Thank you very much. Thank you. Please be seated.
Thank you, Admiral Emerson and Captain Ryder, and a special greeting to all of you. Thank you so much for what you do for the country. We appreciate it. The country appreciates it and recognizes it.
It's amazing. You fly over a desert and land, and what do you find? You see no water, but you see sailors and the Navy.
The same thing happened to me the other day. I was in Iraq -- I think it was last month -- and I got out of the plane and was walking across something, and I saw a cluster of 10 or 12 folks, and they were all Navy. And it turned out they'd been asked to go out there and help with the IED problem. And they were electronic experts that were going to form part of a task force that General Monty Meigs and the folks in Iraq are working on to try to reduce the number of casualties from IEDs. And they were all Navy.
Admiral Mullen, the chief of Naval Operation, has just been so cooperative and so forthcoming and so helpful in finding people in the Navy who could be supportive of the ground forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, given the fact that the long war we are in clearly has put a strain on the ground forces.
And I am very grateful to the Navy and, I should add, to the Air Force for the fact that they have stepped forward and provided people who can do all the kinds of things that need to be done -- whether it's electronics experts or intelligence or Navy Seabees or engineers or drivers, military police. And these folks, who have gone over, in some cases, in units -- in some cases, as individual augmentees -- are doing a superb job in Iraq.
Have any of you folks been involved with that at all? Anyone here served in Iraq or Afghanistan? There's one. Good. Greetings. Thank you.
But it clearly is, the temperature in Iraq when I was there was 119. It's not that here. So -- what is this? About 80, 90? Something like that?
Well, in any event, I was pleased to look around in taxiing in and see all these modern aircraft. Of course, from where I stand, everything looks modern. All the planes that I flew in the Navy -- the only place you'll ever see them are in museums. So it's nice to be out here and have a chance to see the equipment you have.
I came not to go flying, although that would have been a delight if we'd had the time, but to have a chance to talk with you and thank you personally for your service to the country, for volunteering, for stepping forward and saying you wanted to serve our nation.
I must say that ours is a time of challenge to the country, to be sure. It's a time of peril. And I would like to just talk a bit about the long struggle we face against an enemy that is clearly ruthless in its design and deadly in capability, and then respond to some questions or hear thoughts that any of you may have, which I always look forward to.
Earlier this month, the intentions of the enemy clearly were made clear, with their plot to kill Americans and others in flights leaving London en-route to the United States by blowing up 10 or so airliners over the Atlantic. It should be a powerful reminder to everybody, free people, that they're serious, that they're determined, that they're not going to go away, and that we have to recognize the nature of the long struggle we and other free people are going to be in.
And I think it's also a reminder that all of us, every day since September 11th, are going to have to continue to think of today as the way we felt on September 12th. It has to have that sense of concern, that sense of urgency and that purposefulness.
The president correctly determined that to protect the American people, the only real way to do it is not to be in a defensive mode, but to take the offense and take the fight to them.
Terrorists have an enormous advantage. They can attack in any place at any time using any technique. Their purpose is not to kill; their purpose is to terrorize. It's to alter behavior. It's to affect how people think.
And so it is particularly true that free people are the most vulnerable because we are the people -- in our country and around the world in free systems -- who want to be able to get up in the morning and go where they wish and say what they wish and do what they wish, send their children off to school and have high confidence they're going to be able to come home safely, and to not be terrorized, because to be terrorized is to alter fundamentally that which we are as a free people.
The work that you do here is, of course, important -- training aviators and their crews for combat. It's vital, if you consider that only weeks after the attacks on September 11th, United States soldiers and airmen were, some of them on horseback, calling in strikes from Navy aircraft in operations that very quickly toppled the Taliban and crippled the al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and in the process, liberated some 28 or 29 million Afghans.
Here we are several years later. They have fashioned a constitution. They have elected a president. They have an elected parliament. And on the plane flying in, President Karzai of Afghanistan called me on the phone and wanted to talk about some of the things that we're doing together, our two countries. And it is an impressive accomplishment.
I'm told that during that operation in Afghanistan, instructors at this post communicated with combat crews from carriers that were deployed in the theater. And because of the advanced communications and technology, within days the tactics that were being learned over the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq, later, were being taught here over the desert in Nevada -- and it's a remarkable accomplishment.
The skills learned here also helped pilots and crews in Iraq topple what was a cruel and dangerous regime in a most impressive military operation. The close air support and surveillance provided by aviators saved countless lives of our troops. And it was airpower -- specifically, I believe, two 500-pound bombs -- that were precisely directed by our Special Forces that eliminated al-Zarqawi.
For years, that extremist had murdered Americans and terrorized Iraqis. He kidnapped, he beheaded. He thought he had found a way to destroy the hopes of the Iraqi people and was determined to do just that.
But on June 7th, his hopes were destroyed.
There's a good deal of discussion these days about Iraq and its relationship to the larger fight against terrorism. Well, the enemy has no illusion about Iraq's importance, and nor should we.
Indeed, I would say we have no excuse for having illusions about how Iraq fits into the War on Terror.
- Bin Laden has said, and I quote, "The epicenter of these wars is Baghdad."
- Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has said, and I quote, "The arena of jihad in Iraq is now the most important area of jihad in this age."
Is there anything unclear or ambiguous about that? How can so many still be debating this issue? It strikes me that the answer is there for all to see.
We tend to talk about the challenges in Iraq today -- and there are tough challenges, let there be no doubt. But we also need to recall what Iraq was before its liberation and consider the Middle East today.
One of the greatest causes for concern today is Iran, now threatening the stability of that region, pursuing a nuclear capability by their own self-profession and aggressively providing aid and weapons to terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah.
Iran's president talks of a world without America and without Israel. That is the Iran we see today. Imagine how much more dangerous that part of the world would be today if Iraq and Afghanistan were still ruled by the enemies of freedom, the enemies of the American people, and the enemies of the West.
In the coming weeks and months, there will be a vigorous discussion about the struggle we're in and the prospects for success. The important question, I believe, is not whether we can win; of course we can win. We're not going to lose a single battle in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The real question is whether we will have the will to persevere, whether we have the grit to carry on in our pursuit of a safer world for our families and for our values.
The arguments we hear today are interesting. There are those who argue that America is really what's wrong with the world. That's not news. They used to call that crowd the “Blame America First” crowd. But I don't get up every morning and think that America or the United States of America is what's wrong with this world. It simply isn't. We're a nation in history that has liberated rather than conquered. We're the country where every year millions of people line up to come here because they want to live here, and they want to work here, and they want to have the opportunities that exist here.
One day I believe that the men and women of the armed forces today will look back -- I don't know -- five, 10, 20 years from now, and they'll see:
- A world where the terrorist threat has been sharply reduced;
- A world where many millions more people are benefiting from freedom;
- And a world where America is a rising force for freedom.
For transcript including questions and answers, please visit: http://www.defenselink.mil/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=3708.
A few days ago, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I met with -- I don't know -- 6(00), 7(00), 800 family members, the loved ones whose loved ones are in Iraq serving in the 172nd Stryker Brigade.
You may have read that at some moment several weeks ago General Casey decided that in working with the new Iraqi government that they had three priorities. One was to have a reconciliation process that would bring in all elements of the country; a second was to go after the death squads that were trying to foment sectarian violence; and the third was to reduce the level of violence in Iraq -- correction -- in Baghdad, the biggest city in Iraq, and where a non-trivial fraction of the whole population lives. And it's a mixture of all the ethnic groups and all the religious groups.
And as a result, we decided to extend the tour beyond the normal up to one year or 365 days of this Stryker Brigade and divert them from coming home -- some had already gotten into Kuwait -- and send them into Baghdad. And needless to say, it was a big disappointment for them and their families and their spouses and their children. So I went to meet with -- I guess there must have been 7(00) or 800 of them.
And driving into the base you saw the welcome home signs that had been put up a few weeks before. And of course, they were not home. And we then went in and they had an ice skating rink with no ice at this time of year, but it was filled with children who were -- the parents had brought into the place for day-care, while they were in discussion with me discussing the Stryker Brigade and when they might be coming home. And it was just filled with these youngsters whose parents were over in Iraq. It was a moving sight, and all I can say about it is that it was impressive to listen to their thoughts.
These are people -- spouses, male and female -- people who are professional military and career, and some who are not, who were just in for a temporary period of time, expressing their concerns and hopes, and trying to find ways that they can sort through all the inconvenience that occurs as a result of the change in plans of that significance. A lot of them had arranged for vacations, chartered cruises; some were being transferred and they'd moved their furniture and things were en route to another location, a school or a different base. So there were just an enormous number of things that the Army had to work out.
And one of the wives at the meeting gave me a letter written by her son who was, I believe, nine years old. He said he was hoping that his dad would be able to come home, and he wanted to know if I could help. And it was a cute letter. He went on to say something to the effect that I hope you'll help find a way for my dad to come home, and everyone else's too -- which is a nice thought.
You got a sense that the letter, which had a picture of the Stryker vehicle, it had a picture of him with his father -- I don't mean a real picture, a drawing -- and then a big American flag, you get a sense that even though he's nine, he had a pretty good sense of what was going on, that what his father was doing was important. But he didn't know precisely what it was that his father was doing, although his father, I believe, was a chaplain.
And it was a -- I did not meet the young man, but the questions that got the biggest cheer were when someone asked will they be home before Christmas, and I said I thought so, and I would do everything humanly possible to see that that happened, because that would be the extension of 120 days, I think goes to December 13th. Someone in the back of the room yelled, "How about Thanksgiving?" Someone else yelled, "What about Labor Day?" You know, they're a terrific group of people.
And needless to say, decisions that have to be made in the Department of Defense are decisions that affect lots of people, and there's always some situation that's distinctive. And broad decisions like that may be right in a macro sense, and in an individual sense they may be enormously inconvenient or difficult. And big institutions have to find ways to work with the people and see that what we do creates an environment that's hospitable to them and that encourages them to be a part of this institution, and someplace that they want to re-enlist and continue their careers in the military.
I mention all this simply because we do think about the individual people in the service. We do think about those folks whose tours were extended. We think about them every day and we pray for them. And I know that all of you think of the folks that are serving over there every day as well.
So I thank all of you for what you do. History is being made. You are helping to make history. You're going to be able to look back in a decade or two and be enormously proud of the fact that you did volunteer, that you are serving the country, and it is a country that we love and we value.
So I thank you for your service. And may God bless all of you.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)