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Presidential Rank Awards
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, , Monday, January 24, 2000

Jan [Thompson; Director of Personnel and Security, Office of the Secretary of Defense], thank you very much for your comments and for noting what a special day this is in my life. I can only imagine that if Doc Cooke were here this morning he would be very quick to deflate any delusions I might have [laughter] with a subtle smile that speaks volumes about the relative brevity of a Secretary's tenure.

Dr. [John] Hamre [Deputy Secretary of Defense], distinguished guests, honorees, ladies and gentlemen. I see that we have a number of absentees this morning, no doubt because we started one minute ahead of schedule, but I’m sure that they’ll be arriving shortly.

 

But I think it is fitting on occasions such as this, when we’re celebrating public service, that we recognize one of the most distinguished public servants ever to serve this Department. He is a leader whose intelligence is exceeded only by his industry, his humility only by his humor and perhaps his immutable tenor voice during the singing of the Star Spangled banner. And while there will be quite a few occasions in which we will pay tribute in the coming months to the remarkable service of Dr. Hamre, I wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to you, John, for the truly shining example that you have been to so many in this room and beyond. So, thank you. [Sustained applause and standing ovation.]

It was exactly a month ago that I was travelling with the USO, concluding our holiday visit over in the Balkan areas. Even more memorable, I think, than the performers on the stage, and they were quite memorable, including "Downtown" Julie Brown. For those of you who saw the video you will recall Christie Brinkley, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. We had stars like Mike Singletary and so many who were there, including Shane Minor and others. All of that was very memorable, including the passes that Terry Bradshaw was throwing me on the C-17 on the way over to visit the troops.

 

But more memorable than all of those performers were the service men and women who were in the audience. We traveled to visit the USS Bataan in Naples, sailors and Marines who were there on a six-month deployment. We were in a hanger at Aviano, [Italy] and we saw the pilots and crews who led the historic air campaign in Kosovo. We were at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia and Eagle Base in Bosnia where we saw a thousand soldiers standing with their M-16s on their shoulders, and they had Russian peacekeepers at their side and huge snow banks at their backs.

As Jan noted, it was three years ago today that Janet [Cohen] and I had the great, good fortune to become part of this institution. And of all the experiences in my public life, the highest honor has been those moments such as we had in the Balkans last month and, I would say, also in this building today. To stand and to serve alongside you, those of you who wear the uniform and those of you who support them with the passion and dedication that you demonstrate every day has truly been an inspiring experience for me, and I must tell you, the greatest experience of my entire service in public life.

And so on occasions like this we would be wise to not merely celebrate your service, but to really examine the spirit behind that service. Why are we here? Why do we serve in this great institution?

And I would say, as you would all agree, surely it is not just a profession. It is far more than a profession because there are countless other avenues open to each and every one of you. I could say it’s surely it is not profit, and you would all nod in unison. [Laughter]. And I don’t want to stress this issue too much, but you’re all aware that everyone in this room could do far better on the outside in terms of compensation and gain than you’re doing right now in this building. And surely it is not simply a passion for public service, because, again, there are so many other opportunities that you could make to contribute to this nation that make far fewer demands on you and your families.

And I would suggest that the answer lies in places like the Balkans, the DMZ in Korea and the Saudi and Kuwaiti deserts, and in the faces of those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are serving there. As I have said on so many occasions before, you are the force behind the force. And our military men and women who are so superior to any in the world could not do what they do unless you do what you do with such great professionalism.

And so while we thank you on a professional level, I’d like to express my appreciation on a very personal level. In times of whether it is crisis or calm I have relied on many of you, and I could go right down the list of people who are here this morning. I have depended upon your wise counsel and judgement, counsel and judgement like that of Phebe Novakovic, an invaluable Special Assistant to me and Dr. Hamre. And I would like to say to each and every one of you that so much of our success in transforming this Department, in embracing both the promise and avoiding the perils of our brave – or, I would say, even grave – new world, we owe to your extraordinary accomplishments.

It was during the early days of the Cold War, that Walter Lippmann pondered a day when America would no longer face a rival. He asked, "What would become of us if we felt that we were invulnerable, if our influence in the world were undisputed, if we had no need to prove that we can rise above a comfortable, tranquil self-satisfaction?" And he answered his own question. He said, "We might dawdle along and suffer a declining national greatness. For our freedom and our system of democratic government are not likely to survive just because we believe in them and enjoy them."

And so this is an era in which a number of others might see America's strength and proclaim us invulnerable and our influence undisputed, that we might be content with a comfortable, tranquil self-satisfaction. But I believe that each and every one of you who are here and who work in this Department have not merely believed in our freedom and national greatness, you have helped preserve it for future generations. You will not, in Lippmann’s words, allow greatness to decline.

So we thank you, for your remarkable service to this Department, and to this nation, and it is my true honor to be here today to pay tribute to those of you are receiving recognition this morning. Thank you. [Applause.]