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USO Gala

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington, D.C., Friday, November 02, 2012

Thank you very much, Marty [Dempsey], I really appreciate the kind introduction.  Ladies and gentleman, what a great honor and a great privilege it is for me to join this incredible gathering of people who support our military.

The USO is very special to me personally.  As a young boy in Monterey, California during World War II, the USO was next to my Catholic grammar school that I went to and I can remember that the nuns took us.  The nuns I had made sure that we went where they wanted us to go, they kicked our ass if we didn’t go there.  So they grabbed us and basically brought us over to the USO and it was the greatest treat I ever had as a boy to greet the soldiers that were there that were destined for war at that time.  As a young Lieutenant in the Army, I had the opportunity to make use of the USO at a number of the stations that I was at.  And, of course, my generation always regarded the USO and Bob Hope as one and the same. 

In fact, the fine dining here tonight is a far cry from a scene Bob once described at a chow hall that he was at on the front lines during World War II.

He was stunned by the voracious appetite of a group of enlisted Tank guys.  He saw one soldier eating with his fingers.  And he asked, “Didn’t they give you a knife and fork?”

And the kid said, “Yes, they were delicious.”

And later during that same visit, he had to fly in a P-38.  And as some of you may remember, those planes were made for only one person, so he kind of squeezed in to ride piggy-back on the plane.  He didn’t want to show his nervousness, but he couldn’t help saying to the Captain, “Do you mind if I bite my nails?”

The Captain answered him: “No! Go right ahead.  Anything to make you stop biting mine.”

So, tonight we pay tribute to the great legacy of USO, its long history and proud legacy of helping all of those who have served this country in uniform.  But as we pause from our daily lives to honor USO, our thoughts naturally turn to those men and women in uniform who are working for us and fighting for us every day.

As we speak, something I’ve been dealing with now for the last few days, there are more than 7,000 National Guardsmen helping distressed citizens dig out from the damage of Hurricane Sandy.  There are 68,000 of America’s finest fighting force in the cold mountains and windswept valleys of Afghanistan.  And there are thousands more brave men and women enduring tough conditions at sea, or stationed at remote posts in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere around the world. 

It’s because of their dedication and because of their sacrifice…because they raised their right hand and took an oath to defend this country, that our nation and our military are the strongest in the world. 

We owe it to all of them – no matter where duty calls – to honor their service and to support them in every way possible.

I served in the military and was part of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War, whose 50th anniversary we’re marking this year.  Those who fought in the Vietnam War always could count on the strong support of the USO.  The politics of that war never changed the warm response and embrace of the USO. 

But far too many troops returned home to a country that failed to give them the honor they so richly deserved.  That failure was burned into the soul of my generation.  It has taken many years but finally our nation recognizes the sacrifices that were made by our men and women in that war. 

Today, more than decade of war that we’ve endured, we can all be thankful that the American people are united in support of those who put their lives on the line to defend this country.  And the USO has been a galvanizing force to turn that spirit of support for our military into tangible benefits for our service men and women, and their families. 

I am deeply grateful to the tens of thousands of USO staff and volunteers who work tirelessly to support our troops. 

You provide a welcome reprieve from a tough deployment – from arranging world-class entertainment – some of it we saw tonight - to sending care packages, to providing a quiet space to call home. 

On behalf of the Department of Defense, I want to thank all of those who volunteer and work on USO Tours and at USO Centers here at home and around the world for all they do.    

Let me also add my congratulations and thanks to the USO Service Members of the Year, who we’ll celebrate tonight.  Each of you has distinguished yourselves with your service, and your remarkable acts of bravery and sacrifice.  I’d also like to acknowledge and thank Admiral Mike Mullen and his wife Deborah who are here with us today for all they’ve done to serve this nation. 

Over the last decade of war, there are millions of Americans who have answered the call to serve. 

They have borne a very heavy burden, they’ve persevered in the face of tragedy, and they have done everything our nation has asked them to do and more.  They are the new greatest generation of Americans.  As we emerge for these wars, let us renew our pledge to do all we can to honor their service and their sacrifices, and to support them and their families.   

I often say that our military has a great deal of powerful weapons – we’ve got the best ships, the best aircraft and the most advanced weapons systems – but I have to tell you something, all that hardware would not be worth a damn thing without our people, the men and women who serve in the military.  They are our military’s greatest strength, and that is why we must do everything we can to take care of them.  And the heart and soul of caring for them is the USO. 

God Bless the USO, and God Bless our men and women in uniform.         

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