Enlisted honorees, senior defense leaders, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. In recent months, the world has witnessed the superiority of America’s Armed Forces, from their precision in Operation Desert Fox, to patrolling the very dangerous no-fly zones over Iraq, to preparing for strikes possible in the Balkans, to providing relief and rescue effort in the wake of Hurricane Mitch and the Alpine avalanches.
I must say I always approached these operations with confidence because behind every decision I make and every deployment order that I sign, stand our dedicated soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard. And at their core stand our enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers.
It has been said that "the backbone of the service is the enlisted force" and that is clearly borne out by today’s honorees. Today we are celebrating the best of the best; the enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers who truly are the backbone of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I want to congratulate each of you, including Sergeant Heather Lee from my front office.
The two who have won the OSD junior and senior enlisted awards certainly typify the excellence of our enlisted force. Sergeant First Class Jacques Larochelle is a Supply Non-Commissioned Officer from the Ballistic Missile Defense Office. His distinguished career includes supply assignments ranging from nuclear missile units to the infantry. He has been trusted with the most demanding jobs in his business, and he is a member of the elite Sergeant Audie Murphy Club. It is no surprise, then, that Sergeant First Class Larochelle is our senior enlisted member of the year.
Technical Sergeant Richard Jones attends the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, and has had a sterling career in information management. He is one of the leading lights of our rising Air Force NCOs. Technical Sergeant Jones is not only a great airman, but, like all of our honorees, he is also a great citizen. He is active in his community and his church. Now he is also our junior enlisted member of the year.
In honoring these examples of our enlisted force, we honor all of our enlisted men and women throughout the Armed Forces; men and women I have the privilege to lead and also the pride to represent. Indeed, when I meet with my fellow Defense Ministers around the world, they always ask, "Where can we get a non-commissioned officer corps as good as America’s?" And I have a very simple to them: Start with the most devoted, selfless young men and women in your country and then give them every opportunity to succeed and to shine.
Today’s honorees have indeed seized the opportunity to succeed. And like all our enlisted men and women you shine as the steel in the sword of freedom. It has been said also that "the choice of our enlisted is an object of the greatest importance," because, "so much depends on them." Indeed, this department, and this nation, has chosen well, for indeed so much of our freedom and liberty depends on those with stripes and chevrons on your shoulders. I would like to take this occasion thank all of our honorees, and all of our enlisted men and women, for who you are and what you do for America.