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U.S. Southern Command Change of Command Ceremony
Remarks by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Miami, Florida, Friday, September 08, 2000

General and Valerie Wilhelm, [In-coming Commander in Chief, Southern Command] General [Peter] and Lynne Pace, fellow Ministers of Defense and Chiefs of Defense, members of the diplomatic corps, Congresswoman [Ileana] Ros-Lehtinen, [Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps] General [James] Jones, [Commander in Chief, Special Operations Command] General [Peter] Schoomaker, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, men and women of Southern Command.

We are all here to bid a reluctant farewell to a remarkable leader -- a General who happens to share my admiration for another man of vision and vigor, another great leader who wore this nation’s uniform at the dawn of another century, who also made his name in the hills and valleys of Latin America.

Teddy Roosevelt spoke words familiar to many who are here in this audience today, but they define the warrior that we honor here today, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly to do the deeds, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

Today we’re celebrating an American leader in the fine tradition of Roosevelt, a man of great deeds and great daring who today knows the triumph of high achievement because he is defined by a passionate devotion and dedication and loyalty to everyone around him.

I would ask you to consider the events of May 5th, 1969 in Quang Tin Province, Vietnam, where Captain Charles Wilhelm saw his ally, a Vietnamese battalion commander, severely wounded. Under intense fire, Charlie came to his aid, treating and evacuating him and then guiding friendly forces to over-run the opposition forces, earning a Silver Star for his valor.

And I think that same loyalty to allies and friends abroad is matched by his loyalty to those he commands at home, such as when he guided the Marines of the First Division through the complexities of the early deployment to Somalia. Charlie Wilhelm knows that a truly great leader always thinks first of the troops who serve under him.

For the past four years this loyalty and commitment has also been a gift to the people of the Americas, from Buenos Aires to Belize. The President and I have asked General Wilhelm to oversee our security interests in some 32 countries, many represented here this afternoon. So with tactical skill and strategic genius, he forged deeper bonds with the democracies of this hemisphere and brought help in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch.

At the same time, General Wilhelm faced one of the most daunting challenges our region must overcome, the surge of narcotics that rots the fabric of so many societies. And so we point with pride to the launch of "Plan Columbia" and the President’s visit there last week.

I would add that for the past four years, Charlie Wilhelm has been my ally as well. General, I want you to know that your advice has been, without fail, creative, candid, and correct. And for that, I am truly personally grateful.

But as much as this leader has done to further our friendships abroad, he is equally devoted to his most profound commitment here at home, and that is to Valerie. Their extraordinary partnership has flourished through more than three decades of service and sacrifice, living in some 28 different houses in 33 years. A Vietnam veteran in her own right, a Red Cross volunteer, she prepared the families of those Marines for that unexpected Christmas deployment to Somalia and guided SOUTHCOM families through the first disorienting days in a new city. Indeed, the men and women of this Command will miss General Wilhelm, but Valerie, they are going to miss you just as much. So I hope everyone here would please join me in offering her a richly deserved tribute for a lifetime of service to this nation. [Applause.]

And if you seek evidence that these two great public servants are good parents as well, I would point out the excellent judgement displayed by their son Elliot, who chose to settle in the great state of Maine. [Laughter.]

And, of course, today we also mark the ascendancy of another outstanding Marine. This straight-talking soldier of the sea has had the best possible training for his new post, having served under Charlie Wilhelm. I know General Pete Pace from his service on the Joint Staff and in Norfolk. He is a man of extraordinary ability with the skill, experience, and judgement and all that is necessary to carry on the critical work of this Command. So General, we welcome you and Lynne both. Congratulations. [Applause.]

The evening is quite warm and so I’m going to be quite brief. I recall not too long ago I was attending a change of command in the European Command. I was receiving a briefing prior to the ceremony and I told the Sergeant Major giving the briefing that it sounded to me like the ceremony was going to last two hours. He said, "That all depends on how long your speech is, sir." [Laughter.] He has been reduced in rank to private following that comment. [Laughter.]

But let me say in closing that I recall one of our trips that Janet and I took to South America. General Wilhelm was in our company and I lent him a book. I didn’t order him to read it. But like a good Marine he took it that way and he read the whole novel on the flight down. General Schoomaker, this is going to be in your reading list as well. The book, called Gates of Fire, is the story of the ancient battle of Thermoplyae between Sparta and the Persians of the East. And as you listen to the fictitious lone survivor of the battle recount the leadership of his Spartan commander -- there were only 300 of them and they held off 100,000 Persians -- you will immediately note the parallels to the Marine we honor today.

This sole survivor recounts, "This is the role of the officer. To fire the valor of those under his command when it flags. To rein in their fury when it threatens to take them out of hand. He is not a superman, who wades invulnerably into battle. He is a man doing his job, a job whose primary attribute is self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for the sake of those whom he leads by example, a job whose objective can be boiled down to a single understatement -- performing the commonplace under uncommon conditions."

Charlie Wilhelm has spent a lifetime leading by example, firing the valor of those under his command, whether they served in his companies in Southeast Asia or the countries of South America and wading unafraid into battle, whether he was facing bureaucracies on Capitol Hill or bullets in the field. He has chosen to serve his nation in the most uncommon of conditions and I think everybody here understands that his performance his been anything but commonplace or ordinary. It has been truly extraordinary.

General Wilhelm, on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for all you and Valerie have given us. Semper Fi and God bless you and Valerie both. [Applause.]