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Army 236th Birthday

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Pentagon Courtyard, Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Secretary McHugh, thank you very much for that extremely kind introduction.  And thanks to Secretary Shinseki, General Dempsey, Sergeant Major Chandler, civilian and military officials, veterans, families, and all of the distinguished guests here today.  As an aside, General Dempsey, I’m sorry we’re making you redecorate yet another office after just a few months, not to mention relinquishing the leadership of your beloved Army, but you have my deepest thanks for answering the call, and I know you will be an exceptional Chairman for all our men and women who serve. 

I will say as an aside among other things I told the NATO defense ministers last week, was that I was beginning to feel like a tenor in a very long and bad opera.  And in the last scene, a protracted death scene, and people keep waiting for me to go down for the count, and I keep coming back up to sing one more aria.  But thanks for the kind remarks gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here celebrating the 236th birthday of the United States Army.  One of the things I will miss most when I leave this post are occasions like this, where we have the opportunity to honor the remarkable soldiers, past and present, who have forged the most formidable army the world has ever seen.  And also of course, I’ll miss the cake – itself a pretty dramatic testimony to the Army’s can-do spirit and logistical prowess.

I know for many soldiers coming to the Pentagon after an assignment down range or with troop units can be quite a jarring, even bewildering, experience.  One of my personal heroes has always been Dwight Eisenhower, whose portrait hangs in my office next to George Marshall, two historical Army officers.  But even Eisenhower was occasionally defeated by this building.  Once, shortly after World War II, he made the mistake of trying to find his office by himself, and got very lost.  He later wrote:  “One had to give the building his grudging admiration; it had apparently been designed to confuse any enemy who might infiltrate it.”

Eisenhower’s example has been much on my mind lately.  Last week we marked the 67th anniversary of D-day—part of that day I spent with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan—D-day, one of Eisenhower’s – and the U.S. Army’s – greatest triumphs.  One of the most deadly obstacles US soldiers faced as they pressed inland from the beaches of France were hedgerows so thick and tough that allied tanks would ride, not through, but right on top, losing traction and exposing their vulnerable underbellies to German fire.  

Then a cavalry sergeant had a brilliant idea of fashioning iron bars, scavenged from German anti-landing craft fortifications, into tank-mounted hedgerow cutters.  Within 48 hours 1st Army Ordnance had crafted nearly 300 of the cutters, and rest of the story is Operation Cobra, the Army’s successful advance through France.  That victory was a demonstration of the great and abiding strengths of our Army –exceptional adaptability at all levels in the face of unpredictable circumstances, as well as the great trust and reliance placed in the ingenuity of soldiers of all ranks.

The ground wars following 9/11 placed even heavier responsibilities on young leaders.  From the earliest days in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers down range have been adjusting and improvising in response to the complex and evolving challenges on the ground – often using new technologies to share real-time tactical lessons with their comrades.  At various stages the mission has required our soldiers to be scholars, teachers, policemen, farmers, bankers, engineers, social workers, and of course, warriors – often all at the same time.  And they have always risen to the challenge.  It is this dynamism and flexibility that allowed us to pull Iraq back from the brink of chaos in 2007 and, over the past year, to roll back the Taliban from their strongholds in Afghanistan.

I’d like to take a moment to thank the Army families that have so steadfastly stood by their soldiers and one another throughout the fight.  One of the most rewarding – and important – parts of my job has been the troop talks and town halls where I have the chance to hear honestly how things are going, no power-points.  This direct engagement with soldiers on the battlefield, their families at home, and civilians employed around the world has helped shape my views and the priorities of the service and the department, and I believe it is a critical responsibility of all leaders.

The Army’s challenge now is to learn the right lessons from the past decade.  This doesn’t mean assuming the next war will be similar to the last, a common and dangerous mistake, but rather making sure the diverse experiences and agility of today’s young soldiers are institutionalized, so our Army stands at the ready for conflicts both foreseen and unforeseeable.  This includes welcoming and embracing in peacetime the ingenuity, creativity, and innovative spirit of younger officers and NCOs so central to our success in combat.  This is a challenge the Army has met countless times before in our history, and, under the leadership of General Odierno, I have no doubt it will do so again.

It has been the honor of my life to lead and to serve our men and women in uniform, and I will keep you and them in my prayers everyday for the rest of my life.  Here’s to another 236 years. 

Happy Birthday!

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