SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much, Admiral, Chris, my good secretaries who are here, along with me, and ladies and gentlemen.
This is a great honor; an honor because we gather here at Bethesda, Maryland, to help dedicate the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which will serve nearly one million members of our military family every year.
Today, we observe the coming together of two very storied and historic institutions -- the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center – each with a long legacy of serving those who’ve served this country in uniform.
It’s fitting to pass on the name of Walter Reed to this combined center, so that we continue to remember that historic figure who earned his niche in medical history, a fine physician, but also to recognize a hospital that has cared for some of our nation’s most revered leaders. Dwight Eisenhower spent his final hours here. General Pershing, General Marshall, General MacArthur, Bill Donovan and, yes, some of our great political leaders, former presidents, Senator Dirksen, Senator Mansfield.
Over the years, the National Naval Medical Center has also earned its place in history after President Franklin Roosevelt selected this site to offer comfort and healing at a time of war. This combined center now represents the crown jewel of the world's finest military medical system.
But while this center showcases the best medical technology, the best medical facilities, the best medical equipment, ultimately it comes down to people treating people. And that's who I'd like to recognize this morning. As we dedicate this center, I extend my profound appreciation and the country's thanks to all of the professionals, to all of the staff of our military medical community, especially all of you that are here today.
And I call to mind the people this medical community serves. It's our military retirees, those who've answered the nation's call, committing their career, committing their lives to this country, leaving their families and risking their very lives for our country, in peace time and in war.
It's also our current service members, including those recovering from injuries on the battlefield, and those fighting personal wars along the whole spectrum of illness. To these warriors, this nation owes an irredeemable debt. (Applause.)
And we owe them a health care system second to none that is equipped to meet their needs. Since 9/11, nearly 47,000 Americans have been wounded in action, many of them, as we all know, dealing bravely with grievous, life-altering injuries. At the same time, their brothers and sisters in arms have also been battling cancer, degenerative diseases of one kind or another, psychological challenges and other physical ailments.
Our nation's wounded, our nation's ill, our nation's injured show remarkable fortitude, remarkable strength in the face of some huge obstacles. And they want nothing more -- nothing more than to recover and rejoin their units and chart a new path of life in service to this country. Today we are honored to be joined by some of these brave American warriors.
Since becoming secretary of defense, I've had the honor and the opportunity to visit and spend time with our wounded warriors here at Bethesda and elsewhere. From their determination to press on, not only I, but our entire country has drawn inspiration, tremendous inspiration. In their spirit, we see the very best our country has to offer, and I offer them our nation's deepest gratitude and appreciation.
Their spirit, their spirit is what marks what I call the next greatest generation that has served this country. Their spirit is what makes people put their lives on the line, fighting for their country, fighting for their lives, fighting for their future.
And finally, this facility serves our military families, who serve and sacrifice in their own right. That's why this month President Obama designated November as Military Family Month and National Family Caregiver Month. And today we also honor those dedicated families and caregivers. Families -- families are absolutely essential to those that are willing to put their lives on the line. Their love and support is not just critical for those who go into battle: It is absolutely essential for healing.
As you know, providing a world-class military medical care is not easy. It's a daunting challenge.
In the early part of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, when our service members returned home for urgent and long-term care, the system, frankly, was not fully ready to address the complex medical needs of these men and women. This was particularly true for survivors of the signature weapons of these wars -- the improvised explosive devices. And while our rapid and our effective medical response in the field has saved many more of our men and women than in past conflicts, the severity of these injuries has increased the demand for medical care tailored to these individual needs.
And today we can see that our military medical community continues to rise to this challenge. With the help of so many generous donors and volunteers, and with significant new government support, we've modernized and expanded and in some cases established innovative new capabilities for those in need. This place performs miracles. It saves lives and it renews life for the future.
Where necessary, we've also worked to consolidate functions and capitalize on shared expertise in order to deliver the very best medical services at one location.
Today's ceremony is, in many ways, the culmination of more than a decade of effort. And the scale of change has been truly staggering. Here in Bethesda alone, the transition has involved millions of feet of clinical space, numerous construction and renovation phases in hundreds of acres on several sites. Throughout this process, those who led this effort kept their singular focus on the care of patients and families.
On behalf of the Department of Defense, let me thank you. Thank you all for ensuring a smooth transition at a time of extraordinarily high demand on our middle -- military medical facilities. And I'm grateful that you've done so without compromising, without compromising the high standards of patient and family-centered care. You truly have performed a small miracle in itself during this transition.
As we look to Veterans Day tomorrow, we can all find new ways to live up to our duty for the nation to serve those who have served this country. Surely if our military can be judged by how well we fight our nation's wars, then our national character can be judged by how well we treat those who fight for us. That means we give our absolute best to those who've risked the most precious thing they have: their lives.
The best medical care on earth, the best doctors, the best nurses and medical professionals, the best treatment, the best care, the best rehabilitation, the best hospitals, the best facilities and labs, and the best transition, the best therapy, and just as importantly, the best family services programs available anywhere -- all of this represents 21st-century miracle workers. That is what the United States owes our troops, our retirees, our wounded warriors, and their families.
And we can always find ways, as we will, to do better -- to do better on their behalf. It's important that we continue to focus on the issues of mental and psychological health, and in promoting the overall well-being of our patients. We've got to do everything we can to bring down the number of suicides that occur every day in our active and retired ranks. We should also anticipate our military's future medical needs, and work to address them with emerging medical solutions.
And finally, we will continue to focus on preventing injuries in the field, by constantly improving our training, our equipment, and by learning from best practices. Even as our troops carry out their vital missions in harm's way today, we have got to make sure we protect them better in the future as they fight for us.
For all of us -- for all of us -- today's dedication is another opportunity to renew our commitment and our determination to do our duty for those who have served.
I've had the honor to participate in a lot of ribbon cuttings throughout my career in public service: dedicating federal buildings, dedicating military classrooms, military barracks. But I've never had a chance to cut the ribbon for a place that saves lives. Today, we do that. And in doing that, let me again thank you and extend my utmost gratitude to all of you -- all of you who are working on behalf of those who sacrificed and served this nation.
May God bless you. May God bless this great hospital. And may God bless all of our men and women in uniform. Thank you.