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Military Community Summit Dinner
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, DC, Thursday, October 05, 2000

Tom [Donahue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce], thank you. As usual, you were far more generous than you were just. I appreciate every exaggeration that you made on my behalf in introducing me.

I want to say a word about Representatives [Tillie] Fowler [of Florida, a member of the House Armed Services Committee] and [Robin] Hayes [of North Carolina, a member of the House Armed Services Committee]. Tillie, thank you for the comments tonight. You filled in admirably for the chairman [of the House Armed Services Committee]. And Representative Hayes, thank you for coming this evening as well. And I will tell everyone who is here that I couldn’t do my job unless I had the strong support of these two fine representatives. And I just want to pay my respects and acknowledgement to you, who lead this effort when I come up and testify before the House. Thank you for all your support on behalf of the military. [Applause.]

General [Richard] Myers [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], a word of thanks to you. You’ve been vice chair only for a few months, but you have been the right arm of the chairman, and certainly mine as well. And I want to thank you for the great professionalism and integrity and the total dedication that you bring to the service of this country. You’ve been just a great, great military and public servant. Thank you. [Applause.]

One of the handicaps of being up here is that I can’t see any of you. [Laughter.] But Bernie Rostker [Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness], let me once again pay tribute to you. You’re one of the unsung heroes. Not many people have a chance to come into contact with you on a daily basis. But I want everyone in this room to know that this is a man who makes things run in terms of dealing with personnel and readiness and virtually every other issue he’s been handed over the years. He’s just a great public servant, and we owe a debt of gratitude to you, Bernie, that many people are simply not aware of tonight. I hope that everybody will have a chance to come up and say, "Thank you for what you do for our people." [Applause.]

Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t like being up here in this kind of a format, frankly. If any of you travel with me around to visit with our troops, the minute I look out and I see our military troops, I say, "Please come closer. I want to be able to look at you and to look in your eyes and see you as my sons and daughters." That is essentially the way I feel, the way Janet [Langhart Cohen] and I feel. And it’s nice to be sort of a mini-Jack Kennedy -- to be introduced as Janet’s husband wherever I go.

But it’s important to me to look out into those faces and to put faces with all of the numbers that I see on a daily basis when I have to sign these deployment orders that come rolling across my desk. I want to make sure that I always have this connection to the people who we are sending out there to do the Lord’s work in this particular case. I can’t see you tonight. I don’t like being at this elevation, because it gives the impression that I’m talking over your heads, and I never want to do that.

I also want to say that Janet and I have had an incredible array of experiences in this three and a half years while we’ve been able to serve you. One of the more memorable ones—and there are so many, I could take the evening up talking about them—was when were out at the Indy 500. Janet is a Hoosier from Indianapolis. We were invited to help start the Indy 500 this year, and I have never had a chance to address 500,000 people in one setting. So I got up on that stage, and, of course, Janet gave me her cautionary note saying, "For God’s sake, be brief today." [Laughter.] The engines were roaring. The cars were ready to go. I had my moment in the sun.

But at that particular time, we had a fly-over [by the U.S. armed forces]. And we had some aircraft go roaring across, including a Harrier [Jump Jet] that came and made a pass, and then the Harrier came back again, hovered over the race track and did a 360-degree turn. And the place went berserk. And as we walked down through the tunnel to approach the stage, a number of people came up to me and they said, "That’s the sound of freedom," and "Thank God they’re ours." And that has always stayed with me and with Janet. We say, "Thank God you’re ours." When we look at the role [applause] when we look at what you do and the respect and admiration and envy with which you are held, we can’t thank you enough.

This separation [between the dais and the audience] tonight is perhaps symbolic. It may be symbolic of a separation that we have felt that exists between American society and America’s military. We have tried to close that gap. We have talked about reconnecting America to its military, because not enough people see you on a daily basis. They don’t see the kind of pride and professionalism and the risks you take and the sacrifices you make, and that of your families. They don’t see it, and they take it for granted. And so we’ve got this vast disparity here that we’re trying to close.

Back in 1975, I had the experience of walking out on a podium with [then-U.S. Congresswoman] Barbara Jordan [of Texas]. Barbara and I were being given an award that evening from the Boston University Law School, where we both attended law school. And I will never forget that evening. For those of you who might remember Barbara Jordan, she had a magisterial presence, and she said, "Bill, I haven’t prepared a thing to say." I said, "Don’t worry, I’ll say everything about you." And she finally walked out into a crowd of about a thousand people that night, and she began by saying, "Apparently you think, by giving me this award, that I am someone special." She paused. She said, "Well, I am special." No one else could have said that. There was a five-second pause. Then the place finally erupted into a standing ovation. And she said, "If you didn’t think I was special, then you wouldn’t be giving me this award and I wouldn’t be here to accept it. I am special."

I feel the same way about the lady that I’m married to. Janet Langhart Cohen is someone special. [Los Angeles Dodgers Coach] Tommy Lasorda once said, "I bleed Dodger blue." This woman bleeds red, white and blue every day of the year. [Applause.] And so she is special to me and she is special to the armed forces, and we are lucky to have her as the next secretary of Defense. [Laughter.] By the way, Frank Raines [Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, former Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget], our budget man, would note that we’re over our budgetary time. The debates for the vice presidency have just started a few moments ago, and I’ll try to keep these comments very brief so that you can all go and watch them.

I want to mention a couple of other experiences. The other night we had the great privilege of traveling to New York to attend a dinner in honor of Nelson Mandela. He is a hero to many millions of people, not only in this country, but all across the globe. He is a man who endured 27 years of imprisonment. Janet and I had a chance to go down to Capetown this year, to stand in his prison cell, to look out onto that courtyard at Robben Island, and then to see how he has conducted himself before the eyes of the world -- how he can be so gracious and so decent and so committed to being a moral force in this world. It was really an inspiration to sit down beside him and have dinner in New York.

But then, on the way home, we were caught up in a sort of golden after-glow of the evening, and we were thinking about all the celebrities who were there that night, and we were talking and chatting. Then my military assistant, Colonel Roy Byrd, came up and he handed me what is known as a notification. And the notification was that "We have just identified some of the clothing and fragments and parts of the body that belonged to Lieutenant Bruce Joseph Donald," who was an F-18 pilot who had crashed while taking off from the USS Lincoln.

And it struck the two of us -- as were caught up in that moment of having been in the presence of a great man, suddenly the image was in our minds that there was a family who has just been notified that there have been fragments found belonging to their son or their husband. And it came home to us in a very emotional way that the American people have to know this. I didn’t see much about it in the press. It may have been a line in one of the papers saying, "Pilot lost off the coast of the Gulf." But this is something that we want to bring home to the American people, and say [to them], "You are out there. You are out there." And we say, "You risk something everyday." We want them to see it and to feel it and to understand it. And that’s why we have placed so much emphasis on people.

We have had the occasion to visit kings and queens and emirs and sultans and presidents and prime ministers. But there is nothing that gives us a greater sense of personal satisfaction than when we go out and we see the troops. We go out on those aircraft carriers and we see these kids who are working in 110- and 120- and 130-degree temperatures, who are watching those F-18s and F-14s and other aircraft taking off, who are doing their job and are happy in doing that job. We see that.

We see them at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. They’re on the tip of the spear, five minutes away [from North Korea] by Scud missile, and they have sky-high morale.

We see them when we go out to the Udairi Range in Kuwait and we see these Marines undergoing live-fire training and exercising in 100-degree temperatures.

We see them when we go out and see the soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo bringing peace to a tortured land. We have the greatest sense of personal satisfaction that any two people could ever experience.

So we take great pride in serving you. This has been an experience for which we will be forever indebted to President Bill Clinton, for giving us the opportunity to serve this country and to be with the finest military in the world.

I remember going down to [New Orleans] for the opening of the D-Day Museum and hearing Stephen Ambrose [historian and founder of the National D-Day Museum] recount some of the passages in his book, "Citizen Soldier." And in the book, he asked the fundamental question. He said, "How is it, how is it, that a country as loose and almost disorganized as the United States military was in the early stages of World War II, was able to triumph over a mechanized evil that was just simply tearing Europe apart?"

He said the difference was that the American citizen-soldier knew the difference between right and wrong, and he was unwilling to live in a world in which wrong triumphed. And so he fought and prevailed. And we are the beneficiaries, the eternally grateful beneficiaries of that courage.

So I wanted to be here tonight with Janet to say to all of you who are in uniform and all of the public servants who serve those in uniform, we are eternally grateful for the sacrifice you make. We are dedicated to improving the quality of life for all of those who serve us, and Janet and I take great personal pride in being able to represent you. [Applause.]