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United We Serve Kick Off
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, DC, Monday, June 22, 2009

Good afternoon.  It’s a real pleasure to be here and to have the opportunity to thank all of you in person for your work at Walter Reed.

As you may know, today is the start of the President’s summer service initiative – United We Serve – a call for all Americans to engage in their communities and help build a better future for our country.

Of course, you have already answered that call – and answered it resolutely.  Earlier I had a chance to hear about what your organizations are doing here and at our other military hospitals.  To say that it is impressive would be an understatement.  Your work plays a vital role in uplifting spirits and easing the burdens on the families of our wounded.

Countless activities and projects, tens of thousands of volunteer hours, work sustained over many years – the collective magnitude of what you have accomplished cannot be summed up in just a few minutes.  And nor can I fully express my appreciation for all that you have done in these brief remarks.  Let me just say that, for those whose lives you have touched, every gesture, no matter how small, has a tangible impact.

I know you do it because you feel, like I do, a deep pride in a new generation of Americans who, when faced with extraordinary challenges, have answered a call to duty, honor, and country.  During my time as Secretary of Defense, I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world and meet with our men and women in uniform, at every level, from privates to four-stars.  I’ve also met with the families of these extraordinary service members.  In all of these encounters, I feel honored to serve alongside them; humbled by their extraordinary sense of duty and dedication and their willingness to risk life and limb in defense of our country; and blessed to live in a country with so many brave men and women.

As Americans, we owe them so much.  And as only Americans can do, I believe that our citizens – you – have risen to the occasion, a far cry from the last time we were engaged in a protracted war in the 1960s and 1970s.  You see it in airports all over the country, where soldiers are met with standing ovations by passengers in the terminal.  I’ve been there, I’ve seen it myself.  There are free meals, rounds of drinks – I hope only for everyone who’s over 21.  And, above all, simple thank yous.  The appreciation is real, it is heartfelt, and it bridges any political divide.

And while we’re all united in our admiration of those who have volunteered to serve our nation during these challenging times, it takes a special kind of person to devote part of their life to actively making the lives of our troops better – both during their deployments and when they get back.  That is especially important for those who bear the wounds of war, both seen and unseen.

To be honest, when I first learned that part of my duties as Secretary of Defense was to visit the wounded at our hospitals, here at Walter Reed and elsewhere, I wasn’t sure I could handle it – or what I would say.  Seeing firsthand the incredible sacrifice our men and women in uniform had made, I wasn’t sure I could keep it together.  But people kept telling me, “You don’t understand, they’ll lift you up.”

And they did.  And they do whenever I visit here and other facilities – especially when they tell me sometimes I look younger in person.  Their grit and resilience and indomitable spirit amaze and inspire me every time.  It reminds me of a notice posted on a door at Bethesda’s National Naval Medical Center.  You may have heard about it.  Lieutenant Jason Redman, a SEAL, took rounds from a machine-gun in his face and arm in Iraq.  When he got to Bethesda, he put a bright orange sign on his door warning away those who might feel sorry for him.  He wrote:  “The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love.  I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery.  What is full?  That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover.  Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity.  This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth.”  After more than 20 surgeries, Lieutenant Redman returned to the SEALs.  I had the honor of meeting with him and his family a few months ago.  He told me that he hopes to lead a SEAL platoon back downrange as soon as he’s well enough.  Talk about sheer mental tenacity.

These days we hear a lot about how our society for the most part is not involved in the war effort – that most citizens are not directly affected by the ongoing conflicts.  There is an element of truth to these claims.  But in making them, there is also a tendency to overlook all the good work that is being done on behalf of our troops – the work being done by organizations such as those represented here and by compassionate and selfless citizens across the nation.  Your work here is invaluable in creating an atmosphere that promotes, as Lieutenant Redman suggested, fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth.

Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get – you make a life by what you give.”  You all live this motto.  You have much to be proud of.  You are an example for the entire rest of the country.

A final thought.  I take the issue of wounded warriors personally.  I will repeat here the pledge I made to myself, to Congress, and to countless moms and dads and husbands and wives:  Other than winning the wars we are in, my highest priority is providing the best possible care for those who are wounded in combat.

At the heart of our volunteer force is a contract between the United States of America and the men and women who serve in our military:  a contract that is simultaneously legal, social, and sacred.  That when young Americans step forward of their own free will to serve, they do so with the expectation that they and their families will be properly cared of should something happen on the battlefield.  That eternal commitment is engraved high on the walls of President Abraham Lincoln’s memorial.  His words echo through time, calling on us today to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

You have helped answer that call, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Thank you very much.