It is the character and the standards that each of you bring to the battle that makes us strong. We can often be better than our word, but we can never be better than our actions. Our actions speak a lot for all of us.
Never forget that, and never forget that you have a responsibility to look after your fellow soldiers and to represent the American people that you are sworn to defend.
I know that all of you can meet this challenge. You are the best, and I have the greatest confidence in your ability to make all Americans proud by demonstrating the very finest character, integrity and judgment and willingness to fight. The bottom line is that all of us have to be willing to fight to make this country great.
There's a great story that I often tell, the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other and learn about each other's religion. So they went to events together. One night they went to a boxing match. And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi nudged the priest and said, what does that mean? The priest said, it doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, we often pray that our country will be OK and that somehow, we will be able to prevail. But I got to tell you it doesn't mean a damn thing if we're not willing to fight for it.
The Hammer brigade has always been willing to fight, to keep America safe, to make sure our kids have that better life, but most importantly, to always make sure that we have a government of, by and for people.
God bless you. God bless this brigade. And God bless the United States of America.