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Martin Luther King Day Observance

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Pentagon Auditorium, Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mike, thank you.  We are grateful for your service, and your leadership.  You have been a steady hand here, and we rely on you and your staff and all who help strengthen and operate this institution.  It is people, as we all know, who make a difference.  You can have a lot of sophisticated technology and resources, but without people, you don’t have much. 

And as you had noted in some of your comments, Mike, that has been the embodiment of this institution over many, many years, and I think represents as strong embodiment of working together today as we ever have seen. 

It’s a great complement to our country, and to our people, and to each of you in this room and all of those watching who are associated with the Department of Defense.  And I think we’re all very proud to be part of the Department of Defense, and I think America is very proud of all of you. 

I know the President is, and I bring you his greetings and best wishes.  I will see him later today, but I saw him two days ago and he knew I was giving these remarks and he asked particularly to pass on his regards to you and thanks to you, Colonel Gadson, and to all who serve this country so ably and proudly.  Thank you.

Colonel Gadson, thank you for joining us.  It is a privilege to have you here.  What you represent, what your life has represented, what you continue to do for this country is pretty special.  So thank you.  Your sacrifices, I think we all agree, define the power of the human spirit.  And we are especially honored to have you here today, on this day, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.  I don’t know of a more appropriate speaker that all of us could have chosen than to have you here today.

Martin Luther King left a powerful legacy.  He was a man of vision, a man of passion, a man of commitment.  He dedicated his life to a cause larger than his own self-interest – a cause that would spread across our nation and around the globe.  And he was taken from us far too soon.  Yesterday he would have turned 85 years old – much younger than Nelson Mandela was when he passed away last month.

I was serving in Vietnam with my brother Tom in 1968, and I still vividly recall the day our unit heard about Dr. [King’s] assassination.  Everyone was silent.

That tragedy threatened to deepen a racial divide that was already hurting the morale and effectiveness of our units and other units in Vietnam.

I recall the courage of our Company Commander in Vietnam, Lieutenant Jerome Johnson.  He was a 23-year-old African American from Chicago, who was drafted into the Army.  He went to OCS.  Soon thereafter, he was in Vietnam.  His older brother had been killed in Vietnam the year before.

Lieutenant Johnson was one of the most effective leaders I’ve ever seen.  At a time when racial problems plagued the Army in Vietnam, he stood up, he confronted all of us, and he brought both black and white soldiers together.  A remarkable, remarkable demonstration of leadership.  He made clear, to all of us, that this was everybody’s fight, that we were going to fight together, that we were all Americans.

Today, 45 years later, Lieutenant Johnson’s words still ring very, very true.  Everyone here, everyone in this building and this department knows that serving together means fighting together.  We serve this great nation, and we serve it proudly as a team.

And we serve knowing that diversity is at the heart of our strength, of America’s strength.  As Dr. King said, everyone can be great.  Everyone can be great because you can serve.  “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace,” to serve.  “A soul generated by love.”

We serve knowing that America’s all-volunteer force is at its best when it reflects all of its people… when everyone who’s qualified to serve can serve.

But the rights that make America free – rights that this department protects and defends every day – come with heavy responsibilities.  Responsibilities like taking care of our people, taking care of each other, looking out for one another, and lending a hand to all those in need.  Martin Luther King knew that.

He knew that no matter how you serve, service is ultimately about people.  It’s about hope for a better life, a better world, and through all the struggles and sacrifices that it takes, that we can turn this hope into reality.

Colonel Greg Gadson is an example of that.  Even after he sacrificed so much for his country, he refused to let adversity get him down.  Instead, he continued to serve.  He still serves, because, as Colonel Gadson once said, “Our lives should not be about what’s in it for ourselves, but really what we have to offer to our society.”

After my brother Tom and I returned from Vietnam, I lost touch with Lieutenant Johnson.  He was one of those people who even though your lives overlap for just a few brief moments, they stay with you – they stay with you forever.  I tried to find him for a long time, but I never could.  

But I found that it’s easier to find people when you’re Secretary of Defense… and last week, after 45 years, Lieutenant Johnson and I finally reconnected.  It was a humbling moment for me. 

Lieutenant Johnson was one of the best military officers I’ve ever known… but he was first a remarkable human being.  A human being who believed all people should be treated equally and should be treated with respect.  He lived that belief, just as Martin Luther King and Colonel Gadson have lived that belief.

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, and as we serve our nation and each other, let us recommit ourselves to realizing Martin Luther King’s vision – the vision of Colonel Gadson, of Lieutenant Johnson, and of all who believe in our country, and all who believe in each other.

And let us learn from the experiences and the examples of Colonel Gadson and Lieutenant Johnson.

And in the words of Dr. King, “Let us rise up with a greater readiness.  Let us stand with a greater determination.  And let us move on in these powerful days,” these powerful “days of challenge.”  We move on in these powerful days of challenge to help make our world better, and to help make a world that “ought to be.”

Thank you.

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