Thank you. Jim [Kallstrom, MCLEF Chairman of the Board], it’s a real honor to be able to be here to accept that award on behalf of another great generation. I must say, as I heard my biography, I guess I’d like to point out one thing that wasn’t pointed out. Among many things I’m very, very proud of is eight years serving for President Ronald Reagan. And it was wonderful to see the outpouring of support and admiration from this country as the president made his final journey.
It’s truly an incredible privilege to be able to work in the Defense Department with the remarkable men and women who serve this country today. I’d also like to thank the leadership of this foundation inspired by and dedicated to the Marines who help keep order in the world and to the men and women who help keep order here at home. To paraphrase the ancient saying, when you give someone the gift of education, you forever change their life. And through your scholarships, you are helping to shape America’s future and to honor America’s heroes.
I feel especially privileged to be part of this evening, given your extraordinary mission and truly humbled to be in the presence of these nine special heroes. I recall Vice President Cheney saying once that when you have the privilege to meet one of America’s medal of honor recipients, “Remember the moment, for you’ve just met one of the bravest men in our nation’s history.”
At this point, it’s appropriate to recognize the many distinguished guests present, but it’s a task that has already been largely and expertly handled for me. So I needed an innovative and creative way to single out the people that I should recognize. That’s a delicate mission, to be sure. So naturally, for delicate matters, you turn to a Marine.
And for this one, I turn to our former commandant and now Supreme Allied Commander [General] Jim Jones. In true Marine fashion, this will include everyone I want to recognize and it budgets every word with an economy that would elicit even from Donald Rumsfeld his famous toothy grin, so here goes: Marines, former Marines and friends of Marines…[Laughter] I think I’ve just recognized about everybody here … [laughter] … in seven words or less. [Applause] Proving, once again, that Marines are not only masters at budgeting their resources, they’re unequaled in making every shot count.
When today’s invitation came to my office, I can tell you I would have said “yes” regardless. But it came with a handwritten note of gentle encouragement from our wonderful vice chairman, General Pete Pace, the first Marine to hold that high office. He wrote to tell me that this foundation is “a great group of Americans,” which I know is true. And he made a big promise: “If you can support this event, you will have a good time.” Right again. But he didn’t stop there. In typical fashion, he wanted to ensure that all his bases were covered, so he went on to tell me, “You won’t have to work too hard.” In fact, he promised, “You should look on your role as something like the dear departed at an old-fashioned Irish wake. [Laughter] That is to say, the party can’t go on without you, but no one expects you to say very much. [Laughter] Well, don’t get your hopes up. [Laughter]
I do feel a special kinship with Pete Pace. No doubt, a large part of that is because we’re both number twos. When I accepted this job, I remembered the tradition of number twos and thought, how tough can that be. Ambrose Bierce, in his “Devil’s Dictionary” has a definition of a deputy. The deputy, it says “is commonly a handsome young man with a red necktie and an intricate system of cobwebs extending from his nose to his desk.” [Laughter] “When accidentally struck by the janitor’s broom, he gives off a cloud of dust.”
But that hardly describes what it’s like to work for Donald Rumsfeld. When Don Rumsfeld welcomed me back from my third tour at the Pentagon, he said, “Paul, we’re going to keep bringing you back until you get it right.” [Laughter]
And there’s hasn’t been a dull moment since—and no cobwebs. No cobwebs on Pete Pace either. We number twos have got to stick together. Pete is a lot of fun to be around. And he’s just plain funny. Of his great lines, I think, my favorite is: “You should never let a promising career get in the way of a good joke.” [Laughter]
I thought of that line every time I’ve been tempted to ask Donald Rumsfeld why he was coming back for a second tour. [Laughter] But so far, I’ve been able to resist the temptation. [Laughter]
But no one understood the impact of a good joke or liked one more than President Ronald Reagan, to whom we said farewell this weekend. I think he would have liked this particular legend from Marine Corps lore. It’s about one of those Marines under the command of Captain John Paul Jones aboard the Bonhomme Richard in the great naval battle of 1779 against the British ship, Serapis.
It was a pitched battle, one of the most dramatic sea fights in our history. Not surprisingly, the hero of our story was a Marine, probably a gunny. He was loading and firing his gun without stopping. And in the middle of that great fight, John Paul Jones, his clothes tattered, grimy, sweaty and bloody, went below to change into a new uniform. As he came topside, a big section of the mast, along with the ship’s colors, came crashing down. And a voice boomed through the smoke, the fire, the fog of war. It was a British captain demanding of Jones, “Have you struck your colors?” He wanted to know was the burning, sinking ship finally surrendering. And our Marine, all sweaty and bloody, turned around to see the captain of the ship resplendent in his clean Navy uniform and then he heard Jones’ immoral reply: “Struck, sir, I have not yet begun to fight.” And the gunny said, “That’s the Navy for you, always the last to get the word.” [Laughter]
Well, true story or not, it does tell us this, the Marines’ special qualities have been evident since the earliest days of the Corps: their bravery, their skill, their panache, their way with words. This funny story happens to be true. One of our distinguished Marine generals--who had the misfortune of being asked to brief the press in the early stage of the Afghan war—described the Taliban as “eviscerated,” a couple of weeks before they actually were. People were all over him for that particular use of the word. A wonderful Marine, a colonel who worked for me said, “Well, we Marines may not know how to spell ‘eviscerate,’ but we know how to do it.” [Laughter]
Well, the real truth, of course, is that Marines know how to do both and extraordinarily well. And lots of other things, too. In my job, I’m fortunate to meet America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. We just lost, by the way, the first Coast Guardsman in combat since World War II, helping to prevent a disaster in the Persian Gulf. I’ve been fortunate also to meet many men and women from our law enforcement organizations. I was born in Brooklyn, back when there was still an Ebbets Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And my heart went out to each one of those responders who rushed into the Twin Towers on that tragic day in September 2001. These are men and women who choose service over self-interest and they stand for those American values that Ronald Reagan spoke about so eloquently, and which had been brought out this past week in the moving tributes to our 40th president: idealism and optimism, common sense and decency, professionalism, pride and courage.
I’ve worked with enough Marines to learn a thing or two about your special club. My former boss, Secretary of State George Schultz, who fought as a Marine in the Pacific in World War II, was the one who first educated me on the point that there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. Marines never forget the Corps and they never forget their own. The same is true for those who serve in law enforcement. So I think it was probably inevitable that the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation would come to be—an organization that embraces fully Abraham Lincoln’s charge that American must care for “him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” And what this organization has done and is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.
In the Department of Defense, we are especially grateful for what you do to help educate the children of our Marines, and for what you’ve done for the children who lost a parent in the Pentagon on September 11th. This year, you’ve extended your generosity to children who lost parents serving as part of the international coalition in Afghanistan and in Iraq, taking your generosity to a truly global level. That is America at its best and we thank you for it.
Last summer I had the honor of joining Pete Pace at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. General Pace himself a veteran of battle in Hue City in Vietnam, told that audience, mostly made up of Korean veterans, that one thing that motivates every soldier or Marine in the heat of battle is the idea that their own personal actions might let our veterans down. General Pace concluded, “We’ll never, never let that happen.”
I think those words capture the essence of what this evening is all about. This is our generation’s hour of testing. The men and women who serve America today measure their own actions against a standard that Americans before them have fought and died to uphold in our nation’s hours of need. They have never let our veterans down. They have never let our allies down. And they have never let the American people down.
Those brave young Americans are the ones who deserve the recognition and the awards. So I’m happy to accept the foundation’s highest [Most Distinguished American] award with enormous gratitude and a full heart on behalf of all the men and women serving America today. They are truly our Most Distinguished Americans.
I had the privilege of serving with many distinguished Americans. Some of them are here tonight. You’ve seen them, General Jones, General Hagee, General Nyland, Sgt. Maj. Estrada, Sgt. Maj. McMichael. But they’re not all Marines.
Jack Keane is a great soldier whom I’m proud to call a friend. When Jack retired as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army last fall, he spoke words that applied to every American who serves or has served. “Foreign terrorists,” General Keane said, “have no idea who they’re up against. They think that we’re weak, but they do not know our will, our courage or our character. To understand America and Americans, they need to understand the Marne in 1918 or Tarawa in 1943, Omaha Beach in ’44 or the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. They need to understand that a nation that produces Alvin Yorke and Audie Murphy; John Pershing and George Marshall; Chesty Puller and George Patton; Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon; produces heroes in every generation. They are out there,” the general said, “performing every day.” And he is right.
There are American heroes out there now performing magnificently on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan today, 25 million Muslims who have suffered from a quarter century of invasion and Civil War, are struggling now to have a chance at what we have—with the help of brave Americans. In Iraq, another 25 million people, mostly Muslims again, are working to build a free Iraq after 35 years of torture and abuse by one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century—again with the help of brave Americans. Millions of Afghans and Iraqis are grateful to those Americans for the sacrifices that had given them a chance for freedom after decades of tyranny. But it is we Americans who should be grateful most of all because these brave men and women have been fighting for us and for our children and grandchildren, so that we can live free from the fear of terrorism that showed its horrible face on September 11th two years ago.
As this organization appreciates so well, among the people that went to war to meet this threat, there are heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion for their country and their cause. In their memory, we must rededicate ourselves, as President Lincoln said, “to compete the work which they have, thus far, so nobly advanced.”
Contemplating the sacrifice of the heroes who’ve come to the aid of our country in every hour of need, President Reagan used to ask, “Where do we find such men?” And he would answer, “They come from places large and small across this great nation.”
With each one I meet, I am changed. They impart the certain knowledge that courage and heroism are not simply ideas, they live in those who are called to selflessness and sacrifice.
I’d like to tell you tonight about three heroes that I’ve had the privilege to know personally: men and women who’ve been to war, who faced its dangers and borne its wounds. Although each of these individuals is remarkable, like the other three that General Hagee told you about, countless other Americans share the same noble spirit. Each of these individuals has a different perspective about what’s at stake in Iraq where they fought. Their views are not necessarily the same as mine. But what I find so moving about the men and women serving in this war, as in every one past, is that no matter what their personal views, their devotion to duty and their love and dedication to one another and to their country, are unquestioned, unwavering and unsurpassed.
Army Spec. Danielle Green is 27 years old. She comes from Chicago. Even lying in a hospital bed with her arm gone, she had a beautiful smile that lit up her face. Before she joined the Army and became a military policeman, she played basketball at Notre Dame where she helped lead that team to four NCAA tournament bids. But she had a childhood dream to join the Army – a dream that helped her avoid the fate of her single mother who had become addicted to drugs. That dream never left her.
And so on May 25th, Spec. Green was in Iraq with the 571st military police company. On her shift that day, she volunteered to go by herself to the roof of a Baghdad police station to provide security. And not long after, she heard a rocket strike a building in front of her. Then a second rocket tore into her left hand and knocked her onto her right side. As she lay there, she first thought she might die. But her next thought was, “Oh, God, I haven’t done enough in my life. I’m going to live to tell my story.” So she fought to stay awake. And she did.
When she got to the hospital, she asked her sergeant if her hand was gone. “Yes,” he told her. It happens to be her shooting hand – the one she’d use to score more than 1,100 points at Notre Dame. But she never mentioned that in my conversation with her. Instead, she spoke of her two buddies who went back to the roof to search for her hand. “They knew they’d get in trouble,” she said, “but they went anyway.” They found Danielle’s hand and her wedding rings. That meant the world to her.
How did she survive that terrible moment on the roof alone? She said, “The Army teaches you how to be brave.” But always in her conversation, she went back to the two soldiers who faced not only the Army’s wrath, but the real dangers of that roof. “Those soldiers,” she said, “are the real heroes and I told them how proud I was of them.”
Army Sergeant Adam Replogle is from Colorado. He has a new wife and a new baby. He was recently promoted to gunner and has served on every position on a tank crew. On May 12th, he and his unit were fighting Sadr’s army near Karbala. As they moved to make contact with the enemy, Sgt. Replogle was shot and momentarily paralyzed. But he remembers getting up and firing again. Then an RPG slammed into his chest. He lost his left arm and the sight in his left eye. “I wish the injuries hadn’t happened,” he said, “but I’m going to get on with my life.”
Was the sacrifice worth it? Adam had this to say: “Of course, it was worth it. We’re fighting for everything we believe in. We’ve freed Iraqis from a dictator who was killing Iraqis by the millions. Saddam affected everyone in that country. Something had to be done.”
Sgt. Replogle had been part of a mission to remove that threat, to undo that harm and to rebuild a new Iraq. “We’ve done so much there,” he said. “You should have seen my sector after a year. There were two schools when we arrived, now there are 40.”
He has personally changed many lives in Iraq. He had made friends with interpreters. He had destroyed terrorist cells. He had helped people get back into their houses. He spoke about teaching Iraqi kids to say some words in English He even bought bikes for Iraqi girls and boys. “After all,” he said, “they only cost 5 bucks, and these kids didn’t have anything.”
“Ask 90 percent of the Iraqis,” he said, “and they say God bless America.”
Like Danielle Green and Adam Replogle, Corporal Eddie Wright, U.S. Marine Corps, is another impressive human being. Corporal Wright is 28 and from Seattle. His father is an Air Force colonel, currently a surgeon with Air Force Special Operations. Corporal Wright has been in the Marine Corps three and a half years. On April 7th he and his fellow Marines were escorting a convoy of Humvees and trucks to a supply point near Fallujah, looking for enemy mortar teams, when they were ambushed. As Wright was firing his weapon, it was hit by an RPG. His eardrum was ruptured, his femur was broken and both of his hands were blown off. Wright’s team leader and a machine gunner were hit also. One Marine had never seen combat before and another seemed to have forgotten what he was trained to do, even as he was trying to help Wright tend to his wounds. “I had to help him calm down,” Wright said. “I knew I was in bad shape and I had to keep calm myself or I’d die. Plus we were still in the kill zone.”
So, Wright told the Marine to relax, that he was fine—both hands missing, remember. He told them how to get tourniquets to help staunch the bleeding in his leg and arms. He directed the Marine in each step of his own first aid. He also directed the driver how to steer their way out of the ambush zone.
A couple of weeks ago, Corporal Wright was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. I’d like to read from the citation. “Corporal Wright,” it says, “was the epitome of composure, understanding the severity of his own injuries, he calmly instructed others on how to remove the radio, call for support and render first aid. He also pointed out enemy machine gun emplacements to his fellow Marines, assisting in the demise of 26 enemies killed in action.”
With a Marine’s typical bravado, Eddie Wright said, “Nobody fights as well as the Marines.” But he captured the essence of why all U.S. forces are so effective. “As an American,” he said, “you don’t have to know the guy next to you, but you’ll still fight to the death for him.”
Eddie wants to stay in the Marines where he’s wanted to be since he was a boy. My military assistant Brigadier General Frank Helmick who’s here tonight and, by the way, who spent seven months as Assistant Division Commander for the marvelous 101st Airborne Division up in Mosul in Iraq. General Helmick has a story that embodies Corporal Wright’s endowment of optimism. Eddie was telling the general about his team leader, the one who’d been injured in the firefight that same day. When the team leader saw photos of Corporal Wright’s Bronze Star ceremony, he told the young Marines that he’s training now down at Quantico all about Corporal Wright. And he told them about what happened after Corporal Wright was evacuated.
And with great enthusiasm, Wright repeated his team leader’s words: “We smoked their hindquarters” – only hindquarters isn’t the word he actually used. [Laughter]
Eddie Wright is moving on with his life with the same courage he summoned in that desperate firefight in Iraq. He’s determined to make his life every bit as useful to his family and his country as his service has already been. You may have seen Corporal Wright paying his respects to President Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda the other day. Seeing that gallant young hero whose life lies ahead of him salute the gallant old warrior who now belongs to the ages … in that moment, I was struck by this: great Americans come along just when we need them most, ready to risk what’s most dear to do the right thing. There is no question America is richly and deeply blessed.
Recent weeks have been marked by remembrance from Memorial Day in Normandy to the monument for the veterans of the Second World War and the passing of a great president. We remember each of those events for what we mourn. But we’re an optimistic people, as Ronald Reagan constantly reminded us. So we also remember them for what we celebrate: our freedom, our nation, our heroes.
And for each life lost, death never has the final word. Love has the final word, because it comes from Almighty God: love of country, love of duty, love of a buddy on the front line. Our wounded heroes will bear the marks of courage the rest of their lives, but they will see their wounds not as a burden or a scar, but as a reminder from God that they responded to a call that few may be able to answer.
“Something had to be done,” that’s what Adam Replogle said. In each generation, countless Americans have done it.
Green, Replogle and Wright and so many others stand for what is decent and good and true.
In recent days we paid appropriate tribute to the “Greatest Generation” that saved the world from the menace of Nazism. Then the burdens of war were enormous and had to be shared widely among the American people. Today most of us are spared those burdens, but that makes it even more important that organizations like yours help those who bear the greatest burden: helping mobilize Americans at large to help bind the wounds of war. This generation is every bit as great as that “Greatest Generation.” We owe them nothing less.
One veteran of the Second World War, Bob Dole, looking back on his youth said, “We were just ordinary young men and women who were asked in some cases to do extraordinary things.”
Well, the future belongs to such men and women – heroes who dream the oldest and noblest dream of all: the dream of peace and freedom.
May God bless our Marines. May God bless all the men and women who serve us so selflessly and so well. And may God bless America. Semper Fidelis. [Applause]