Gary and Jim Miller, thank you so very much. Thank you for that fine honor. I thank you for your service to this organization. And I thank you for your service to our country.
Sandy Germany and Linda Meador, members of the ladies auxiliary, thank you for all you do.
Secretary -- my friend, Secretary Jim Nicholson -- it's good to see you here and have a chance to thank you personally in front of this distinguished group of veterans for all you do and all your department does for our veterans. (Applause.)
You know, if I could sing, I would have sung "The Star-Spangled Banner" exactly the way he did. (Laughter, applause.)
Now, he's quite a guy. I don't know if it's true, but I'm told that he heard that I was the only one at the head table without a white coat so he went upstairs, took off his white coat, got dressed like that and came down.
Charlie Daniels, thank you so much for what you do for the servicemen and women and their families and the country. God bless you. (Applause.)
I am very pleased to be here and to be able to thank each of you for not just your service to the country as veterans, but also the wonderful contributions you make to support the troops and to support their families.
We've had a chance -- Jim and I have had a chance to talk a bit about that at dinner this evening, and it is impressive -- the compassion and the generosity and the determination of you as individuals and your organization is deeply appreciated.
Recently, I witnessed still another example of your selfless service. As you know, when troops touch down for the first time on American soil when they're coming back returning, they invariably find almost at any hour of the day or night volunteers from the VFW on hand to greet them.
And one sergeant returning from Iraq recalled that when he walked off his plane in Bangor, Maine -- (cheers) -- at 3 o’clock in the morning -- were you there? (Laughter.)
He saw a group of VFW volunteers. They were there at the airport lined up to shake his hand. And he said, and I quote:
"As I made my way through the line, each man thanking me for my service, I choked back tears. … We soon learned that this VFW group had not only waited for more than a day in the airport for our arrival, but they were doing so for all returning soldiers. When the time came to fly home for Colorado," he goes on to say, "we were asked by our commander if we'd like to join the VFW. Every hand in the unit went up." (Applause.)
So thank goodness for those brave American troops.
And also thank the good Lord that Americans like you are there to greet them.
Such service has deep roots in our nation. A few years back a book was written about a group of people in North Platte, Nebraska, during World War II. (Cheers, applause.)
It seems that trains were transporting young GIs to battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, and they'd frequently stop in North Platte, and the townspeople would gather to greet them and wish them well and tell them how proud their country was of them.
Over time, the people of North Platte would greet a good number of the hundreds of thousands of young Americans going off to war in one direction or the other, and what a wonderful tribute it was to those in uniform.
And you can really draw a straight line from those folks to each of you and to the tribute you offered to those who followed the flag of our nation to battle.
We have seen that flag wave in times of triumph. We've seen it wave in times of tragedy -- a symbol of a great nation, and of a larger cause. And our troops display that flag proudly on their uniforms. They honor the flag of their fathers, they salute it, fight for it, and serve it proudly.
It is the honor of my life to have the privilege of working with these amazing young men and women in uniform today. And it's an honor to serve a president who not only respects our flag, but is determined to protect it. (Applause.)
Commander in chief -- Jim, I'm honored to be this year's recipient of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Distinguished Service Award. I actually have been around so long I've met with him. (Laughter.)
When I was a young -- a young fellow, 29 years old, I was running for Congress in the state of Illinois back in 1962. And Dwight Eisenhower came to town, and God bless him -- I can tell you when you're 29, running for Congress, and former President Eisenhower gives you a boost in your campaign, you never forget it.
Few leaders, after all, have had more of a direct impact on shaping the security of our 20th century. His vast experiences helped him to keep his sense of balance and perspective. After he was elected president, someone in the press told President Eisenhower -- brand new President Eisenhower -- that from now on he could expect to be the target of political attacks. He reminded them, saying, "I've been shot at before." (Laughter, applause.)
I'm told that after he left office his brother Milton was worrying terribly about a bad weather that was approaching and ruining a speech that President Eisenhower was about to give. And unphased, General Eisenhower replied to his brother Milton, he said “I haven't worried about the weather since June 6th, 1944.” (Laughter, applause.)
I think that's a useful lesson about keeping things in perspective. And I do worry about the importance of perspective in our national dialogue today, the perspective of history as we face the new challenges, the asymmetric and irregular threats we face. We're really fighting the first war of the 21st century, the first war that's been fought in the new media realities with bloggers and 24-hour talk radio and Internet and e-mails and video cameras, digital cameras. Things speed around the world so rapidly, truth generally takes a long time to catch up with untruth.
The men and women of the VFW know this. You've not only lived history, but you've helped to make history. And you not only understand the nature of warfare, but many of you have helped to transform the way wars are fought.
And you know the price of freedom because you've risked your lives, shed blood, lost friends in freedom's defense.
Today, we are engaged in conflicts that are again testing whether or not our country believes that the defense of liberty is worth the cost. As we've seen recently, our enemy is seeking to strike again on a massive scale. They wanted to blow up -- what was it? -- 10 or 12 airliners flying from England to the United States very recently. This enemy lies constantly, almost totally without penalty. They portray our cause as a war against Islam when in fact the overwhelming majority of the victims of their terrorism have been the thousands and thousands of innocent Muslims, men, women, and children that they have killed.
As our forces strive to protect civilians, the enemy uses civilians as shields. As our troops strive to obey the laws of warfare, the enemy uses those laws against us. And as our troops are held to the standards of mere perfection, the enemy is held to no standard at all. And while some at home argue for tossing in the towel, the enemy is waiting and hoping that we will do just that.
Early on, I learned from my dad -- he was a World War II veteran, served in the Pacific on an aircraft carrier. He said to me one time when I was thinking about leaving the boy scouts, he said, "Fine. It's easy. You can quit." He said, "The only problem is, if you start quitting, pretty soon, you're a quitter, and that's not a proud thing to be."
I believe the American people have steel and grit.
When America faced a string of costly defeats in the Pacific, the attack on Pearl -- after the attack on Pearl Harbor, our country did not lose hope. They didn't throw in the towel.
- When U.S. Marines were asked to capture that small island in the Pacific and lost some 7,000 men in 40 days of fierce fighting, they did not stop until the battle was over and the flag was atop of Mount Suribachi on that island called Iwo Jima.
- And today, we will not tell 50 million Afghans and Iraqis that because the going is tough -- and it is tough, let there be no doubt -- that we will abandon them to the beheaders, the terrorists, the assassins and 21st century fascists who seek to attack us abroad and at home.
History has shown time and again that if Americans have the patience and the perseverance to see an effort through, no matter how hard or how difficult, that we prevail. And the result of that perseverance is a safer and more secure world.
Many of you served in Korea, I suspect. On my desk, I keep a satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula. I think you can see it on the screens. The same Korean people in the North as the South; the same resources in the North as the South. North of the demilitarized zone is this blackness, nothing, no light. South of it, you see lights everywhere. The only piece of light you see in the North is the pinprick of light in Pyongyang, their capital.
In the South -- you have a country in the South that is now, I believe, the 10th- or 12th-largest, strongest economy on the face of the Earth. In the North, they are taking people into the military who are 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weigh less than a hundred pounds because of malnutrition.
The difference, very simply, is twofold.
First, in the North, they have a dictatorship and a command economy; in the South, they have a free economic system and a free political system.
And the other difference is that those of you here and others who didn't come home helped that country be free, and as a result, the people of South Korea have prospered, and certainly the success in the South is a testament to the sacrifice who served in that conflict. Men and women in this room helped to make that possible for the 50 million Korean people.
You know, some people have called the Korean War The Forgotten War. Well, it's not forgotten, certainly not by me, not by the families of the more than 36,000 who died fighting in that war and not by the Korean people, who today are our allies in the global struggle against violent extremists.
There's another war that was fought by many of you, including the commander here, Jim, that also deserves mentioning.
Those who served in Vietnam took part in an important battle against communist aggression. And thank heaven our nation and history increasingly appreciates their important contributions, and that today they stand proudly with every other generation of Americans.
Surely by now we've learned the lesson that when our country gives troops a mission, they should have the resources and support to finish the job. (Applause.) And surely we've learned the danger of giving the enemy the false impression that the American people cannot stomach a tough fight.
It was after the U.S. forces left Somalia in 1994 that Osama bin Laden concluded that American forces were, to use his words, "paper tigers." There were reports that Saddam Hussein gave copies of the film "Black Hawk Down" -- it's about the difficulties in Somalia -- to his commanders as an example of American weakness and faintheartedness.
Now, today there's a debate about the wars being waged in Afghanistan, in Iraq and the larger struggle against extremists around the globe. Debate can be healthy, and certainly in a free system we expect it. But we must face the fact that the enemies, the extremists have media committees. They time their attacks. They pick their targets for the maximum media exposure.
They hide among civilians precisely to distort the debate, to manipulate the U.S. media, hoping that they will focus on the violence that the terrorists create, not the progress that's being made against the terrorists.
In Iraq, a country that was brutalized by a cruel and dangerous dictatorship, they are now undertaking a slow and difficult, uncertain step, trying to secure a new future under a representative government, one that is a government that will be at peace with its neighbors rather than a threat to them and to others.
The extremists openly call Iraq -- what's going on in Iraq today as the “epicenter” in the War on Terror, and they mean it. It is so. But even today there are many here at home who would argue to the contrary. Today there is full focus on setbacks. Scrutiny is important so that mistakes can be fixed and corrections made, but some semblance of balance is needed.
You, as veterans, are uniquely qualified to remind the American people that there have been setbacks and difficulties in every war throughout our nation's history; that there have always been those arguing that America is on the wrong side or on the losing side.
When Hitler was bombing London in 1940, a former U.S. ambassador came home and declared,
“Democracy is finished in England,” and he said, “it may be [finished] here” as well.
Think of that.
Today World War II is remembered as a great victory, and it was. But it was ugly, it was hard, it was long, it was tough. Imagine what a pundit in today's 24-hour news media world might have done with the many problems and difficulties that were faced in World War II, where, for example, the allies, as I recall, suffered some 70,000 casualties in one year in campaigns in North Africa alone.
In 1946, one year after the Nazis surrendered and the allies sought to rebuild post-war Germany:
- A New York Times article said, and I quote, "The United States has ‘fumbled’ the job."
- Life Magazine declared, and I quote, "Never has American prestige in Europe been lower. . . . All we have brought to Europe so far is confusion."
Does any of that sound familiar?
Think of the Cold War. A Washington Post columnist recently described the period of the Cold War as a time -- and I quote -- "when there was an easily defined enemy and the free world held the United States in high esteem."
But that just wasn't how it was.
In those days, the truth is that millions of people marched from time to time, not against the Soviet Union, but against the United States.
Remember, Eurocommunism was very fashionable. People said not to worry about the Soviet Union, not to worry about communism; Eurocommunism's a good communism; we can relax. There were amendments in Congress to bring the troops home, that it's taking too long to deal with the Cold War, that we can't prevail anyway.
At that time, those sorts of notions were summed up with the simple phrase "Blame America first." Well, we must keep a "Blame America First" mentality from undermining our efforts today in another long war against a determined enemy.
There were always times in history when it seemed easier to some to give up. But the great story of America is one of grit, it's one of determination, and it's one of victory. Americans did not cross oceans and settle a wilderness and build history's greatest democracy only to run away from murderers and extremists, those who try to kill everyone that they cannot convert and who try to tear down that which they could never build themselves.
When President Eisenhower sat down to write his memoirs at his farm in Pennsylvania, I'm told that when President Eisenhower went into the county clerk in Gettysburg and said, "I want to buy this little piece of farm, this land," the clerk looked at him and said, "Well, Mr. President, you were a famous general, you've been president of the United States, you're now out of the presidency. Why would you want to buy that little run-down farm in Gettysburg?" And he said, very simply, "I want to take something and make it better with my own hands for the first time."
Apparently when he was at his farm, he looked down on the battlefields of Gettysburg, and he reflected on those young men who gave their last breath so that the nation, in Lincoln's words, "shall have a new birth of freedom." He said that the great battles of history -- Eisenhower did -- are often remembered in their -- for their strategic brilliance, or the opposite, or as clashes between great powers. But in fact, he said, wars are won “on the initiative, the fidelity, the strength of many thousands of individuals known only to their immediate comrades in battle, their names forgotten today. . . . On the field, men found themselves resources of courage, of leadership, of greatness that they had not known before."
Americans must always remember that we stand here today because of you, because of the people in this room, because of men and women like you, who stood firm, who stormed beaches and who found greatness you had not known before. And for that, our nation thanks you. And because of that, because of you, a new generation of heroes is inspired to carry forward in the cause of a safer and a freer world.
Thank you so much, and God bless each one of you. (Applause.)