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2009 Intrepid Freedom Award
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, New York City, NY, Thursday, May 21, 2009

          Brent [Scowcroft] is an example of patriotism, dedication, and total integrity that has inspired me for three-and-a-half decades. He is my friend and he is my role model. This event reminds me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin in talking about public service said one day people will raise him up and praise him and say Hosanna and the next day will say crucify him. And that is Washington today.
          I’m honored to receive this year’s Intrepid Freedom Award, and join an honor roll that includes, in part, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and four presidents of the United States. And it is especially amazing to be on this ship, with its storied history, in the presence of a number of its former crew.
          Of course, it is “Fleet Week” in New York harbor, and let me especially welcome all the naval officers from our allied and partner nations, as well as members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard who are with us tonight. With the festivities in full swing, I can tell that many of you have been enjoying “the city that never sleeps.” In fact, for many of you, this may have served as your personal motto this week. Ah, to be young.
          My thanks to the Fisher family and the Intrepid Museum co-chairs and trustees for this honor, and more importantly, for everything you do to support our troops and their families through the Intrepid family of charitable organizations. In addition to the museum foundation, which gave this ship new life as a treasured landmark and educational center, there is:
          • The Fisher House program, a unique public-private partnership that supports military families in their time of need;
          • The Intrepid Relief Fund, which provides hardship and education assistance to troops and their families; and
          • The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, assisting countless wounded service members and veterans, and the families of those who have died in defense of our country.
          Last summer, I helped break ground in Bethesda at the National Intrepid Center for psychological health and traumatic brain injury. That facility joins the original Intrepid Center in San Antonio as a world-class institution that will greatly improve understanding and treatment of the signature injuries of the current conflicts. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have no higher priority than caring for our wounded warriors.
          They are truly inspiring. Before I visited troops in the hospital for the first time, I was very apprehensive. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I would or if I could handle it. But people kept telling me, “No, you don’t understand, they will lift you up.” And they did. And they still always do.  Last week, I was visiting with a wounded young soldier at Walter Reed. First he thanked me for sending the armored vehicle that saved his life. Then he told me with tears in his eyes that I looked a lot younger in person than I do in the newspapers. Well, that really lifted me up. Now it must have been my lean and sinewy body…oh hell, even I can’t tell you that with a straight face. It’s a bold-faced lie.
          But these wounded warriors, and all of the men and women who step forward to wear America’s uniform, are tonight’s real honorees and heroes. Consider that nearly 800 have received Silver Stars or service crosses, along with five Medals of Honor – all posthumous – for valor in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their stories are as varied and as diverse as the nation and military they serve. They are getting the public recognition that they are due.
          We saw this earlier in tonight’s program with regard to Colonel Strobl and Chance Phelps – and it’s wonderful to see the Phelps family with us tonight.
          And I must tell you that seeing the film “Taking Chance” profoundly influenced my decision to empower families to decide whether the dignified transfers at Dover should be open to the news media. The entire nation has thus been given the opportunity to pay respect and homage to our fallen heroes – if their families so wish.
          Our men and women in uniform are part of what is being called a new greatest generation. Take the story of Lance Corporal Brady Gustafson. Last summer in the Afghan village of Shewan, Corporal Gustafson and a group of Marines outfought and outlasted an estimated 100 Taliban. With his right leg in shreds, Corporal Gustafson kept on firing, and as a result, in his words, “we didn’t lose a single Marine.” He received the Navy Cross and a deserved place – along with the celebrities, politicians, and CEOs – among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. And all that brought to my mind, and Brady Gustafson comes to mind, when I think of an astute observation by an athlete who said that celebrities are someone you want to meet; a hero is someone you want to be like.
          Sometimes the public recognition isn’t always expected – or necessarily welcomed. Specialist Zachary Boyd recently was enjoying a well-deserved sleep when his post in eastern Afghanistan came under enemy attack. He immediately grabbed his rifle and rushed into a defensive position clad in his helmet, body armor, and pink boxer shorts that said “I Love New York.” Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your perspective – an Associated Press photographer was there for a candid shot, a photo which ran very shortly thereafter on the front page of the New York Times. Boyd later told his parents that: “I may not have a job anymore after the president sees me out of uniform.”
          Well, let me tell you, the next time I visit Afghanistan I want to meet Specialist Boyd and shake his hand. Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage. And I can only wonder about the impact on the Taliban. Just imagine seeing that – a guy in pink boxers and flip-flops has you in his crosshairs – what an incredible innovation in psychological warfare. I can assure you that Specialist Boyd’s job is very safe indeed.
          Not too long ago a friend of mine from Texas A&M told me he had been waiting for a plane at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. A man ran into the waiting area and said that a planeload of troops coming home from Afghanistan were arriving on the level below. Virtually everyone there – hundreds of people waiting for planes – stampeded down the stairs to applaud as the service members entered the terminal. This is the kind of thing one sees in cities and towns all across this country. The appreciation is real, it is sincere, and it bridges any political divide. Our men and women in uniform – our heroes – deserve no less.
          My thanks once more for this honor and for all that you do for our troops and their families. Thank you.