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Gates Accepts Award, Extols Virtues of Public Service

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2007 – Americans who fill the ranks of public service -- the nation’s military members, elected officials, teachers and nurses -- are driven by the romantic and optimistic ideal that they can improve the world, the Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. (Video)

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Former President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates share a laugh aboard an Air Force flight to College Station, Texas, Oct. 26, 2007. Later at Texas A&M University, where Gates had been president before he took office as defense secretary, Bush presented Gates with the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service. Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“I believe if you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve -- no matter how outwardly tough or egotistical or jaded -- are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists and optimists,” Gates told the youthful audience packed into Reed Arena at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Gates was on hand at the university -- where he served as president before he was named to head the Pentagon in November 2006 -- to accept an award for excellence in public service named after and presented by former President George H.W. Bush.

“We actually believe we can make a difference -- that we can make the lives of others better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of the greatest country in the history of the world: in President Lincoln’s words, ‘The last, best, hope of Earth,’” Gates said.

Through the centuries, some have considered public service an “onerous burden,” the secretary said, invoking familiar laments about the thanklessness and meager compensation that often can accompany such careers. But for men and women in uniform, public service entails risking more than making oneself vulnerable to political ad hominem or receiving low wages, he said.

“Tonight, nearly 200,000 American men and women in uniform serve in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every single one is a volunteer,” he said. “Each has chosen to be there in the belief that they are protecting America and brining a better life to millions long oppressed.”

The secretary said 3,385 servicemembers have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and 30,044 have been wounded, according to statistics available yesterday. “And yet, they serve,” he said.

“Whatever range of motives causes our young men and women to volunteer for our armed forces, they all hear the call of the trumpet, the call of duty to our country,” he said. “And because in doing their duty they risk all, they are the most noble of all.”

And it’s not only servicemembers who contribute; America should not forget “the families of our men and women in uniform, who remain behind and keep the home functioning by getting the children to school and to Little League, who must shoulder unbearable burdens when a husband or wife is killed or badly wounded,” he said.

“And think about the children of those in uniform who must deal with the loss of a parent, or far more commonly, must often move away from friends and familiar schools, who must deal with the absence of a deployed mom or dad not just on special occasions, but every day,” he added.

Gates noted that military members make up just a portion of the millions of American public servants, including policemen and firemen, teachers, nurses, elected and appointed officials and countless others.

“All too often, the pay and working conditions are challenging,” he said. “All operate in the public spotlight and often find public criticism to be the reward for their labors. Many could live better pursuing other careers.

“And yet,” he repeated, “they serve.”

Before taking on the job as the nation’s 22nd defense secretary, Gates said, he had vowed to his wife, Becky, “I never want to return to Washington, D.C.” He had been a career intelligence officer, and served as CIA director under President George H.W. Bush. But he answered the call once again.

“The world turned upside down again for me almost exactly a year ago, when duty -- and another President Bush -- called me to a different kind of public service,” he said. “Just over 40 years after I took my oath and joined the CIA, I was on my way back to Washington, D.C., and government service.”

Gates urged the university audience to consider the virtues of a career devoted to serving their country.

“Public servants are people willing to make sacrifices in the present for the future good,” he said. “People who believe, to paraphrase Walter Lippmann, ‘That we must plant trees we may never get to sit under.’”

Today’s young people must heed the nation’s call to public service if America is to remain a force for good in the world and exercise “global leadership consistent with our better angels,” the secretary said.

“It is precisely during these times that America needs its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to step forward and commit to public service,” Gates said, posing a final challenge to the audience. “Will the wise and honest among you come help the American people?”

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Photo Essay: Secretary Gates Receives Award for Excellence in Public Service

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