The stories of those we honor today are stories of courage, duty, and sacrifice. They are also memorable.
But these stories are memorable not only for what these individuals saw and experienced – the body bags and rubble that they struggled with for days and weeks, the rescue and medical assistance they provided amidst debris and chaos.
Nor are they only memorable as the cause of flashback and nightmares and even now “tight breathing” -- as Specialist Charles Hernandez who served here puts it -- “when walking around my neighborhood in lower Manhattan.”
No, these stories are also memorable for what they tell us about these soldiers—these Americans—and why they came so suddenly, so spontaneously to a place of mayhem and horror.
A job didn’t bring them here. A mission did. Not just an attack on a building made them volunteer -- but an assault on our country – and on our way of life.
They didn’t wait. They saw their neighbors in need and their country and city in peril. They knew their talents and training could help. And they decided to act.
And by doing so they told us who they are – and reminded us of who we are as a people and a nation. And who we must always remain.
Since before this country’s founding, we have been inspired by those who weren’t willing to wait for orders. Americans who understand that sometimes courage can’t wait on a command, and that duty doesn’t need a permission slip. From farmers at a bridge in Concord to the Eagle Squadrons flying over England from volunteer brigades at Gettysburg to airline passengers above a field at Shanksville -- it has often been citizens -- not governments, not bureaucracies -- first willing to resist an enemy and begin to defeat it.
So also, the members of Captain Hardy’s unit – they called themselves the New York Provisional Joint Task Force -- took up the work of defeating the evil of global terrorism here in this place. They were not only rescuing survivors and reclaiming rubble but sending a message and standing for our nation – and for a cause.
On that same awful day that these military volunteers came together, I saw the same cause, the same nation being served at another point of attack. In a Pentagon command center – the second command center of the day, incidentally, due to the smoke that had forced us from the first – other Americans were turning to the defense of the Country – the sort of response that would send a message of will and resolve, one that would let our enemies know they would pay a terrible price for attacking the Americans they thought so soft and weak. A response that would put them on the run and keep them on the run -- and do all we could to stop another 9\11.
So as surely as all of us were Americans on 9\11 we were also all New Yorkers. And so the planning begun at the Pentagon sprang from what happened here and in solidarity with all of you. A solidarity also there from the first moment of battle when our Special Forces on their initial raids against the Taliban in Afghanistan left behind their calling cards -- mementos from Ground Zero and messages from New York police and firefighters.
A solidarity that continues today. Only last week, I attended an emotional ceremony in the Pentagon Hall of Heroes, where Navy Seal Michael Murphy took his posthumous place among America’s other Medal of Honor winners.
He died a hero’s death wearing his country’s uniform. But he also died wearing on that uniform a New York City firefighter’s patch. And today in an East Harlem firehouse and in other places throughout the city New York firefighters wear Michael Murphy’s patch.
That same spirit of solidarity, that same sense of nation and cause brings us now to this place as we honor those who sprang to duty in a moment of danger and crisis without being asked.
We thank you today -- Pete Geren, a Texan, and myself – with roots in South Carolina and Texas and Tennessee –- for making us feel at home and having us here.
And though Pete’s presence here needs no explanation I think I should probably say a few words to any of you who may be asking yourselves: “It’s bad enough he claims South Carolina and Texas and Tennessee, but why is the lawyer here? And who asked him to speak?”
You see, some years ago I met Captain Hardy and he told me of his unit’s work here on 9\11. But he also told me that some in the bureaucracy were taking the technically correct and perfectly legal position that commendations couldn’t be awarded because, after all, the soldiers weren’t really part of a unit – they were never really ordered to duty. So to commend or decorate them would set a precedent – would be “an exception to policy!”
Clearly, though, those who volunteered for service on this first battleground of the global war on terror are just what exceptions are all about. In fact, they define the term – exceptional courage, exceptional devotion to duty, exceptional love of country.
So despite the fact lawyers are supposed to believe in rules and in bureaucracy, we offered Capt Hardy help and -- like the forward artillery observer who calls a strike in on his own position – we agreed to seek that dreaded exception to policy.
And so Captain Hardy -- with critical help at just the right moment from Secretary Geren – pushed and pulled, cajoled, and in the end, the right result occurred.
Took us six years. And at times I wondered.
But we finally made these awards happen.
And yet, you know, I didn’t say that right.
The truth is we didn’t make these awards happen at all.
Those we honor today and their deeds are what really made these awards happen. Because what bureaucrat in the end was going to say no to the message those members of Capt Hardy’s unit sent our enemies? And who was going to say no to the cause and to nation they stood for?
So I would like to say to the soldiers here today -- never let it be said you ran into red tape.
Because take it from this battle-scarred veteran of the bureaucratic wars that, rather than run into red tape, you and your deeds ran right over it, right around it, and right through it.
And, in doing so, you serve as an inspiration to me, and also to every leader, every citizen, every soldier.