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Armed Forces Day "Unsung Heroes" Ceremony
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, The Pentagon, Thursday, May 18, 2000

General Shelton, thank you very much for your kind words. Those of you who had occasion to attend last year's Armed Forces Day at Andrews Air Force Base no doubt recall General Shelton's dramatic entrance -- his jump with the Golden Knights, which was fantastic, and his landing, which was flawless. And tomorrow we hope to see a repetition of that leap of faith out into the airwaves. [Applause.] Let me thank you, General Shelton, for your tremendous service to this country and for your leadership and that of your lovely wife, Carolyn.

I am in a unique position this morning. The Golden Knights are going to land at the end of my speech. The problem is, we're fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. [Laughter.] Now, as compared to last evening, when we hosted an event at the State Department -- which I like to call the Pentagon West -- we had the situation where we were standing in line greeting all of the defense attaches. I turned to our briefer and said, "How long is this going to last?" At which Carolyn Shelton said, "It all depends how long you're going to speak, Mr. Secretary." [Laughter.]

So today I have a different opportunity. Rather than shortening my remarks, I'm going to try to extend those remarks, which is not much of a challenge to a former senator. [Laughter.] I hope that all of you will bear with me, especially those who are standing at ease, and I will try to make this as painless as possible.

Deputy Secretary [Rudy] de Leon, thank you for taking over the leadership of this department and following in the great service of Dr. John Hamre. You're making a mark on this administration even in the few weeks that you've been serving. So we thank you. [Applause.]

Secretaries [of the Army, Louis] Caldera and [Navy, Richard Danzig] and [Air Force, Whit] Peters; [former] Secretary [of Defense, Caspar] Weinberger, another leader of singular devotion to America's armed forces. We are delighted to see you here today, Cap. It's great to have you here once more with us. [Applause.] Members of the armed forces, especially our enlisted men and women, distinguished guests, Janet, ladies and gentlemen.

It's often been said that the history of the world is but the biography of great men. Indeed, when Janet and I travel to New Orleans on the sixth of June to help dedicate the National D-Day Museum, we're no doubt going to hear the names that have echoed down through the ages. Roosevelt. Churchill. Eisenhower. Marshall. But even these great leaders knew that the mightiest undertakings succeed only because of the service and sacrifice of those whose names are not recorded in the books or the museums -- the workers on the assembly line, the crews on the flight line, the mechanics and medics on the front lines, the administrators and instructors behind the lines. Together they form a vibrant mosaic and they turn the ordinary into the sublime.

Why did they serve? One Coast Guard captain spoke of her call to duty during the Second World War in these very simple words. She said, "We wanted to serve our country in a time of need."

Well, this time tomorrow at Andrews Air Force Base, we're going to pause, as we do every year, to praise those who wear this nation's uniform. Today we're pausing to recognize all those who still say, "We want to serve;" seemingly ordinary men and women, civilians and uniformed alike, who perform extraordinary deeds on behalf of our great country.

They do this each day with little fanfare and all too little recognition to keep this country safe and strong. They, and those of you who are here today, really are the unsung heroes of this nation. You preserve the blessings of freedom through lives of dedication and devotion, and you know that preserving strength and peace can often call for the same strength during times of peace as they do during times of war.

And I think, General Shelton, you would be the first to agree with the adage that just as important as good generals are good corporals and sergeants. General Shelton and I have seen this in recent weeks when we traveled together to Kosovo. We saw troops who were being led by seasoned sergeants, lieutenants, captains, who have met this challenge in characteristic fashion. These young junior troops are carrying out their duty magnificently. And indeed they represent the level of responsibility and depth that we entrust to the young service members across this nation, across this globe. These are Americans who know their duty, they embrace it, and they do so without any hesitation.

So, here on the dais we are joined by the enlisted leaders from each of our services. They represent how we lead, how we train, and how we take care of our men and women. And here in the audience, we are also joined by junior enlisted members who have been singled out for their excellence and their professionalism. They represent the tradition of service that defines our enlisted corps. Together they represent the veritable backbone of America's armed forces, quite simply, the finest enlisted corps in the world. And so I would ask all of you to please stand so that we might recognize your service. [Applause.]

Of course, behind these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen stand another line, the civilians who support them. Whether here at the Pentagon or around the nation, they ensure that our warriors have the weapons that they need today, the tools that they will need tomorrow, and the quality of life that they deserve every day. As I've said on so many occasions, you are the force behind the force. And our military men and women simply couldn't be the best at what they do, unless you are the best at what you do. And so I'd like to ask all the civilians who have been selected to represent their colleagues today to please stand so that we might also recognize your great service to our country. [Applause.]

On occasions such as this, we not only celebrate those who are here today, we explore the spirit behind their service, and we ask that question of all ages: Exactly why do you serve? Surely it's not simply a profession to you. There are countless other avenues to which you could devote your energies. Surely you would nod in agreement that it's not for profit. And I hesitate to say any more about this because all of you know that there are many other opportunities that would provide far more compensation than you are given here today. Surely it's not simply a passion for public service, because there are endless opportunities for you to contribute to this nation that make far fewer demands on you or your families.

And I would suggest that the answer lies in places like Kosovo and in the Gulf, in the faces of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine, and Coast Guardsmen the world over. It's simply this: the deepest sense of duty. Indeed, each of you, whether uniformed or civilian, each of you embodies the words of Faulkner, "that man will not merely endure, he will prevail, because he alone among the creatures has a spirit capable of compassion, of sacrifice and endurance." Each and every one of you in this Department ensures the blessings of liberty that we cherish, that they will not only endure, that they will ultimately prevail.

I would like to close this morning by recalling the words of a man who made it his life's work to tell America about her unsung heroes. During the Second World War, correspondent Ernie Pyle chronicled the story of the average American GI and he captured the essence of our celebration today with these words. He said, "In the end, they're the ones that wars can't be won without."

And so as we prepare to celebrate the 50th Armed Forces Day, the American people join us in expressing our profound gratitude to all of you -- the public servants, uniformed, civilians alike -- the men and women who, in the end, wars and peace simply cannot be won without. So on behalf of a grateful nation, we thank you. We thank you for who you are and for all that you give to us every day of your lives. Thank you. [Applause.]