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Tribute to Forces and Families of Operation Allied Force
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Norfolk Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia , Thursday, April 01, 1999

Mr. Chairman [General Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], thank you very much. It's been truly a joy and a privilege for me to have the honor of serving side-by-side with you. President Clinton, [Navy] Secretary [Richard] Danzig, Senator [Charles] Robb and Senator [Carl] Levin, Congressman [Bobby] Scott and Congressman [Norman] Sisisky, Admiral [Harold] Gehman, members and families of the Armed Forces and ladies and gentlemen,

At the dawn of this century, as America was awakening to its new place in the world, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "Unless you are willing to fight for great ideals, those ideals will vanish" [and] that "all who serve and stand ready for sacrifice are the torchbearers and the torches that burn brightest are borne by the gallant people at the front."

Today, at the dawn of the next century, we are joined by President Bill Clinton to express our gratitude to the torchbearers of our time: our gallant Armed Forces serving on the frontlines in the Balkans and around the world; the tens of thousands supporting them across Europe and here in America; and, you, their families, who serve steadfastly here at home. And as President Clinton, who just concluded a meeting with some of the families, noted, you endure sacrifices that most Americans take for granted or are simply unaware of. We thank you for your loyal service as well.

The events and images of the past week have been powerful reminders that the world we want, a world of peace and freedom, begins here at home and then passes through places such as Korea, the Persian Gulf and Bosnia and now Kosovo. Indeed, by serving abroad, your friends and family are protecting the interests and ideals we treasure right here at home.

This past week reminds the entire nation that the flag of America is woven from a fabric of selfless sons and daughters in uniform who day in and day out, around the clock and around the world, risk life and limb for the benefit of us all. They’re sailors and Marines, today aboard ships and submarines in the Adriatic. They’re pilots braving the Balkan skies. They are soldiers standing vigilant in neighboring lands, preventing Serbian forces from widening their war. Those of you who wear America’s uniform truly are the guardians of our freedom.

This past week also reminds us that behind every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine stands a mother, father, sister, brother or child, a family member bearing a quiet burden for which all America is profoundly grateful. As the beneficiaries of their service and sacrifice, of your service, it is our responsibility as a nation to protect and defend all those who protect and defend our nation.

And here I should say that we will not rest, or in any way reduce our efforts and determination, to bring safely home those three peacekeepers who are now held by Serb forces.

Finally, this past week reminds us of something else: the value of leadership. On the day President Clinton took his oath of office he assumed an awesome responsibility not only to lead this nation but to lead the nations of the world in the constant struggle for peace and prosperity. And on that day, the poet Maya Angelou spoke of our unique responsibility as Americans. She said that, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

 

One week ago, the world faced a decision of either standing by or standing up to the darkest chapters of history threatening to re-ignite in the heart of Europe. And President Clinton made the difficult decision of committing our military men and women to combat. No decision weighs more heavily on the mind of a President and a Commander-in-Chief because at the end of every discussion, every debate and every decision, President Clinton has kept the safety and well being of our military men and women in the forefront of his mind.

And I'd like to add just one personal note. Every one of us who serve him understood and understand the risks and the dangers involved in Milosevic's barbarity, of poor weather, of tough geography. We knew it was not going to be easy.

We knew that to stand on the sidelines as a witness to the unspeakable horror that was about to take place and affect the peace and stability of NATO countries was simply unacceptable. The United States, as a member of NATO, with NATO security interests at stake, had a compelling interest to act. The president, indeed, all of us, understood the risks of action, but we also understood the risks and the consequences of inaction.

Sometime after World War II, Winston Churchill had a meeting with a journalist, Stewart Alsop. And at the end of their evening, Churchill turned to Alsop and he said, "You know, America is a great and strong country, like a workhorse pulling the rest of the world up out of the slough of despond and despair." And he looked at Alsop directly in the eyes and then he said, "But will it stay the course? Will it stay the course?"

Mr. President, under your leadership and your commitment and your determination, not only will NATO stay the course, the United States, acting as the leader of NATO, will stay the course, and we will see this through to a successful conclusion.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's my privilege and honor to introduce to you the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.