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Secretary Cohen's Remarks at Armed Forces Day

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
May 16, 1998

Secretary Cohen: Secretary [of Transportation, Rodney] Slater, thank you very much for a wonderful address and for the terrific job that you're doing. We appreciate it very much. Secretary Dalton, Mrs. Dalton, Chairman Shelton and Mrs. Shelton, Janet [Cohen], honored veterans, foreign representatives, attaches, ladies and gentlemen and, of course, our Blue Angels; welcome all.

I want to say that we arranged for this to be a much better day for you than last year. It was cold and windy and even rainy and today, of course, we're trying to make up for it. I will try not to make up for it in the length of my speech out of fear that you may suffer sun stroke today, but I'll try to be as brief as possible.

In fact, the other evening at the Defense Attache's reception I asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs what I should say. He answered, "It's up to you, whatever you want to say, but keep it light and not too intellectual." Then he said, "I've heard you speak before, I know you can do it."

So I'm going to try to keep it light and not too intellectual, and I know that he has heard it before. Let me say to all of you, welcome for joining in our celebration of those who dedicate their lives to protecting and defending America and our allies. To the men and women of the greatest armed forces in the world, to stand before you on Armed Forces Day is the greatest privilege of my position, and one of the greatest honors that anyone can ever hope to hold.

I'd like to read a passage describing a certain pivot point in history. "It is a solemn moment for American democracy. The United States stands at the pinnacle of world power. As you look around you must feel a sense of duty done, but with this primacy and power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. Opportunity is here now, clear and shining."

Those words could well have come from any one of this morning's newspapers, but these words actually were spoken by Winston Churchill in his legendary Iron Curtain speech back in 1946. But the picture that Churchill painted then is even more true today because American stands at another solemn moment, another pivot point in history.

Perhaps more than any other nation at any other time, we stand at the pinnacle of world power. And as we look around, America's armed forces must surely feel as Churchill said, "a sense of duty done." The long twilight struggle that was the Cold War is but a distant nightmare. The concrete and razor wire that was the Berlin Wall are but scattered memories in museums. The ideology that Communism claimed lies in the dustbin of history.

Some of those who bore the greatest burden to bring us this day of peace and prosperity are here with us today. We have on this tarmac some of the heroes of the North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. They endured the unimaginable with courage and fortitude that inspires us still. I would ask them to stand and accept the thanks of a grateful nation. (Applause.)

These brave men know that on this tarmac are some very special airplanes. We are overshadowed by the C-141 Starlifter, the so-called "Hanoi Taxi" that lifted many of these former POWs from repression to freedom and brought them safely back to America.

I would like to welcome Senator and Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, a former colleague of mine, America's senior Vietnam POW who, in fact, flew out of North Vietnam on this very airplane. I give welcome you. (Applause.)

And further down on this tarmac is an airplane that is the very symbol of America's commitment to stand up for liberty in the face of tyranny. It is a vintageC-47 transport, one of the many that for fifteen months carried food and fuel and medicine to a besieged city during the Berlin Airlift. It represents the American and the allied airmen who held out a hand of help and hope to the people of Berlin. I'd like to welcome Major General Frank Clay, the son of Berlin Airlift mastermind, General Lucius Clay, and Colonel Frank Emmel, who flew one of the first airlift missions into Berlin and the very last mission of the airlift as well. I would ask all of the Berlin Airlift veterans here today to stand up and receive our thanks. (Applause.)

Of course, further down on the tarmac is a famous blue and white airplane with the number 26000 on its tail. As Air Force One, this C-137 brought the coffin bearing the slain President John F. Kennedy back from Dallas, landing right here at Andrews.

As Secretary of Defense, I've lifted off this runway many times to travel the world. And no matter where I go the question is always asked of me: "How do you do it? How does America maintain the best trained, the best equipped, the best led fighting force that the world has ever seen?"

The answer I give them is quite simple. It is not our equipment, although the planes and the hardware that surround us today are indeed the best in the world. It is not our technology, although we surely have the most advanced technology. It is our people. The soldiers, the sailors, the airmen, the Marines and the coast guardsmen who risk life and limb for the benefit of us all.

Men and women of the armed forces, you are what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." You are the better angels of our liberty, of our passion for peace, of our colossal willingness of the heart. You are the best, the bravest, the brightest our nation has to offer -- men and women who have learned well, who have trained hard and stand ready, ready to bear what heaven sends, and wear what John F. Kennedy called "the greenest garlands of courage."

This Armed Forces Day marks the ninetieth anniversary of the Army Reserve. It was born during the battles of War World I and has served us well ever since. As we mark the success of the Army Reserve, we can also reflect on a season of anniversaries. We stand at the crossroad of commemoration, in remembrance of towering decisions and decisive actions of the past.

Fifty years ago the first chip was knocked from the glass ceiling as women became a part of our regular military. Fifty years ago the barriers of racism started to fall when President Harry Truman signed the orders to desegregate the United States military. And 25 years ago we ended conscription and started relying upon American youth to step forward and serve in the all-volunteer force.

In the bright light of 1998, these anniversaries shine with brilliance, because without the service of women, without a military in which all of America is represented, without the voluntary commitment of our finest young men and women, the United States could not be the world's best military.

In his book "Citizen Soldier" Steven Ambrose talks about the brave souls of War World II upon whose shoulders our troops stand today. He wrote that "at the core, the citizen soldier of the United States knew the difference between right and wrong and he was unwilling to live in a world where wrong triumphed. And so he fought and won. And all of us in this day and those who are yet to be born are eternally grateful."

So on this day of celebration let me express to American's citizen soldiers on behalf of all of us, thank you -- for the miles that you march, for the sorties you fly and to the leagues that you sail. You still represent America's refusal to live in world where wrong triumphs and all of us remain eternally grateful. (Applause.)

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