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Armed Forces Day
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Saturday, May 15, 1999

Congressman [Tom] Ewing; members of the diplomatic corps; General [Hugh] Shelton [Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff] and Mrs. Shelton, and I would note that the Chairman’s arrival here today was the most recent exploit of a very distinguished and daring life of special operations. He literally descended on this ceremony with the Golden Knights. Mr. Chairman, welcome. We are glad you arrived safely. And we do thank you for dropping in today. [Applause.]

General [Joe] Ralston [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]; General [Ralph] Eberhart [Air Force Vice Chief of Staff]; Men and women of the finest force for peace and freedom in the world; Honored veterans; Distinguished guests, including our special guests today, Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner and special guest Senator Bob Dole.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and privilege to welcome all of you here today, and to thank you for joining us. This is a celebration and a demonstration of our men and women in uniform.

At the dawn of this century, Theodore Roosevelt said that "all who serve and stand ready to sacrifice are the torchbearers." Today, at the dawn of the new century, we are surrounded by the torchbearers of our times, both past and present, and indeed even future.

We see our proud past, in the veterans and vintage aircraft gathered here today. Vintage aircraft like the famed P-51 Mustang fighter of World War II, which will soar again for another brilliant moment this afternoon. Veterans like Colonel Bob Morgan, captain of the legendary Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber crew to complete a full tour over Hitler’s Europe. Colonel Morgan, veterans of the 8th Air Force, Senator Dole and all those who have worn the uniform, would you please stand so we can pay appropriate tribute to you. [Applause.]

Today, we are looking at the present, in the stunning capabilities that are on static display on this runway, and in the men and women who are joining us today in uniform from every service. Army soldiers and paratroopers, the Golden Knights. Air Force aviators and air crews. Navy sailors and pilots. Marine fliers and riflemen. Coast Guard crews and pilots. This is your day, and each of you – Active, Guard, and Reserve – has joined in a common cause, linked by a common bond, what General Omar Bradley called "the heritage of freedom."

Today, we also see the future, in the young people who will one day become the guardians of our heritage and in our commitment to a future of even greater peace and freedom. It’s a commitment that inspires our men and women in uniform in every corner of the globe, from patrolling those dangerous skies over Iraq to providing relief to families in America’s heartland and hurricane victims in Central America, from standing guard on the Korean Peninsula to standing up to brutality in the Balkans.

Indeed, at this very moment, on tarmacs half way around the world, our men and women are engaged in the largest military engagement and operation in Europe since the end of World War II. Twice in recent days I have been to U.S. bases backing up this mission, meeting forces and their families at Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia and Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Twice doing the last couple of weeks I’ve also traveled over to Europe in the company of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the President to look in the eyes of our pilots and crews at those bases in Italy and Germany. I have seen the pride in their magnificent performance.

George Marshall once said that morale wins the victory. Well, let me tell you, the morale of our forces in Europe is high indeed. They know that they are up to the task; this is the mission they were trained to perform. They know that this is a mission of critical importance; of standing up against the slaughter of innocents and standing for America’s interest in peace and freedom for all of Europe. They know that they follow in the footsteps of generations of Americans who have fought for these very same interests and ideals. And they know that like their forebears, that they too are going to prevail.

Indeed, the pride and professionalism of our forces in and around the Balkans is a reminder of a truth that we see so clearly here today. Ours is the greatest fighting force in the world because of our technology, because of our training, because of our doctrine and tactics, but most of all, because of the people who serve us in uniform. We recruit and we retain the best people in the world.

The American people understand this. They know this intuitively. Whenever they are asked where do they place their highest confidence, they point above all others to the Armed Forces of the United States.

Of course, keeping the best and the brightest means taking care of those who take care of America. Those of you in uniform deserve a quality of life and benefits that measure up to the job that you do and the burden that you carry, you and your families. That is why we have proposed, and why Congress is now supporting, the largest military pay raise in a generation. That is why we are working to make sweeping changes and improvements in your benefits and quality of life. And that is why we are working with Congress to match our words with deeds, and with dollars. This is not only a military necessity, it is a moral imperative. We must, and we will, protect and defend those of you who are protecting and defending America.

Over two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson said, "How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy!" Well, in recent weeks, we have been reminded by scenes half a world away of the precious blessings of freedom, opportunity and prosperity. And we are reminded that these legacies are not left to us in perpetuity. They will not be gained without sacrifice; they will not be preserved without purpose. Each generation is responsible for the blessings of the next. And we are a fortunate nation that there are men and women who are willing to fight for the heritage all Americans can cherish.

Today, we celebrate those who everyday give of themselves what no compensation can ever truly repay, what no day of tribute can ever truly honor. For those of you are here, for those aboard all of our ships, in barracks far from home, on the flightlines, on front lines, and especially for your families who also sacrifice alongside of you and support you, this is a day of heartfelt celebration of your devotion to America and appreciation of the service that you give and the sacrifice that you make. You are the guardians of our "heritage of freedom," and America is eternally grateful for the blessings of freedom that you make possible. So we are here to say thank you, from the bottoms of our hearts, we thank you very much.