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USO Holiday Gala & Tribute to John Glenn
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, Friday, December 10, 1999

General [Carl] Mundy [USO President and former Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps], thank you very much for your very kind words. And as you near the end of your tenure at the helm of this fantastic institution, let me thank you for your lifetime of service to this nation. We are deeply indebted to you. [Applause.]

John Gottschalk [USO Chairman], General [James Jones; Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps] and Mrs. Jones, Admiral [Jay Johnson; Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy] and Mrs. Johnson, distinguished guests, including my wife Janet, who has joined with General Mundy and the USO on several occasions: creating the Pentagon Pops, an evening of song and celebration last February to honor those who wear America's uniform, and also collaborating this year on a Parade Magazine tribute to the USO. Janet, I'd like to take this special occasion, while I have this opportunity, to thank you personally for all that you've done on behalf of the USO and our military men and women. Thank you. [Applause.]

Honorees, John and Annie Glenn, members of the United States armed forces past and present, ladies and gentlemen.

Before I begin, I'd like to take just a moment to pay tribute to the three soldiers and seven Marines who lost their lives yesterday. In two tragic crashes half a world apart, in Kuwait and then off the coast of California, 10 of our best slipped from our embrace.

Tonight, I know that the hearts of all Americans are with their families and with their friends. And indeed, I think their passing reminds all of us of the risks that America's men and women in uniform endure, as Miss America has indicated tonight, each and every day. And that's why this nation is so profoundly indebted to all of them.

Let me also acknowledge someone who's not here, but who remains in our hearts. This is my first time aboard the Intrepid since the passing of Zach Fisher, a generous heart who brightened the lives of so many of our men and women in the services during their darkest moments, and enlightened so many Americans to the story about their sacrifices and their service, and did it aboard this carrier ship.

Yesterday the President signed a law naming Zach Fisher an honorary veteran of the armed forces. [Applause.] He's only the second American, along with Bob Hope, ever to achieve this distinction. And so tonight, as we pay tribute to the heroes that we just witnessed walking this stage, as we pay tribute to them, we also pay tribute to a man who served them, the national treasure who was Zach Fisher.

Emerson once wrote that, "there are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrate to some stroke of the imagination." Some of the most memorable days that Janet and I have enjoyed these past several years we owe to the imagination of the USO: Our holiday tour two years ago with Mary Chapin Carpenter in the Balkans; our holiday trip last year with Carole King in the Persian Gulf, when we turned a hangar much like this aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise into a floating concert; and if the past is truly going to be prologue, then our tour in two weeks to Kosovo should be just as memorable, thanks in no small measure to the presence of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. [Laughter, applause.]

But you serve another mission very close to my heart and Janet's. We live in a time when our military is smaller and less visible in our national life, and when fewer Americans have friends or family members wearing the uniform. So Janet and I have launched a campaign to talk to America about its military, to ensure that citizens understand and appreciate their unique struggles and sacrifices, and to ensure that our military men and women do not become isolated from the very citizens that they serve.

And in this sense, I must say that the USO is a bridge like no other: civilian volunteers serving the military. Every time that you reach out and touch those who wear the uniform, either with a handshake or a hug, every time you say, "You are in our hearts," and "America cares for you," the bond between America and its military, indeed the very fabric of our nation, grows stronger each time.

And I think few Americans have epitomized this quality, which the ancient Greeks called andreia -- the ultimate embodiment of virtue, both as soldier and citizen -- as the American original that we honor tonight.

Exactly one year ago this week, just five weeks after his historic return to the heavens, Janet and I invited John and Annie Glenn to receive our highest civilian award from the Department of Defense, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

And on that day, we spoke of John Glenn the distinguished Marine fighter pilot who took to the skies both in World War II and Korea. We spoke of John Glenn the test pilot in the first supersonic flight across America. We spoke of John Glenn the astronaut, twice "trodding that high untrespassed sanctity of space," and we spoke of John Glenn the senator whose judgment and integrity and dedication stand as a reminder of the sacred principles of public service.

But even more illuminating than what was said that day was what we saw, that rushing tide of national affection for this man that is even stronger than the G-forces he had to endure.

He strode past the military color guard aligned in his honor, and the respect was mutual. He stood before soldiers and civilians alike, and the pride was palpable. He sparkled with that famous grin of his as he paid tribute to Annie, and the emotion was irrepressible. And he spoke of his reverence for his country, and the applause was thunderous.

The historian Carlyle once tried to explain such reverence for a single individual. And he said, "We cannot look upon a great man without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which is good and pleasant to be near. He is not a kindled lamp, but rather a natural luminary of manhood and heroic nobleness and in whose radiance souls feel that all is well."

For over half a century, Americans have had the great and good fortune to be near John Glenn. And his heroic nobleness has illuminated our very souls with a sense of the nation that we might yet become.

We were there on the tarmac after his supersonic shot across America. We were there by our television sets as he fared on a game show to Name That Tune. We were there by the millions for his first ascent into the heavens and his fiery descent back to Earth, and then on the sidewalks under the confetti and the ticker tape. We were there as he addressed a joint session of Congress that he would one day join, bringing that august body and much of the nation to tears when he implored us never to lose the good feeling of those glory days. And of course, America was there again last year when he again rocketed into space.

The Psalms tell us that "nations may know themselves to be but men." To know this man, to embrace him as this nation has done for the past half century, to serve alongside him as I did for nearly two decades, is to gain a profound understanding and appreciation for the shining qualities of America's Armed Forces: perseverance in the face of unimaginable odds, bravery in the face of unknowable dangers, undying devotion to duty, unwavering service to country and to the men and women who wear its uniform.

And I think it's perhaps the ultimate reflection of his humility that John Glenn has only recently offered his own account of his amazing odyssey. In his book, he writes of a time, "when love of a country was a given, defense of its ideals an obligation, and the opportunity to join in its quest and explorations was a challenge, not only to fulfill a sacred duty, but to join a joyous adventure."

And so it's my great honor tonight to present to you a Marine whose profound love of country has led him to defend this nation's ideals in war, a pioneer whose courage and daring has carried two generations of Americans on the most joyous of adventures, and a dear friend whose epic life story speaks to each of us, soldiers and civilians alike, of the sacred duty we owe to each other and to this great nation.

Ladies and gentlemen, the recipient of the 1999 USO Spirit of Bob Hope Award, and an American hero of the highest order, I'd like to present to you my friend John Glenn. [Extended applause.]