Thank you Clarence.
Leaders of the American Legion and the Legion Auxiliary…
Friends and fellow supporters of our men and women in uniform…
There is nothing more humbling in my job than meeting with those who have served, and their families.
A few months ago, I presided over an induction ceremony for the Medal of Honor. The medal went to a young Sergeant from New Hampshire who had a humble and unassuming manner. His name was Jared Monti.
Jared’s whole family, and many of the troops he served with, joined us that day in the Pentagon.
Many of you have heard of Jared’s deeds in Afghanistan on a cold mountain pass on June 21, 2006. His actions that day saved his patrol from being overrun.
High on a mountainside near Pakistan, Jared’s patrol came under attack by a much larger enemy force. As darkness fell, a wall of fire poured out of the tree line. Jared began directing the patrol’s defenses—establishing a perimeter, directing fire, calling for artillery support, and personally repelling two enemy assaults.
It was after the second attack that the patrol realized one of their own lay wounded in a shallow depression twenty meters away.
“He is my soldier,” Jared said. “I’m going to get him.”
In an act of extraordinary courage, Jared advanced through a wall of enemy fire to try and reach his wounded comrade. Twice he was driven back and forced to seek cover. On his third attempt, he was mortally wounded just feet from where his comrade lay.
Sergeant Monti’s heroism that night rallied his unit, who successfully fought off an enemy force more than three times their size. Because of his decisive action, eleven of his fellow fifteen soldiers came home alive.
Honor. Duty. Country. A love for his fellow soldiers. These are the values that defined Jared Monti's life. His selflessness that day on the mountain was nothing new—it was how he had treated others all along.
Our soldiers live these values everyday. Their sacrifice reminds us all that the price of freedom is great.
Over the past eight years, our men and women in uniform have borne a great burden.
To keep our country safe, they have repeatedly bid their families farewell, and placed their lives at risk. They have now fought in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World War I and World War II combined.
Their sacrifice is bringing security to America, and stability to many parts of the world.
In Iraq, our forces continue to responsibly draw down on schedule. Iraq is beginning to emerge as a sovereign and stable country. And the U.S. and Iraq have together laid the foundation for a long-term strategic partnership.
As our forces leave Iraq, we face tough new challenges in Afghanistan.
As we have seen in city of Marja, the fighting is fierce. Our soldiers are exposed to great risks daily, from IEDs, snipers and suicide attacks.
The initial phase of the Marja offensive is nearing completion. Our strategy, however, recognizes that military action is only the first step in a successful transition. The Afghan government and security forces must ultimately take responsibility for security and governance. So the Marines are working with the Afghans and U.S. civilians to help establish government services.
Because of our new strategy, and President Obama’s deployment of additional troops, Marja is one of many cities in Afghanistan that has begun to have hope. And with Pakistan’s capture of key Taliban leaders, the strategy of targeting adversaries on both sides of the border is paying off.
We still have a long road ahead. But we are working hard with the Afghan government and with our partners to shift the momentum in our favor.
The steady leadership Secretary Gates has exercised in the war effort is also being brought to bear in the Department of Defense itself.
We have the best trained, best-equipped, and best-led fighting force in the world. And we intend to keep it that way.
For the second year in a row, President Obama has increased the Department’s budget. These increases are difficult in a time of fiscal austerity when domestic budgets are frozen. But the President believes that at a time when we are fighting two wars and facing new and diverse threats, we need to provide the budgets needed to protect our national security.
Our first priority is supporting troops on the ground.
To make our fighting force more effective in the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan, we are delivering better capabilities, and drawing upon more of the Department’s resources to field them quickly.
We have re-balanced our procurement priorities to support the fight. We are buying more mine-resistant vehicles, more helicopters, and more intelligence and surveillance assets. We have made logistics improvements to speed the flow of supplies. And we are focusing a far greater percentage of research and development on immediate warfighter needs.
These changes have placed the Pentagon on a war footing, in direct support of our troops. Our aim is twofold: to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan, and while doing so, to institutionalize our capability to fight irregular conflits.
At the same time, we are maintaining our very substantial conventional margin against almost any plausible adversary. Our newly released Quadrennial Defense Review outlines how we plan to address conventional threats, as well as more unconventional and asymmetric threats.
As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate, the nature of war is evolving. The threats we face have become more diffuse. And they emanate from failed or failing states as well as aggressor powers. Defeating them often requires more than a military response.
We have a lot on our plate. And in this fiscal climate, we simply can’t afford to waste defense dollars. So we have begun a new era of greater accountability at the Pentagon.
The poor performance of programs and budgets will not be tolerated. Nor will advocating for systems and weapons that we don’t need.
Last year, Secretary Gates canceled or curtailed lower-priority or under-performing programs that, if taken to completion, would have cost the taxpayer $330 billion dollars. This year he has proposed cutting seven more major systems.
The bottom line is that by exercising program discipline, we are becoming a better and more capable department. In the aggregate, these tough decisions enhance our ability to protect the American people.
Creating greater accountability is not just about canceling performing poorly programs. It’s also about doing business in better ways.
The Department needs to be a smarter buyer. To ensure the warfighter gets the best equipment and support we can provide, we are strengthening and enlarging our acquisition workforce. We are bringing in-house much of the expertise we used to contract out. And as directed by new bipartisan legislation, we will rely on cost-estimates conducted by independent parties.
A better acquisition system is a critical objective. But the bedrock of our military today, as it has been throughout our history, is our people.
The long duration of the two wars we are in has placed unprecedented stress on both active and reserve components.
To ease the deployment tempo and to address the wider mission set our forces now take on, we have increased the size of the Army and Marines Corps and we have halted reductions in the Navy and Air Force.
This year, the budget we proposed to Congress again increases troop pay, increases support for military families, and increases medical care for service members.
Our military health-care system is by no means perfect. And like our healthcare system more generally, expenses are growing at a rate that is probably not sustainable over the long term.
But we have significant successes to celebrate.
90% of those wounded in Iraq survived – a survival rate 10 percent higher than in the Gulf War. Those recovering from IED attacks receive more support. And we are much better equipped to treat the unseen wounds in our warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
We are also working to de-stigmatize the mental health issues that have affected soldiers from every war. Those with PTSD and depression have suffered silently for too long.
In this Administration, taking care of our troops after they leave the service is one of the President’s top priorities.
The wars we have engaged in since 9/11 have bequeathed us half a million new veterans. We are doing all we can to keep faith with them and their families.
As President Obama has said, “We are not going to abandon these American heroes. We are going to do right by them.”
That’s why our First Lady, Michele Obama, has been visiting with military families and advocating for their needs.
That’s why Congress has passed a new legislation increasing GI Bill benefits.
And that’s why our Department is helping service members transition to veteran status.
We are making progress on single electronic health records that will follow our service members their entire lives. And we have expanded job and life counseling to help our troops successfully begin their civilian lives.
Our investments, taken together, represent a historic increase in support for those who have served our country.
As we work to support our soldiers and our veterans, the American Legion has been with us every step of the way.
Since the guns of World War One fell silent, you have cared for our soldiers after they have separated from service. Today, four generations later, you are helping a new group of veterans find their place.
Your volunteers are often the first to comfort our wounded warriors. Through your “Heros to Hometowns” program, you help severely injured vets resettle in communities across America. And through financial assistance and family support programs, you have provided a lifeline to countless veterans and active duty soldiers.
In caring for our soldiers, you are upholding a sacred bond with those who have served.
The sacred bond is “we always look after our own.”
This is what Sergeant Jared Monti died on a mountainside trying to do.
Against a hail of enemy fire, he tried to reach a fellow soldier in need.
To honor his memory, and to carry on the duty that he no longer can, this is what we can and must do.
We must look after all of our own.
I am proud to say that through the Department’s efforts, and those of the Legion, our veterans are in good hands.
Leaders of the Legion:
America’s servicemen and women stand in your debt.
You are a valued partner in maintaining our national defense.
I wish you well this week in Washington.
May we honor all those who serve.