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Secretary Cohen's Remarks at the Washington USO Annual Awards Dinner, 31 Mar 98

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
March 31, 1998 8:00 PM EDT

Secretary Cohen: John, let me thank you profusely for the very long and gracious introduction and also admit in front of everyone here indeed I did marry up, as did you. I had the pleasure of being the best man at John's wedding, so we do indeed go back a long way.

Secretary West, I believe Senator Thurmond is here, Senator McCain, Secretary Dalton, Acting Secretary of the Air Force Peters. General Shelton, I can see you out there; I know that you're at the head table in the middle of the room. Under Secretary Gansler, Admiral Johnson, Admiral Kramik, Lieutenant General Jones and Ms. Connie Stevens.

Let me -- first of all, I urge you to continue to eat. I think it was Somerset Maugham who once said that during dinner one should eat wisely and not too well. And then after dinner one should speak well and not too wisely. And I think I will try and strike a balance here this evening and speak while you're eating dinner and hope that I don't contribute to your indigestion.

I have reached that stage in my life where I am praised for things I don't deserve and blamed for things I've never done. But, tonight let me say it's a tremendous honor for me, not only because the award comes from an organization that does so much for the troops, that I am charged at least to represent, but because of the many great Americans who have received it before me -- Bob Dole, Colin Powell and, of course, John McCain.

And as all of us understood when John came to this podium, he is an inspiration to all Americans. He is truly an American phoenix. He has risen up out of the depths of abject suffering at the hands of an enemy to become one of our nation's greatest leaders and a guidepost of integrity and honor. I believe it was Emerson who said that a hero is no braver than an ordinary man, except he is braver five minutes longer. For John McCain, it was almost six years longer, and let me say that his bravery is demonstrated to this very day as he takes the Senate floor to debate issues that cause concern, and consternation on the part of some, but is an inspiration to everyone who watches him and follows his career.

It is an honor for me to be introduced by you, John, and let me say, that if I am a role model, I want to say it's in reverse; you've always been a hero of mine and to the many people who are here this evening.

And it's also a little hard to be humble when you get an award like this, but I have my lovely wife, Janet, who is with me this evening, to help me in that department. This past holiday we were getting ready for a trip, as John mentioned, to cheer the troops in the Mediterranean, in Macedonia and also in Bosnia, and I asked her if she had any thoughts about what I might do to inspire the troops. And in her very candid way she paused thoughtfully. She says, "Yes, book the USO." And so we did and we had a very talented singer/songwriter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and she was fabulous. And her presence, I think, and her music gave our troops the gift that they needed, a taste of home and a message that America cares about them.

I think no American needs to hear this message more than our troops who are deployed abroad, far away from home, and, very often, in harm's way, and so, no organization has done a better job of conveying that message than USO. And it's why you're so important to our nation today and you frequently hear everybody say that we're the world's sole superpower. And that's true and people everywhere look to us as a beacon of freedom and a protector of peace and prosperity. That's also true.

But it's not made possible by words back here in Washington. It's by the deeds that are performed by our troops out in the field. They are the very best that our country has to offer. And you can see it here tonight in the number of representatives from our services and the volunteers and in an award winner, Gunnery Sergeant Julian Gonzalez.

Julian, I want to personally congratulate you and to thank you for all you've done for our Marines and our nation.

And I am fond of saying that our soldiers are not only soldiers; they are diplomats because when they go forward, they and their peers, they go out into the world; they are America and we are judged by the young men and women who represent us. And that is why it is important that we take care of them so they can do their job and take care of the country.

And so to the USO, let me offer a profound thanks in the words of the great ambassador of goodwill and cheer, thanks for the memories: of Bob Hope riding a dogsled into a frozen Alaskan outpost during World War II; Sammy Davis, Jr., who is bringing a cool taste of home to the steaming jungles in Vietnam; Jay Leno zinging out those one-liners in the scorched Arabian desert; Mary Chapin Carpenter, who is energizing a crowd of weary but, I might say, joy-filled veterans in a rendition of Silent Night on a very cold Christmas Eve; and to lovely Connie Stevens, actress, singer, who has wowed our men and women the world over in Vietnam, in Korea and, most recently, with a wonderful film that you helped to bring about that will be shown, I think a portion this evening, but was shown during the dedication of the Women's Memorial. Thank you for all that you've done over the years, Connie.

And I just want to take another couple of minutes, and I hope you will finish your appetizers. I hope you have finished them by now. But I want to say that the stars of the USO not only found in Hollywood, but they are found through the thousands of volunteers who offer a warm smile, hot coffee, and the staffing that we do at the centers at bases and airports all across the globe. They are the volunteers who give young enlisted a boost. They get their families back on their feet. They go the extra mile in everything they do, whether it's teaching a course in child care or tracking flight information on the troops who are on the go.

The USO Metro has always been a top performer among our USO worldwide. You are a leader reaching out to our service men and women. You are helping with the emergency food shelter programs, offering education programs for adults and recreational outlets for teens and opening up a world class assistance center at the BWI airport. I always like to say BIW, but I get a little confused about that from my hometown roots in Maine.

During World War II in a bombed-out theater in Germany, a USO singer named Ella Logan finished her act by saying to the troops that she hopes she brought them the spirit of their mothers, sweethearts or wives. And there is a story of a soldier who, suddenly, who was covered with mud and had his rifle slung over his shoulder, he stood up and took the microphone, and everybody was a bit nervous. They didn't know what he was going to say. And after a while, he spoke very softly. He said, "I've got to contradict you. You don't look like anyone's sweetheart, you don't look like anyone's wife, and you sure don't look like anyone's mother. But you do look like an angel."

And for over 50 years, the USO has played the role of angel to thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. And over 20 years, those angels in and around our nation's capital have been the men and women of the USO Metro. And so all of us are grateful for what you have done for our military family, and I accept this award on behalf of a family with a deep sense of gratitude and humility for all of the lives that you've touched and the spirits you've lifted. Thank you very much.

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