JoAnne [Shirley; League Chair], thank you very much. I must tell you it's very awkward to come and speak after hearing the 82nd Airborne. Anything I can do would be rather pale by comparison. It's truly inspiring to see young men like that. You wonder how lucky are we to be able to bring them forth and that there are still people that see it in their heart to set aside the comforts of civilian life and to put on the uniform of this country and serve like that. We're very grateful. Thank you.
Again, JoAnne, thank you for the remarkable service that you've given America through this marvelous organization. [Applause.] To all of the members and friends of the League, thank you all for all that you have done to keep alive the memory and the meaning of those who have given all in service to this nation. To those tonight who are veterans, thank you. We are delighted to have you here.
Ladies and gentlemen and to my colleagues here at the head table, let me first begin by signaling my admiration for our guests of honor tonight who are recipients of the award. First to Tom Nielson whose service both as a soldier and a public servant inspires us and whose creations on canvass have touched our hearts in so many ways over the years. Congratulations to you. And to my very, very dear friend and colleague, Rudy DeLeon [Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness]. I'm so happy for you tonight. One of the great joys in life is to see good people recognized. Rudy, you are truly good in the heart, and I'm truly grateful to the League for recognizing him. Thank you for that.
I am very honored to be here with these two gentlemen who you have chosen to recognize. Together, the two of you remind all of us of the devotion and the dedication demanded if we are to remain worthy of the sacrifices of those who we remember tonight in our hearts. I'm honored to be here to help you pay tribute both to these gentlemen and to reaffirm our commitment to the fullest possible accounting of every patriot who fought to preserve the freedoms we treasure. [Applause.]
There can be no more fitting time than the present to conduct this affirmation on our part tonight. These last months have been very difficult and trying. As you know, Secretary [Cohen] is still working out some important elements of it tonight, but I'm very proud to tell you tonight that there is hope for Kosovo. The slaughter has stopped. Yugoslav forces have moved out. NATO forces have moved in. The refugees, families and entire communities are finding their way back home.
In those very early days of the air campaign, it was very hard to imagine that we would end up at this day. Tonight, it is possible to imagine a better and a brighter future for all the people of Kosovo. And every American should be enormously proud of, and grateful, to the men and women in uniform for their amazing talent and professionalism. Indeed, we conducted the largest military operation in Europe since the end of World War II and the most precise military campaign in history. The precision was astounding. Over 34,000 sorties were flown against a very robust air defense system with an opponent who threw hundreds of missiles at our aircraft and only two planes were lost and not a single American lost his life. [Applause.]
In many ways, our stunning technology and the inspiring talent of our young men and women in uniform has fundamentally redefined the way America goes to war. Of course, amid all the black and white images of precision- guided missiles honing in on rooftops and tarmacs, there came a single image that reminds us of the very real faces behind the force - the grainy images of those three young soldiers clad in green, bruised and battered after they were captured at the outset of the campaign.
Almost in an instant, it was as if we were carried back to another time of emotions and scenes all too familiar: the initial uncertainty of their fate; the despair over their capture; the devastation for their families who tied those little yellow ribbons on trees; the outrage of a nation seeing that they had been brutalized in their capture; and the collective sigh of relief when they were released. Indeed, for a moment this spring, albeit for a brief moment in comparison to the decades of sacrifice endured by many of the people in this room, this nation was yet again reminded what it means to have American soldiers in our hearts, but beyond our reach. And so, we rejoice over the return of our soldiers from the Balkans.
At the same time, we remember those who did not return from distant lands; soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles. Part of their story is the focus of an extraordinary account published by the Defense Department this fall. As some of you may know, Honor Bound tells the powerful story of those who endured the prison camps of Southeast Asia, a story that its authors, our historians, call "one of the most compelling tales in the annals of men at war." To borrow the words of Secretary Cohen, "Honor Bound is about extraordinary men overcoming ordinary frailties and fears, the finest men of our generation, men of honor who were advisors and airmen at dawn and prisoners by dusk. Some who never returned from behind the bamboo walls." Accounts such as that, and evenings such as this, compel us not only to remember, but also to renew our abiding commitment to provide the fullest possible account of every patriot who has fought to preserve the freedoms we treasure.
That is why we returned to the hallowed ground of Arlington Cemetery last spring to identify the Vietnam Unknown. That is why we send teams to distant lands every day, remote graves and crash sites, the jungles of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, beyond the DMZ into North Korea and into the mountains of southern China, even to old battlefields in Europe to finally bring home the soldiers of the Second World War. We in the Defense Department go to such lengths, we work as hard as we do, we leave no stone unturned because we are committed to our warriors, past and present. And we are committed to working with you, to being your partner in our common pursuit of answers to their ultimate fate.
Indeed, America's fallen heroes did not endure the horror of carnage and confinement for us to turn our eyes away from their sacrifice. As Secretary Cohen has remarked at our annual Pentagon commemoration of our prisoners of war and those missing in action, "they did not fight for us to forget."
Few organizations have done more over the years to ensure that their memory is not forgotten than the League. You have shined a brilliant light on their noble service, reminding all Americans of our obligation to them. When others might have tired of endless obstacles, you redoubled your commitment. I note that JoAnne and others returned from Southeast Asia only a few weeks ago. When governments might have had you quietly walk away from the fate of families and friends, you have spoken up loudly for what is right, what is just. When voices doubted the wisdom of continued inquiry and investigation, you preserved. And today, because of your relentless search for answers, long open wounds in the hearts of countless Americans have been allowed to begin to heal. That is the gift you have given not only to America, but to the people around the world who have followed your example. And that is why I want to be here tonight to thank you.
I would add that we also renew our commitment to our loved ones by standing firm and continuing their struggle for peace, freedom and liberty. No, they did not fight, only for us to forget. Nor did they fight for us to forsake all that they served to achieve. And so, it falls to us to stand up and dedicate our lives to preserving the blessings for which they laid down their lives - democracy, freedom, liberty, opportunity. This is what took them to foreign lands from which too many of them never returned. This is what takes us to lands like Kosovo today.
In the 30th chapter of the book of Isiah, Isiah speaks of how God "gives power to the faint and to them that have no might. He increases strength. Even the youth shall be faint and be weary and the young shall utterly fall, but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up like wings of an eagle. They shall run and not be weary and they shall walk and not faint." Tonight, we recommit ourselves today to those who found that strength, strength which they blessed America and freedom loving people everywhere.
And to you, their family and friends, I offer words that President Lincoln offered in a now famous letter to the mother of five sons lost in the Civil War. He said, "I cannot refrain from tendering to you the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavements and leave you only the cherished memories of the loved and the lost and the solemn pride that must be yours to have made so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom."
Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a distinct honor to be here tonight to be with you. I thank you for the work that you do on behalf of those who served America. May God bless them and may God bless this country they served. Thank you. [Applause.]