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Farewell to U.S. Armed Forces
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Conmy Hall, Fort Myer, Virginia, Wednesday, January 17, 2001

General Shelton, thank you for your overly generous remarks. Carolyn [Shelton]. When I recommended that Hugh Shelton be selected as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I was approached by a reporter who asked, "What's your reaction to him? How do you size him up?" I answered, "About 6'6"." [Laughter.] I’d say he's a combination of Randolph Scott, John Wayne, and a little bit of Clint Eastwood. He's a man of few words, but who's silence tells you all you really need to know about him. You don't want to make his day. [Laughter.]

One of the first things he did after his confirmation was to give me and the other members of the Joint Chiefs a copy of a book entitled Dereliction of Duty. He was sending a very strong signal in passing out that book—he was saying that under my watch I'm never going to tailor my judgment or advice to fit a particular objective that I think is unwise. It's a book that I keep very much at eye-level on my shelf, Mr. Chairman.

The second thing you gave me was a fountain pen, and a note that went with it. It was a statement from General William Tecumseh Sherman to Grant. He said, "I always knew that if I was in trouble you'd come for me if alive." Mr. Chairman, I always knew that if I were ever in trouble, that you would always be there for me as you've been there for all of the men and women who wear our uniform. You are a warrior and you carry the warrior's code not on your sleeve, but in your soul. I am deeply grateful that I had the chance to work beside you and to have you as a principal advisor. [Applause.]

General Joe Ralston and Dede, I believe you're here, but if you're not I will say a few words anyway. I want to thank you for all that you have given to our country and what you continue to give as commander of our forces in the European theater, and as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. You have carried on the great work of your predecessors and the tradition established by Generals George Joulwan and Wes Clark, and you have been succeeded as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs by a truly able officer and friend, Dick Myers.

So I want to take this occasion to thank General Myers and Mary Jo; and to thank General [Mike] Ryan [Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force] and Jane; to thank General Ric Shinseki [Chief of Staff, U.S. Army] and Patty; to thank Jim Jones [Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps], a friend and companion for so many years and Diane; and Admiral [James] Loy [Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard] who played basketball against me so many years ago, and unfortunately was the winner. [Laughter.]

I am told that [former] Secretary [of Defense Caspar] Weinberger may be in the audience. I want to say that I enjoyed my friendship and service with you over the years. I don't think anyone other than Mel Laird ever served longer as Secretary of Defense than Cap Weinberger. You helped to rebuild our military and our morale at a time when we needed that boost, and I will never forget how you used to come before a skeptical Congress with your two very sharp pencils in your hand, ready to answer any question that we had.

[Secretary] Bill Perry, what an opportunity it was for me to know you when I served in the Senate and what an honor to follow you as Secretary of Defense. You are known and you're revered for your brilliance, your leadership and your quiet strength, but you're also respected and loved for your civility and your kindness. You, along with Cap, are regarded as two of our finest public servants, and I am truly grateful that you could be here to observe my farewell.

Deputy Secretary Rudy de Leon, when John Hamre left to take over the presidency of CSIS [Center for Strategic International Studies], I asked you to step into some very big shoes, and you took up the challenge without hesitation. You more than lived up to our high expectations. And no matter how difficult the issue, you never lost your composure and you never lost your focus. And if ever there's going to be another story made of Cool Hand Luke, you'll be the man. [Laughter.]

Members of the Cabinet and diplomatic corps, Members of Congress, Secretary [of the Army Louis] Caldera, Secretary [of the Air Force, F Whitten] Peters, Secretary [of the Navy, Richard] Danzig, leaders from across this great institution, Janet, of course, and my son Kevin, thank you for being here on such a special occasion. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly, the men and women of the United States Armed Forces—the finest fighting force on the face of the Earth. [Applause.]

Twenty-four years ago another Secretary bid farewell to this institution. In the coming days, the 13th Secretary of Defense will return as the 21st Secretary of Defense. Don Rumsfeld has been an enduring public servant to this country, and he's going to be an outstanding leader of this department. But I must tell you, even if [Senator] Strom Thurmond is in the audience—and what an inspiring example of service he is—I have no illusions. I am not returning in the year 2025. [Laughter.]

But I do want to take this occasion to thank you for honoring me and Janet with your presence and to use this final occasion to address the ranks among you—those who wear the nation's uniform.

During these final days—which somehow have become the most demanding in the last four years—I've been afflicted by a multitude of emotions and thoughts. Late last night, early this morning, I was complaining to Janet that I didn't have enough time to even begin to contemplate what I might say to you today, knowing that my words would have no more lasting effect than those words written in sand. She replied, "Just tell them what you feel." That's always what Janet would say. "Tell them what you feel."

I thought years back to when I was in college and I used to read the French existentialists. And I think it was Gide, or it could have been Camus, who once said that it's the foreknowledge of the finality of things that destroys bliss at its very apex. In other words, everything that is mortal must come to an end, and therefore we can take no joy in the experience.

I used to dabble with such thoughts as a young college student, but 40 years of experience have taught me differently. We have loved this job, knowing that this day would one day have to come. We have loved not this job, but this opportunity to be in the presence of heroes—to walk and to sail and to soar with eagles.

So what do I feel? I feel honor, to be sure, but most of all, an unqualified sense of awe. When I'm in the presence of men and women who serve and sacrifice themselves and their families for our freedom, I am in awe. I've had the privilege of meeting with kings and queens, and presidents and prime ministers, and princes and sultans and emirs, and yes, parliamentarians the world over. But nothing has ever been more rewarding than to visit our troops in Bosnia, in Kosovo, Korea, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia; to land on a carrier in the [Persian] Gulf where the temperatures can run 120, 130, 140 degrees, and to see our sailors and Marines carrying out their duties in that heat; to watch our Air Force put steel on target or deliver humanitarian relief to helpless victims of hurricanes, earthquakes or other natural disasters; to witness our Coast Guardsmen protect our shores or rescue those who are caught up in those perfect storms.

I marvel at your raw courage and your willingness to constantly train and prepare to fight the wars that can't be prevented. And I am touched to the core when I visit you at Christmas time, knowing what a special moment it is for you, how far away you are from your families, what spirit you show in your very loneliness as you're surrounded by your comrades, what pride you take in knowing that you save lives, that you've touched hearts of total strangers, and that you've given them something more precious than gold.

And as I reflect on the swift passage of time these past four years, all of these moments and memories come rushing at me with a terrifying velocity. But I'd like to share one of my earliest with you.

On our visit to Eagle Base in Bosnia on Christmas Eve three years ago—as we have done every holiday since that time—we joined hundreds of soldiers to share songs and love and levity and laughter, and to bring them just a touch of home. As we left around midnight, we passed along the perimeter and came across three young soldiers for whom Christmas Eve meant manning a security post that was fashioned from wood. They were out there in the mud, in the cold, in the darkness, standing guard in the night.

As we expressed our gratitude for their service and conveyed our sorrow they couldn't be home with their families, one of these soldiers looked at Janet and he offered a response that we will never forget, so eloquent in its simplicity, so profound in its sincerity, "That's all right, ma'am. Somebody has to do it. And besides, I think we're making a difference here."

Men and women of the United States Armed Forces for the past four years, we've been blessed to serve with you as you stand guard in the night, and as you continue to make an extraordinary difference the world over. Because of your patriotism and professionalism, because of your dedication and your daring, more people today sleep under the flag of freedom than at any time in history.

So the poet asks, "How should we presume?" I was recently asked, "What's your legacy? What can you point to with pride that you've helped to make happen on your watch?" Well, I'd never really given any thought to legacies. I simply tried to keep the faith of all who have come before me and those who will come after.

The Chairman stole my thunder here, because I was going to engage in just a touch of immodesty, but he already outlined everything we've done. We have managed to secure an additional $227 billion for future years defense spending. Four years ago we were told there wouldn't be any increases. We now have [an additional] $227 billion coming to our armed forces. That's a remarkable achievement that this team has produced.

We’ve had the largest defense spending increase in 15 years, the largest pay raise in a generation, retirement benefits back up to 50 percent, the elimination of housing inequities for those who live off-base, overhauling the health care system to make sure that we give decent health care for the men and women who are serving us and those who have retired and their families—care that's worthy of this nation.

We conducted the most successful air campaign in the history of warfare. We drove Milosevic out of Kosovo, and hopefully into oblivion, or at least to The Hague where he can stand trial. We kept Saddam Hussein in his box and out of his neighbors' oilfields and homes. We've enlarged the NATO family with three new democracies. We've strengthened our relationships in South America, in Africa, the Gulf States, South Korea, Japan, and all of the Southeast Asian countries. We've reduced nuclear weapons in Russia. We have established military to military ties with China.

We created the Joint Forces Command, preparing to deter and counter those who plot our destruction with weapons of mass destruction. We have reoriented the Space Command to ensure that we remain as dominant in space and cyberspace as we are on the battlefields. We've accelerated that Revolution in Military Affairs, transforming our forces so we can marshal and match the power of our technology with the force of our ideals.

And I want to mention one other thing—we've kept our promise to help reconnect America to its military, to remind the American people that we must take care of those who take care of us and that freedom can be lost just as easily through indifference and neglect as it can through warfare.

In his wonderful book, On The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Donald Kagan talked about Athenian democracy. He said that in the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. And when the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them, when the freedom that they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free. We should never let that happen to the United States of America.

General Shelton, you quoted Chamberlain, one of my heroes. And I would suggest that no words better describe those that we serve. On countless occasions I've been asked by foreign leaders, "How can our military be more like America's?" I'll repeat here today what I've said time and time again. It's not our training, although our training is the most rigorous in the world. It's not our technology, although ours is the most advanced in the world. And it's not our tactics, although ours is the most revolutionary in the world. We have the finest military on Earth because we have the finest people on Earth, because we recruit and we retain the best that America has to offer.

So as I prepare to leave public office, I want to take this final occasion to remind all of America: take a look at the leadership that we have, take a look at what your see arrayed before you here. Be inspired by their character and their devotion to duty. Stand in awe of their courage and their professionalism and their ability to maintain bravery in the midst of tragedy and loss.

When we stood on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base to welcome home the flag-draped coffins of those that we lost in our embassies in East Africa, when we stood on the pier in Norfolk with the wounded sailors and the families of those who perished in the Cole, when we learned of those who were lost aboard the Osprey, and whenever the phone rang at midnight or in the early morning hours telling me of an accident that would not make the headlines, but that would rip a hole in the hearts of the families who were affected, then we understand why these brave men and women and their families truly are patriots among us—the pride of America, the envy of the world.

Finally, I'd like to pay special tribute to the most remarkable person in my life. When you think of Janet Langhart Cohen, you think of passion, of fire, of spirit. Creative ideas spring from her like the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, only it's not just in the spring time, they’re always springing forward. And it's not just the creativity, it's moving from the creation of the idea to the actuality of the event.

I think of all she has been able to do—creating that first Family Forum or the Pentagon Pops, helping to organize those holiday tours overseas, creating the new USO Corridor in the Pentagon and a new liaison office in the Pentagon, hosting that Special Assignment television program that goes worldwide to our troops, receiving the VFW Award, then just last week the Zach Fisher Award, being recognized by the United States Chamber of Commerce for her work on behalf of all of those in uniform, and yes, being named the First Lady of the USO. But I would say most of all, she has loved our men and women in uniform with a zeal that transcends any ability of mine to describe. I have never felt more alive—or more ignored—than when she's out there with the troops. [Laughter.] Lou Gehrig was wrong. I'm the luckiest man alive.

So it's time for the two of us to take our leave. We have a new President who has assembled a great new national security team and they will, with your help and God's help, continue to make the United States of America the greatest force for freedom in the world.

I'd like to close with the paraphrased words of the poet Tagore. "When one comes and whispers to me, ‘Thy days are ended,’ let me say to him, ‘I have lived and loved and not in mere time.’ And he will ask, ‘Will thy songs remain?’ And I shall say, ‘I know not, but this I know. That often when I sang, I found my eternity.’" Thank you. [Applause.]