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Medal of Honor Ceremony for Army Captain William Swenson

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Pentagon Auditorium, Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Good afternoon.

Secretary McHugh, General Odierno, Sergeant Major Chandler, Chairman Dempsey, ladies and gentlemen, the men and women who serve our country today in uniform, the civilian employees who support our men and women in uniform, and in particular our special guests here this afternoon, who have been recognized, and our most honored guest, Captain Swenson and his family.

I have a quite elegant speech, of course. But I will dispense with these eloquent words.  And I'm going to make a couple of comments I hope that will add to the true eloquence of the chiefs and secretary's comments. 

I could not improve on, or I don't mean to duplicate what they said, what President Obama said yesterday, what everyone in this room knows about this very special individual. 

Let me add my thoughts this way.  Many important words have been said about Will Swenson, appropriately so, over the last few days.  One particular point that President Obama made yesterday was that at a time in our country when  we need more unifying dimensions and dynamics to remind us who we are, yes, as a great nation, but, even more importantly, as a good people.  The Will Swenson story does that.  It does remind us who we are -- sacrifice, service, going beyond your own personal ambitions, your own personal interests, and serving the interests of others first.

I don't know a more complete picture that could be presented or example noted of that selflessness than the story of Will Swenson and those who have gone before, and every man and women in the history of this great republic who have given so much of themselves, and the people in this room and all over the world who continue to do that.

Will, you mean an awful lot to a lot of people, but your biggest contribution probably will come later.  And that is the role model that you have already projected, not just for men and women in uniform, but the next generations behind you.  We all recognize as parents, as individuals who have any responsibility for positions in life, that that is our biggest, most significant responsibility, to improve upon the inheritance that we were each given, the blessings and the good things.  We know about bad things.

But that's not our role.  Our role is to improve, make it better, inspire, uplift our people, our families, our country and the world.  And as President Obama noted yesterday, the Will Swenson story is a great reminder of those responsibilities and how we can do it with dignity, with eloquence, with never asking anything in return.

I want to also note something that was said here today, mentioned by the chief, mentioned by the secretary.  Yes, Will Swenson proved his valor on the battlefield.  It is well documented.  It should be well documented.  But he also did something else that represented tremendous courage and integrity.  And I've always thought the two indispensable elements of anyone's life are courage and character.  And if we're without those in some measure, it's a pretty hallow existence.

He questioned -- he dared to question the institution that he was faithful to and loyal to.  Mistakes were made, in his case.  Now, that's courage and that's integrity and that's character.  As the institution itself reflected on that same courage and integrity institutionally, the institution, the United States Army, corrected the mistake.  They went back and acknowledged a mistake was made and they fixed it.

Another great dimension of our republic, of our people, we have an inherent capability to self-correct.  Free people have that capability if they have the will and the courage to self-correct.  And we all do in our own personal lives.  Institutions don't always.  Eventually they will be forced to.  In this case, the United States Army was not forced to.  It did self-correct.  It was a wrong.  They corrected it.  They fixed it.

We're sorry that you and your family had to endure through that, but you did and you handled it right.  And I think that deserves a tremendous amount of attention and credit.  We celebrate you today, Will.  We celebrate your family.  We celebrate your very brave colleagues who have been recognized, those who didn't make it back, their families today.  But we celebrate all the good things about our country today because of you.  And we're grateful.

May God bless you and your family, Will.  Thank you.  Thank you.

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