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Ceremony Honoring the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, The Pentagon, Washington, DC, Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Thank you very much, Senator [John] Warner. I know that Senator [Charles] Robb is probably still catching a vote at this time. For you, and Congressman [James] Moran and Congressman [Thomas] Davis, I just want to take this occasion to thank the three of you -- and the four of you, if Senator Robb can get here -- to say thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of the men and women who serve us in uniform. You have just been great supporters of all that we do and we really count on all four of you to support what we do. So we thank you very much.

Deputy Secretary [of Defense Rudy] de Leon, I think was going to be here. Director [of U.S. Agency for International Development, J. Brady] Anderson. [Assistant] Chief [of the Fairfax County Urban Fire and Rescue Team, Mark] Wheatly; members of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team and your families and friends; distinguished guests, including our canine friends. [Laughter.] I want to say what a pleasure it is to welcome all of you who arrived, on two legs or on four. [Laughter.] I suspect I might have a cheering audience [among the canine unit] here momentarily.

Two years ago, I remember getting a call in the middle of the night. It was the tragic news of the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And I think that all Americans – indeed, people the world over -- were simply stunned by the unspeakable cruelty and the inhumanity of that act. There were some 267 innocent men and women whose lives were snuffed out in a single instant of indiscriminate violence.

 

I think that these kinds of moments of tragedy force us to pause and to reflect on the thinness of the membrane that separates this life from the next, and on how quickly our hearts can be stopped and our voices silenced. And I think there is always that futile wish that we share, the wish that we could turn back the hand of time and to reverse what fate has just dictated.

Of course, all of us recognize we can’t do that. But what we can do is renew our appreciation of the precarious and precious nature of our lives, to resolve to use our time and energy to preserve and protect the sanctity of life and freedom, and to rededicate ourselves to those principles of humaneness and generosity.

Basically, that is why I wanted to have all of you here today. I wanted to honor you, to express our thanks to a group of men and women who have taken that ideal to its very highest expression, who have made that ideal both a career and a calling. Because time after time -- as it has been said just a few moments ago -- over the past 14 years those of you in the search and rescue team have been to some of the worst disasters that we have ever seen: Mexico City, Armenia, Oklahoma City, Turkey, the Philippines, and Taiwan. You have gone into cities whose devastation could, I think, vie with Dante’s vision of hell. Upon your arrival, there has been no food, no water, no electricity. And on every block, you have seen horrific scenes of carnage. On every face, confusion, fatigue, and grief. But in each and every one of these cases, you have used your energy, your innovation, and skill to make a tangible difference in the lives of these disaster victims.

Sometimes it has been risky and very harrowing, such as the time that you were in the Philippines and your team worked more than 9 hours in a collapsed hotel to free a trapped man while the tremors from that earthquake were still rumbling.

Sometimes it has been a combination of thoughtful planning and, let’s face it, sheer luck, such as the time when a special camera was able to locate an 8-year-old boy, who had practically been buried alive on his bunk bed, which had collapsed under the weight of that crushed building in Turkey.

Sometimes it has been grim and bittersweet, such as that time you were able to save that elderly woman in Armenia who was the sole survivor from that entire building.

I think the rest of us can only imagine the kind of physical and psychological toll that this takes on each and every one of you: day upon day without sleep in the course of your work, the chaos of the circumstances, the calls for help and relief that far outnumber your resources and manpower.

And it is because of our understanding of the dimensions of what you have to endure on a daily basis when you are out there, forward-deployed, that we in this Department wanted to pay tribute to you, to say thank you, in particular for the work that you performed after the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya but, more broadly, for your sacrifices and those of your families and friends who have provided you with all their support during those very trying moments.

We also wanted to commend you for the message of friendship that you send to all the other peoples of all the other nations that you travel to on behalf of the United States. When you go to a foreign country and you raise those tents with those American flags sewn on top and use your skill and patience and courage and compassion, that sends a powerful message that lets everybody in the world know who we are as a people. That is precisely the kind of positive image and example that we in the Department instill in our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. We want them to set that example when they are abroad, and they do. It’s a very eloquent, enduring statement about what America stands for.

I can’t tell you how many times I have traveled the world over and I meet with my counterparts and they always express to me their gratitude—to the United States and to the American people—for the kind of assistance and aid that we are so willing to provide on a moment’s notice. That type of relationship—including the trust, respect, and appreciation that you earn—is indispensable to our diplomacy, to stability, and to promoting peace. For that reason alone, I wanted to invite you to the Pentagon to say, personally, thank you. Thank you on behalf of a very grateful nation.

Finally, I wanted to congratulate you for the example that you have set in terms of cooperation between the military community and the civilian community. I know that a number of you have already participated in the Domestic Preparedness Program. You efforts are going to become even more important as we see the level of weapons of mass destruction and the future of terrorism coming to American soil. That makes your preparation even more important because every time that we work with you and we get your gear and trucks onto an air transport or fly you to a distant location, that partnership becomes more valuable for you and for us. Ultimately, when the sirens sound, that experience will allow us to save even more lives.

Just across from my office downstairs here, there is a Pentagon painting, which has a soldier in prayer. And it is graced with an inscription taken from the Book of Isaiah. In the passage, God asks, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And Isaiah answers, "Here I am. Send me."

Well, today it is my pleasure to honor an extraordinary group of Americans who, in those dark and decisive hours after those terrible tragedies, have always been willing to say, "Here I am. Send me." So you proudly represent not only Fairfax County and the state of Virginia, you represent the very best of America. You, in fact, are the better angels of our nature. So thank you very much. [Applause.]