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Farewell Ceremony in Honor of Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Ralston
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Conmy Hall, Fort Myer, Virginia, Tuesday, February 29, 2000

General [Hugh] Shelton, let me say that I was looking forward to your introduction of me, but I must explain that General Shelton has a severe case of laryngitis. I usually enjoy your indulging in such exaggerated introductions of me. But I want to say what a pleasure it has been to serve with you. As I have indicated to you on so many occasions before, you stand tall and proud and strong and are a great leader of our Armed Forces. So no tribute to a Vice Chairman can be whole without a tribute to the Chairman that he is privileged to serve. So let me, on behalf of all of us, express our profound appreciation for the leadership you have provided to our men and women in uniform. [Applause.]

 

Carolyn Shelton, I don’t know whether this laryngitis is a blessing or not, but we’ll enjoy it while we can [laughter]; General, Dede and Paige Ralston; the Ralston and Dougherty families; General [Richard] and Mary Jo Myers; Deputy Secretary [of Defense, John] Hamre, thank you for your wonderful contribution to the singing of the national anthem, once again; members of the diplomatic corps, Congress and the Armed Forces; National Security Advisor Sandy Berger; distinguished guests; Janet [Cohen]; ladies and gentlemen. It has been said that gratitude is the memory of the heart. I’d like to thank you once again for joining us as we express our heartfelt gratitude to one of the most gifted officers ever to serve this nation.

 

Not too long ago, I read a chronicle of the ancient Battle of Thermoplyae, in the historical novel Gates of Fire, where a band of 300 Spartans sacrificed their lives to stave off an onslaught of more than 100,000 Persians. And in this account, a lone survivor attests to the leadership that inspired the Spartans. He said, "A leader does not abide within a tent, not while his men bleed upon the field, nor sleep while his men stand watch upon the wall. A leader does not command his men’s loyalty through fear, nor purchase it with gold. He earns their love by the burdens that he endures for their sake. He serves them, not they him."

Well, today we bear witness to such a man who has risked all in the field of battle, slept little and endured much while guiding those under his command, assumed the burdens of leadership while remaining a most unassuming leader and earned the abiding loyalty of those he has served for more than three decades.

Now the medals and the ribbons that adorn his chest speak of his tremendous accomplishments. Yet few know the true measure of the courage of this modest man. How three decades ago First Lieutenant Joe Ralston risked his life to help rescue others, downed airmen and besieged soldiers, how he braved the skies over heavily defended Hanoi and endured constant fire from below and the fiercest MIG fighters from above. Indeed, had Joe Ralston ended his service long ago, he would have more than earned the praise of his nation.

But, of course, this pilot became a pioneer. And the historians of tomorrow will look to the Stealth operations of today and know that the legacy of Joe Ralston will be measured in the lives saved and the victories secured.

In General Joe Ralston, the Vice Chairman, we have witnessed the essence of character once described by another General, Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War leader. Chamberlain said, [character is] "fortitude and unconquerable resolve, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a firm, seasoned substance of soul."

We have witnessed his fortitude and unconquerable resolve in guiding America’s forces through operations the world over.

We have witnessed his piercing intelligence, in the Joint Vision that is now transforming our forces.

We have witnessed the thoughtfulness of a humble heart. The Vice Chairman has been known to delay meetings with his superiors [laughter], it’s not a practice I heartily endorse [laughter], if it weren’t for the fact that he would preside at the promotions of even his most junior subordinates. Indeed, I would say that Joe Ralston commands respect because he respects those he commands.

Finally, let me say that I have personally witnessed, and relied upon, General Ralston’s firm, seasoned substance of soul; on his wise counsel, which has been unquestioned; on his humor, which has been uplifting; and, on his devotion to duty, which has been unwavering. Not one of us, not one of us here in this hall know how much our lives are determined by choice or chance, or the guiding hand of Providence. In this man, we only know that without regard to fate or fortune he has chosen to serve. And for that, I, everyone here and the world over are eternally grateful.

Of course, today we not only celebrate Joe Ralston’s past, we also celebrate his potential as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. This is going to defer your long-awaited return to your beloved Alaska, and I’m still getting letters from Alaska natives. [Laughter.] It will also demand your warrior strength to continue the outstanding leadership of General Wes Clark and your diplomatic skills to ensure that an alliance forged in the 20th Century preserves peace and freedom well into the 21st.

And everyone in this room also knows that no public servant succeeds alone. Dede, America has chosen Joe for high stations not only because of his devotion to duty, but for yours, for your elegance and grace in the most public of positions and for your tireless efforts on behalf of our forces and their families. On behalf of all of us, thank you for your selfless service. I can’t see you, but I know you’re there. [Applause.]

Three decades ago, the skies over Vietnam that tested Joe Ralston tested another young fighter pilot, Dick Myers. Today, we welcome General Dick Myers as the new Vice Chairman. Dick, in recent years you have fused our space forces with our forces on Earth, as we witnessed so remarkably in Kosovo. In the coming years, we are going to look to the same energy and enthusiasm to guide all our forces into a brave new world. So with Mary Jo at your side, we congratulate you and we welcome you both. [Applause.]

 

In closing, let me say that I think the spirit of this ceremony and this celebration was also captured at another celebration just about a week ago. Those of you who had occasion to attend the annual Pentagon Pops – Pentagon Pops being a tribute to our forces at Constitution Hall -- will recall a very moving sight at the conclusion of the evening: the heroes-turned-Senators John Glenn and Daniel Inouye, the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and more than 60 Medal of Honor recipients. All together on a single stage. All standing proudly, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a remarkable and inspiring array of courage, dedication and unfailing service to this nation.

Ladies and gentlemen, the man that we honor today could stand on that same stage, because he embodies the same character, the same readiness to sacrifice all at the high noon of his life, the same passion for service to nation above self that once described by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court Justice, and a Civil War soldier.

Holmes said, "Through our great and good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart."

Joe Ralston has brought to this nation’s service a mighty heart. For that, the entire nation is eternally grateful. Thank you. [Applause.]