Thank you for the very warm introduction. I must say, those two videos were so powerful that I’m not sure I’m really up to any comparable eloquence. But I have an obligation to say some things here this evening, so bear with me.
It’s always amusing actually to come to this wonderful building and reflect on the fact that it is named after our 40th President, Ronald Reagan. I’ve frequently wondered what President Reagan who was known for his belief in small government would have to say about having his name on the largest office building in Washington, owned by the federal government.
But of course, President Reagan knew that the federal government has some important responsibilities that no one else can meet. And its most important purpose, the highest calling anyone could have, is to guarantee the security of the United States and its people. On that issue, Ronald Reagan never quibbled about the size of the government or its cost.
And he was more than a friend of the military. He was a veteran himself. Because of poor eyesight, he was kept from combat. But he served in the Army Reserve during the Second World War. He put his talents to work in the Army Air Force Motion Picture Unit.
And of course, he wasn’t the first occupant in the White House to serve in the Guard or the Reserve. As President Bush told the National Guard Association just a few days ago, “You’ve had many famous Americans in your ranks,” our President said, “including men named Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and Truman. Nineteen individuals have served both in the Guard and as President of the United States and I,” President Bush said, “I am proud to be one of them.” [Applause]
In one of those little twists of history, on September 11, 2001, the F-16s that escorted Air Force One back to Washington belonged to the President’s own unit, the Texas Air National Guard.
And my boss, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld -- who sends you warm greetings this evening -- is a former Reservist, as well. He’s also a former businessman who employed Guardsmen and Reservists. He knows what it means to serve, and he knows how important it is for business leaders to support those who serve, especially in this long struggle against terrorism.
It’s been three years since September 11th and our men and women in uniform have done a fantastic job. In Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq and in many smaller efforts all around the world, they have destroyed terrorist bases and cells, killed or captured hundreds of terrorists and their leaders, disrupted untold numbers of plots against us and against our friends, and in the process they’ve liberated 50 million people from oppression. [Applause] And by the way, most of them are Muslims.
In fact, if you think back over the last 13 or 14 years, I count seven times when American servicemen and women have gone into harm’s way to save people from tyranny or aggression or war-induced famine. Whether it was in Kuwait, whether it was Operation Provide Comfort at the end of Desert Storm, in Somalia, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, then in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. In every one of those cases, most of the people they were rescuing were Muslims.
This is not a war against Muslims. Indeed, I would argue, and I say this from personal experience, having been ambassador to Indonesia, the country with more Muslims than any in the world, who, by the way, has just successfully completed its second democratic election, which is a real milestone. This is a war as much for Muslims as any other decent people in the world.
And I can’t say enough about the professionalism, the courage, and the patriotism of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, who do so much for other people while making this country safe and secure. [Applause]
One of the things that’s most impressive is that even in war they retain the qualities of citizen soldiers. They’re all volunteers, whether Active Duty, Reservist or National Guard, they embody the best of American values. They’ve shown themselves to be true American heroes. They’re brave when they have to fight, and they are caring and compassionate whenever they have a chance.
It’s a great tribute to our country that we attract such men and women to volunteer their services to our nation. It’s also a tribute to the good sense their civilian employers who recognize them as the kind of individuals they want working for their companies.
And now that those employees have been called up, you, their employers, have set aside your own interests to help support Reservists and National Guardsmen on your payrolls.
Your actions have helped to ensure that Guardsmen and Reservists would be in the thick of the action, starting on that awful day, September 11th on the streets of lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. And then the very next day, September 12th, when more than 6,000 Guardsmen and Reservists answered our country’s call, providing medical and technical assistance; securing our coasts, our borders and our airports; patrolling our streets; and flying combat air patrols to protect America’s skies in ways that we had never imagined we would have to do.
Today nearly 180,000 Service members from the Reserve component and the National Guard are serving on active duty. They’ve been a crucial part of our force structure in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we brought freedom to oppressed people, and as we work to destroy the habitat where terrorists breed and train and hide.
And at the same time, Reservists and Guardsmen have been keeping the peace in Bosnia and providing logistic support for peacekeepers in Kosovo. They have been providing port security throughout the Middle East. And they’ve taken on challenging new missions here at home at critical points throughout our infrastructure.
Those missions place great stress on the Guard and Reserve. We’ve had to ask people to work for longer periods, in larger numbers and often in the face of great hardship and danger. But the forces responded. It’s done everything the country has asked it to do.
And there are countless examples. One of them – Joe, I’m going to embarrass you -- is here with us tonight. He’s Army Staff Sergeant Joe Bowser of Lexington, Kentucky.
In civilian life, Joe has four children. He works for the U.S. Postal Service. But Joe is also a soldier who served in the regular Army in the 1980s and put in nine years in the Reserves.
That wasn’t enough for him. After September 11th, wanting to do his part in the war on terrorism, he rejoined the Reserves last October. He was activated in December and deployed to Iraq.
On April 19th, near the Iraqi town of Balad, Joe was looking out for what he calls his “battle buddy,” a young soldier who reminded him of his daughter, when he was hit by an enemy rocket.
I first met Joe at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he was recovering from severe wounds that have cost him the loss of his foot. And I want you to know the only complaint he’s been known to make to anyone is his regret that he isn’t back with his unit. He wants to know when he can get back. [Applause]
Joe, we’re here to recognize you for your personal service and sacrifice, but also a way of recognizing those thousands of others who have paid in one way or another and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We thank you for being here to represent all of them tonight.
Another soldier who sticks in my mind is someone you may have read about a few weeks ago. He is Staff Sergeant Jackie Christian, also the father of four children, including a daughter who’s a Marine. In civilian life, Jackie Christian is a caregiver, a nurse’s aide at Valley View Nursing Home in Akron, Ohio. And when he isn’t serving sick or disabled patients, he’s serving his country.
Staff Sergeant Christian has served for 35 years in the Air Force and in the Army, as a Reservist and in the National Guard. Long before he ever set foot in Iraq, he served in Vietnam. And when asked why he has continued to serve beyond an age when most people look for something safer and less challenging to do, he answers simply, “Because I love my country.”
On Easter Sunday, Sergeant Christian was part of a fuel convoy outside Baghdad that came under a mortar attack. He was wounded. He lost an eye and the partial use of an arm.
Back here in the U.S., where he’s recovering from his injuries, he was interviewed by the Akron Beacon Journal. They asked if he would consider himself a hero, and he answered, “No. I’m a patriot and a soldier. That’s all I am.” He added, “I believe it’s my duty to serve my country. I feel I can do my part.” He sure does. [Applause]
And then he spoke about his mission, saying, “We need to finish what we started. We need to make it safe so [the Iraqis] can take over.”
And Iraqis are taking over. They’re stepping up to take the lead in their own country. They are stepping up to build democratic institutions, to join the police and security forces, and to fight back, despite the enemy’s repeated attempts to intimidate them by indiscriminate killings and beheadings, by bombing police stations and lines of willing volunteers.
By our own count -- Gen. [David] Petraeus [Commander, Multinational Security Transition Command] and I are sure this is a serious underestimate -- but by our own count, more than 700 Iraqi soldiers, police and National Guardsmen have given their lives on the front line in the past year. They died in the struggle to free their country from tyranny and terror.
If you go to our Web site, at least by tomorrow morning, I’m assured, you’ll be able to find that at Defense.mil or DoD.mil, search for the name, “Sally,” the name of a young woman interpreter who was written up by Corporal Veronika Tuskowski from the 1st Marine Division. Sally was an interpreter first with the Army in Baghdad. When they first arrived, she volunteered. And then with the Marines out near Fallujah.
She’s lost everything working with our forces to help rebuild Iraq. Her children were taken from her more than six months ago. Her husband beat her. Her brother held a gun to her head and threatened her life. Her own father put a contract out on her. But she said, “You soldiers and Marines come from America to help my country. I must help you help my people. I see these soldiers that lose their lives for Iraqis. They come into our country and die for us. We must appreciate these guys. I appreciate the Army and Marines. I love them.” [Applause]
Why do Iraqi men and women like that keep coming forward? Because they know that their enemy -- our enemy -- offers nothing but death, destruction and despair. And the Iraqis in enormous numbers prefer life and freedom instead. They are taking a stand against an enemy who revels in the beheading of innocent and defenseless civilians, like Eugene Armstrong, whose horrible murder was videotaped a few days ago.
Iraqis are taking a stand against an enemy whose whole evil philosophy was summed up in a letter we intercepted from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al Qaeda associated in Iraq, that he sent to his colleagues in Afghanistan in January. That letter talked disparagingly of Iraqis, who, Zarqawi said -- get this – “look ahead to a sunny tomorrow a prosperous future, a carefree life, comfort and favor.” He says with contempt.
Read that letter. It’s readily available on the Internet. Read it and think about what he’s saying about his hatred for whole groups of human beings, including Muslim Kurds and Muslim Shia, about his glorification of death and violence. His words don’t call to mind the worship of God, but the worship of death, the evil of the Nazi SS, who put the death’s head symbol so proudly on their uniforms -- the same kind of evil.
Standing against that evil are freedom-loving Iraqis, including the new Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is here visiting in the United States as we speak. Prime Minister Allawi was sleeping in his apartment in London in 1979 and heard a noise and woke just in time to move out of the way of an axe wielded by an assassin dispatched by Saddam. It missed his head, nearly severed an arm, and he spent a year in the hospital.
He survived three – I think, three -- additional assassination attempts in the years since. And he knows that he’s Number One on Zarqawi’s hit list. But he continues to serve. He continues to visit Iraqis on the front lines, to visit bomb sites, and to fight for a democratic Iraq. And he’s not alone. A few days ago in London, he said, Iraqis “are succeeding against the forces of evil…. [D]emocracy is going to prevail.”
When I visited Iraq in June, I met quite a few Iraqis cut from the same cloth. One that I won’t forget is one Iraqi woman – another translator – who was working for our Army up in Mosul, in Northern Iraq. Her sister had recently been murdered because she was working for the Americans, working for a free Iraq. My Military Assistant, Gen. Frank Helmick, who knew her from his time with the 101st Airborne Division, asked her “Why do you continue to work with us then?” And she said very simply, “My father told me you must never back down in the face of evil.”
Brave American soldiers like Joe Bowser and Jackie Christian are fighting so that Iraqis like these have a chance to stand up for freedom. These are hardworking Americans who would be safer delivering the mail or caring for nursing home patients, but who have willingly gone wherever and whenever their country has needed them. And in the process, they’re not only helping to make us safer, they’re making the world a much better place.
Heroes like them need the support of their employers. We know it’s a challenge. As the President acknowledged, “This time of call-ups and alerts,” he said, “and mobilizations, and deployments has been difficult for Guard [and Reserve] members and their families and employers.”
In fact, it’s a challenge as old as our nation -- going back to the day in 1775 when the Minutemen responded to Paul Revere’s alarm and left their homes to fire the shot heard around the world. Think about it: the shot that still echoes around the world, the shot of people fighting for freedom.
John Adams told a Boston minister, “We must all be soldiers now.” So a few weeks later, an apprentice in Adams’ law office decided he would enlist. Faced with the loss of a critical employee, Adams had second thoughts. He told the young man, “We cannot all be soldiers.”
But I’m sure Adams came around, just as the companies represented here have done more than come around. Some of you have extended medical benefits to Guardsmen and Reservists among your employees. Others have made up salary differences, or established support mechanisms for families. I know that Home Depot, one of our honorees here tonight, is making special provisions so that wounded soldiers get hiring preference. They’re looking for jobs at Home Depot.
Don’t give up on the Postal Service, Joe! [Laughter]
All of you have gone the extra mile to support our citizen soldiers. And in a nation with employers like that, the companies we’re honoring tonight really stand out. Each of these companies was nominated by their employees who are serving in the Guard or Reserve. Those employees know firsthand what their companies have done because they are the beneficiaries. And I don’t think there’s a better recommendation than that.
The recipients of the Freedom Award tonight include companies that are household names and some others that are small and less well-known. But in all cases, these employers have shown a willingness to bear financial hardship and to cope with organizational disruptions. They have done so, in the words of one company manager, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Each of these companies deserves our thanks.
Two years ago, we marked the first anniversary of the attacks on America by dedicating the rebuilt section in the Pentagon and by quoting the words of the prophet, Isaiah: “See, upon the palms of my hands, I have written your name. Your walls are ever before me. Your builders outstrip your destroyers.”
Ladies and gentlemen, our builders do indeed, outstrip our destroyers. And you – all of you – are among freedom’s builders.
Thank you for what you do. And God bless America. And let’s proceed with our presentations. Thank you.