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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of the Army Geren, and the Last Surviving World War I Veteran Frank Buckles

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of the Army Pete Green, and World War I Veteran Frank Buckles
March 07, 2008
                SEC. GEREN: Thank you for joining us today on this very special occasion in the lives our nation's military, in the lives of your United States Army. 
 
                December 1917, a 16 year-old private named Frank Buckles from Harrison County, Missouri, boarded a ship in Hoboken, New Jersey and went to war way over there. World War I, the Great War, while not ending all wars as promised, changed Frank Buckles, changed this nation – changed the world forever. His nation called country boys from Missouri. 
 
                Today, young men and women of our generation, the best of this generation, too are joined in a war in a far off land that will shape their future and the world's future for decades to come. As with Frank Buckles' war, some day this war will end and all will come home with their lives and the world forever changed. The vivid and searing memories of their war will live with them throughout their days on this earth, but for those who did not serve, today's war soon will recede from the front pages and into the myths of history as has the Great War, Corporal Buckles' war. 
 
                For most Americans, it will become little more than a chapter in a high school history textbook, and we quickly will forget the blood debt owed by the many to the few. And even those students of history who do know Corporal Buckles' war, they know it as a titanic struggle among nations and empires, kings and emperors and faceless armies of millions locked in a death grip across a ravaged continent. And they may know that 2 million Doughboys from a fledgling democracy tipped the balance. 
 
                But it's only when we pause and come face to face with the human beings who fight our wars, America's sons and daughters, everyday people who leave hearth and home to go far away off to war, only then are we reminded of the true cost of war and the debt we free people owe to those who have borne our battles. With faces we are reminded that however much war has changed at its core it never changes. War is about men and now women, somebody's son, somebody's daughter, somebody's brother, somebody's sister answering their nation's call, looking out for each other and risking all for a cause greater than themselves. 
 
                For those of us here today, we will forever put the face of Corporal Buckles on the Great War and the nine wrinkled and aged faces so masterfully captured by the artistry of our photographer, David DeJonge. And when we put a human face on a heretofore faceless war, we are reminded and convicted of the personal debt that each of us owes to those who have secured the blessings of our liberty. With faces, a chapter in our high school textbook is replaced in our mind's eye with flesh and blood, and a history lesson is replaced with a conviction of a personal debt and a renewed sense of duty and obligation to those who have fought our wars. 
 
                David DeJonge, thank you for capturing the spirit of these patriots from our past and making them part of our present and for putting faces on the Great War for us and for thousands who will come to the Pentagon over the coming months and years and see your works of art. 
 
                Corporal Buckles, thank you for your service and for joining us today. 
 
                And now I have the privilege of introducing another patriot, a man who has devoted his life to the service of our country. He has served his country in and out of uniform, first as an Air Force officer, then for 27 years in the CIA. He is the only career officer in the CIA's history to go from entry-level employee to the director. He continues to serve our nation today as our 22nd secretary of Defense. Ladies and gentlemen, it's my pleasure to introduce to you Dr. Robert M. Gates. (Applause.) 
 
                SEC. GATES: Thank you, Pete. It's an honor to be here to help dedicate this exhibit. I want to compliment photographer David DeJonge on his artistry and thank him for his dedication in bringing the project to fruition. He has family members here, as do the veterans whose portraits he took.   
 
                Welcome to all of you, and of course to Mr. Frank Buckles, who I would say right now may be in better shape than I am. (Laughter.) 
 
                Projects like these are important, because in many ways and for many reasons, the First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States. It has no big memorial on the National Mall. Hollywood has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades. Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in as the epic blood struggle we know as the Great War. 
 
                It has been said that the 21st century is in -- that the 21st century, in effect, began when a jetliner hit the World Trade Center's north tower on September 11th, 2001. The 20th century truly began with an archduke's assassination in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. The war, which started as a fight over Balkan independence, left in its wake a redrawn map of Europe and the Middle East, including the demarcation of a land in Mesopotamia called Iraq. From Baghdad to Belgrade, the places that mattered then are in the forefront of our consciousness today. 
 
                It was once observed that World War I was a conflict where generals fought machine guns with young men's chests. 
 
                The horrors of the trenches spawned a new genre of literature crafted by soldiers on the front lines. Their verse described the demented choirs of wailing shells and the monstrous anger of the guns. The conflict scarred the soul of Europe and consumed the flower of her youth. 
 
                Consider what the war meant for America and for those who fought. Nearly 5 million young Americans donned a military uniform, and about half of them sailed across the Atlantic before the guns fell silent. During 18 months of fighting, we suffered more deaths -- over 116,000 -- than in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. With this exhibit, we recognize a group of Americans who served in the Great War and lived to tell of it for the better part of a century. We honor these heroes, and we want to hear their stories.   
 
                One of them, I am delighted to say, is here with us. Frank Woodruff Buckles, age 107, is one of the last American veterans of the war. His fellow veteran, John Babcock, is unfortunately not able to be with us today, but I wanted to be sure to recognize him as well.   
 
                Now, let me slip in something here that I think Mr. Buckles, of all people, will appreciate. Fifteen months ago, my mother, who is 94 years young, was on hand at my swearing-in as secretary of Defense, and of course I acknowledged her at the ceremony. A late-night comic that night joked that Mom congratulated me after the ceremony and said, "Now go beat the hell out of the Kaiser." (Laughter.)   
 
                Our guest of honor signed up to do precisely that. Frank Buckles was only 16 when he went to war. He lied to the Army recruiter about his age, so determined was he to me an American doughboy. Deploying from Fort Riley, he went over on the Carpathia, the steamship that had rescued survivors of the Titanic. He drove ambulances in the United Kingdom and France. After the Armistice, he guarded POWs and assisted their transfer back to Germany.   
 
                By no means did Mr. Buckles' adventures end there. As a private citizen, he happened to be in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Held as a prisoner of war in Manila, he ate his meals out of a single tin cup for 39 months. He still has the cup. Mr. Buckles also has a Legion of Honor medal bestowed upon him by the government of France.   
 
                But he's a modest man. I am told he did not want to have the limelight fall on him alone today, but to make sure that it took in all nine of the people depicted in the exhibit: John Babcock, Lloyd Brown, Frank Buckles, James Russell Coffey, Harry Landis, Anthony Pierro, Howard Ramsey, Charlotte Winters and William Seegers. 
 
                We cherish the memory of those who have passed away. We cherish the chance to say thank you in person to Corporal Frank Buckles. Whoever views this display will, I'm sure, feel a connection to Mr. Buckles and his comrades in arms. We will always be grateful for what they did for their country 90 years ago, and feel glad too for the longevity that they enjoyed on this earth.   
 
                Thank you. (Applause.)   
 
                ANNOUNCER    : Ladies and gentlemen, the portrait of Mr. Frank Buckles. (Applause.)   
 
                MR. BUCKLES: I feel honored to be your humble representative of World War I. As the years went along, and the decreasing numbers of veterans, I found that I was among those who had served, the last ones who had served.   
 
                And it is an honor to be here, to represent the veterans of World War I. I thank you. (Applause.) 
 
                ANNOUNCER : Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. David DeJonge, the photographer of the collection. 
 
                MR. DEJONGE: Well, thank you, Secretary Gates. I'd like to first express patriotic thanks to all the families.   
 
                Additionally, this project would never have been accomplished without the support and encouragement of Robert Goodwin, Secretary Geren, the staff of Washington Headquarters Services, Tom Bowman and Chris Sheer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I would also like to recognize Will Everett, independent audio producer, who trailblazed much before me and played a pivotal role in this project. He's in France right now. 
 
                I'd like to express gratitude to Peter Cook of Grand Rapids for his embracing of the vision, providing seed money to cover the first few months of travel expenses; the encouragement and hard work of my staff, Pam, Jim, Brad. Thank you for your hard efforts. But beyond all of these, this could not have occurred without the support of my home front: my children and my wife, Gail. 
 
                So I stand before you today, a single witness to the last of the last, a photographer from the Midwest who was blessed with a year and a half of treasured times with some of America's most imperative icons -- icons of America that today are not forgotten; icons who lived quiet American lives of service to our country; icons that walked, fought and experienced one of the most evil wars this planet has seen; icons that stood their ground so that each of us could be here today. These icons were the last gatekeepers of the firsthand accounts of a war that formed the future of war.   
 
                As rewarding as this time is, as rewarding as it was, it's also bittersweet -- some of the most challenging times when I received phone calls of people passing on. 
 
                Indeed, history is fading away before the very eyes of America. 
 
                I cherish this past year, and I am delighted to be able to share the portraits with the Pentagon and the nation.   
 
                I'll tell a little story -- and Nancy, I've talked to you about the story, so -- when I contacted Lloyd Brown's daughter Nancy and scheduled his interview and portrait session, Nancy said sentence to me that would -- it forged, sealed and clarified why I was doing this project. She simply said to me one sentence, and that was this. "Just look for the mailbox, it will be the one with the name peeling off." How profound, I thought. This is the best we can do in America. How profound; we can do it for these veterans of a conflict filled with terror, the gassing in trenches. Clearly they deserve so much more. 
 
                When I heard these words, it reaffirmed everything that I have been experiencing in my research. These icons are being forgotten. These icons of America have and are still being forgotten.   
 
                But as I experienced time and again with the project, when a veterans' holiday would come, or a death would occur, there would be a flurry of media attention. For these survivors, that attention was like a wave along the shining seas. It would simply fade in and out, and quietly this generation's honor would again disappear, all too soon.   
 
                Later, when Nancy and I were reflecting on the conversations, she told me, "You know, we used to Super Glue his name back on, and the letters would just keep falling off." How profound, don't you think? 
 
                Frank, I'm committed to your generation, to see that they receive the honor due to them. I stand in awe of the people in Kansas City, who actually voted in two tax increases to build the incredible National World War I Museum. I think they really set the pace for the rest of America. 
 
                I look forward to see what happens in the next few years from this generation and Washington, D.C. I ask not for applause but for honor for Mr. Buckles and the 4,734,991 veterans that served with him. 
 
                Thank you. (Applause.)
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