Thank you, General Bromberg, for that kind introduction. Mayor Cook and Mayor Reinhardt, I appreciate your joining us this evening as well.
Let me begin by thanking Congressman Reyes for the invitation to speak here. I am told he could not be here this evening and has sent a representative in his place. Nonetheless, I wanted to recognize the congressman, who has been and continues to be a long-time friend to those in uniform.
It is great to be back in Texas. We are exactly 691 miles from College Station – although a good part of El Paso may be in College Station - where I spent a few days. I spent four-and-a-half wonderful years as president of Texas A&M. I have a feeling that there are some Aggies with us today.
One of the many things I’ve missed is the fact that out here, football – whether it’s Aggies, Miners, Long Horns, or other teams – is practically a form of organized religion. One of my first acts as president of Texas A&M was to fire the football coach. I later told the press that as CIA director, I had overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy.
Being the president of a huge university is its own challenge. I used to wonder while I was there whether it was scarier to be responsible for several thousand clandestine agents operating around the world, or 45,000 18- to 25-year olds with too much time on their hands. Now of course, I lead nearly a million 18- to 25-year-olds – and they’re all heavily armed.
Believe me, Texas has it all over Washington, D.C. A place where, as Senator Alan Simpson used to say, “Those who travel the high road of humility encounter little heavy traffic.” A place where there are so many lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory. Where people say “I’ll double-cross that bridge when I get to it.” The only place in the world where you can see a prominent person walking down lover’s land holding his own hand.
It is an honor to visit Fort Bliss, with its storied history of skill and sacrifice in defense of America, going back a century-and-a-half.
Today, this post – which encompasses an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, most of which is in New Mexico – is transforming itself to serve a nation and a military facing the strategic challenges of this century. As you know, the nearly $4.1 billion Fort Bliss expansion program includes one of the largest military construction projects ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers. Of that, $207 million will be invested in new construction at the three training complexes in New Mexico. And some 28,000 additional soldiers and thousands of family members are in the process of moving here.
General Bromberg took me on a tour this afternoon of this building boom, and it is awesome.
Troops from Fort Bliss have been deployed to the Middle East and other regions around the world to fight a war against extremists who seek to harm us and our way of life. Our troops have been giving their all in this effort. And they’ve gained something in return: They know that they are defending our country and shaping the course of history.
Tonight, I’d like to talk for just a few minutes about what it is that makes their efforts possible: The support that Fort Bliss soldiers receive from their families and the support that both soldiers and families receive from the people of this community.
America owes a great deal to those who are “the power behind the power” – the spouses, children, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters of our men and women in uniform. They, too, make a significant contribution – and pay a price – in the cause of protecting our country. They are the ones who remain back home, wrestling with the challenges of day-to-day life that come up in families and households that are missing a family member.
And yet they have borne that burden with grace and patience and an amazing ability to organize and rely on one another. Army families take care of their own, and Fort Bliss families are no exception. They’re strong. They endure. They are bound together by their shared experiences, by sacrifice, and by the pride they rightly feel in the noble work their soldiers do.
We see this in so many ways, not least in the family readiness groups that set up phones trees and make other arrangements in the event that a family suffers a loss or grave injury of a loved one. There is also the Fort Bliss Waiting Spouses and Children Group, whose resources help folks cope with the absence of deployed family members.
But military families are not, and could not be, completely self-sufficient. And that’s where the citizens in the wider community come in. As the population of Fort Bliss continues to grow, the residents of West Texas and New Mexico have stepped up to welcome the newcomers. And I know you will continue to do so, as the post’s population increases by an astounding 300 percent by 2012.
Future expansion means that the ties between the region’s installations – Fort Bliss, Holloman Air Force Base, and White Sands Missile Range – will also continue to grow. For example, the incoming brigade combat team scheduled to be stationed at White Sands will share range facilities with Fort Bliss. This region will continue to be known by the twin hallmarks of partnership and cooperation.
The mayors of El Paso, Las Cruces, and Alamogordo, and their respective Chambers of Commerce, have been partnering with the Army to try to prepare for this growth. The Fort’s Welcome Center is a busy place these days, handling scores of new arrivals daily. It is permanently staffed by a team from the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce to help soldiers and their families set up housing, school attendance, and childcare.
Business and educational organizations, from FirstLight Federal Credit Union, to the University of Texas at El Paso, the El Paso Independent School District, and the Omar Bradley Chapter of AUSA, have stepped up to offer support – monetary donations, educational opportunities, and discounted or free entertainment to service members and their families.
And individual volunteers do a lot for the Fort Bliss community, including activities that don’t always get the attention they deserve:
• Helping military families with income-tax preparation;
• Volunteering with the American Red Cross to help file emergency reports for the local Army hospital;
• Decorating the doors of single soldiers in the barracks who have come home from Iraq.
These acts, and many more, are ingrained in the very fabric of your lives, and I can tell you that every bit of help matters. This is a tough time for our troops and their families. What you do is noticed and deeply appreciated.
Many of us can remember a time when civilian appreciation for the military was not very evident. Mayor Cook talked about this recently. He described what it was like in 1970, returning from his service in Vietnam, on a bus that was greeted by protestors – one of who threw an egg at the vehicle. He said “I just wanted to do a better job [this time].” Hence the “Welcome Home Heroes Parade” that the city of El Paso held in February for returning soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team and the 3rd Battalion, 43rd ADA.
Over 4,000 soldiers marched in the parade, and three times as many citizens showed up in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon to cheer their hearts out for them. And also to pay their respects while 31 riderless horses went past – one for each of the brave cavalry soldiers who did not come back from 4-1 Cavalry’s tour in Iraq.
Across our country, matters of war and peace – and the casualties we suffer on the battlefield – have prompted sharp debate and political disagreement. Yet despite this, Americans are united in their admiration of our men and women who have volunteered to serve at such a challenging time. As one who was in the military during the time that Mayor Cook was talking about, I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to be an airport today and see service members being met in the terminal with standing ovations from passengers. There are free meals and rounds of drinks – at least for the soldiers who are old enough. And, above all, simple thank yous.
In fact, I got an email a few days ago from the vice president of Texas A&M, and he had been in Dallas at the DFW [airport] waiting for a plane to go to College Station. And somebody came into the hallway of the terminal, and shouted that there were a couple hundred troops coming home from Afghanistan down one floor. And everybody in the terminal went down and formed a long line to welcome at least two hundred soldiers back from Afghanistan.
The appreciation is real, it is sincere, and it bridges any political divide.
I don’t have to tell you that today’s Army is under stress. But with the bipartisan support of the Congress, more help is on the way so that the institution can meet its heavy responsibilities: a bigger Army, more funds to mitigate the toll of over six years at war, and new programs and commitments to make the Army’s covenant with families a reality.
In Iraq, the improved security situation is leading to a reduction of U.S. troop levels. I expect this drawdown will continue over time. The debate you hear about in Washington now is largely about pacing.
We must recognize, even so, that the kind of enemy we face in the Global War on Terror will not allow us to let our guard down. What has been called the “long war” is likely to mean many years of military engagements, all around the world, of differing degrees of magnitude and intensity. The expansion here at Fort Bliss is part of a wider transformation effort across the military to make sure the Army, and the military as a whole, can protect the security, prosperity, and freedom of Americans for the next generation.
We want every family with a loved one overseas right now to be reunited with that soldier and we look forward to the day when it will be possible. Until then, Fort Bliss soldiers and families, and this generous community, will continue to step up and do right by this country and by each other. We are, after all, members of the same family – the American family. You have my deepest admiration and gratitude.