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Veterans Day Remarks

Thanks. Good afternoon everyone.  First of all, these are hard acts to follow, so let’s just take a moment and recognize these five folks.  I’m inspired by you guys, really am, thanks.  And I’m going to tell you – they told great stories from today – and I’m going to start out by telling you a story from yesterday.  Long time yesterday, almost a century ago…and it goes like this:

There was a 22-year-old sales clerk named Frieda Greene.  Frieda Greene was sitting at her family’s dinner table in Portsmouth, Ohio, when her father mentioned that the U.S. Navy was recruiting women to serve in World War I.  Despite the fact that there was a world war raging at the time, Frieda said without hesitation, “That’s for me!”  

And while her family did not pay much attention to that exclamation, they did a few days later when she called home and said, “Mamma, I just joined the Navy!”  Though her mother objected, her father said, “Let her go.”  And go Frieda did, serving as a so-called ‘yeomanette’ in the U.S. Navy. 

When this beautiful memorial was being christened in 1997, almost 30,000 people came out here to honor the women who have served our country in uniform.  And at that ceremony, they  heard from  101-year-old veteran Frieda Greene, and she spoke that day about what her service had meant to her…at the other end of life’s arc from these spectacular women we’ve heard from today.  And she encouraged – like they did – others to serve as well.  To those women serving at the time, and those women thinking of military service, she echoed her father’s words, and told them, “Go for it.”

And so, General McWilliams, ladies and gentlemen, veterans and servicemembers, DoD leaders and colleagues, family and friends – today, we come together to honor once again all those who’ve gone for it, and gone for all of us.  Servicemembers like those who shared their stories with us a moment ago and others here today.  As we do, we remember those who’ve served in the past, we reaffirm our dedication to the force today, and we also recommit ourselves to building the force of the future.

The men and women of today’s force and the force of the future will inherit a remarkable legacy.  Since the nation’s founding, each of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and veterans – men and women… active, guard, and reserve – has done one of the noblest things a person can do with their life, which is to help defend our magnificent country and make a better world for our children.  And along the way, as the world and war have changed, they’ve fought when necessary, adapted to fit the times, and prepared for the future.

Together, they won for the United States its independence in the Revolutionary War, and they helped bring America back together in the Civil War.  They fought in the Great War, whose armistice we also mark today, and later won the Second World War.  Then they went on to serve with distinction all over the globe – in the waters off Korea, in the jungles of Vietnam, and in the desert sands of Kuwait, just to name a few.  And, of course, since September 11th, some 4.9 million Americans have joined our military to serve in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere...including as we sit here right now this afternoon. 

While some continue to serve today, many others have chosen to leave the armed forces.  Now, as Secretary of Defense, I have to tell you that’s not always easy for me, because I hate to see our great people go…but at the same time, here’s how I console myself, and remember that it’s a good thing.  Because when they transition to a good job, or start their own business, or work in public service, or volunteer in their community, they show future generations that the military can be more than a good place to be; it’s also a good place to be from.  And that has tremendous value as we recruit their replacements.  And you know, I remember a time when it was different.  I’m old enough to remember a time when it was different, and I’m so proud today that our employers and our citizens recognize what spectacular contributors our veterans are.   

That’s one of many reasons why DoD is committed to helping our servicemembers transition when they move on to whatever’s next for them in life, so that they can succeed – we can help them succeed – in every way possible.  Because while we know it’s a loss for our military, we also know our country will gain from their contributions from their amazing skills and discipline and experience, when these dedicated, driven, and awesomely capable soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen become dedicated, driven, and awesomely capable veterans.  And as they do, they’re always part of our team, and we wish them well, we honor them, and we thank them – as a department, as a military, and as an ever-grateful nation.

Now, those who follow in their footsteps of all those veterans – that is our men and women serving today – comprise, no other way to say it, the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  And we need that excellence, because today we’re confronting no fewer than five immediate, unique, and evolving challenges.

They, for us, are countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe.  They’re managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific region – the single region of greatest consequence for America’s future.  They’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued missile and nuclear provocations.  They’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and helping defend our friends and allies in the Middle East.  They’re accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL…destroying ISIL’s parent tumor in Syria and Iraq, and everywhere else it metastasizes around the world, even as they help protect our people here in the homeland.  And they’re preparing, moreover, to contend, with an uncertain future – ensuring that we continue to be ready for challenges we may not even anticipate today. All that, they’re doing for us as we sit here now.

And as Secretary of Defense, my first commitment is to our people, to our men and women in uniform because I know that’s what makes our military the greatest – committed to their excellence, and to their welfare – to making sure they’re treated with dignity and respect, and above all, making certain that when they’re sent into harm’s way, it’s done with the utmost reflection and care.  

I’m doing everything I can to support the strength and readiness of today’s force – investing in the right training, the right force size, the right equipment, and the right compensation and benefits that our troops, military families, and DoD civilians deserve.  

And of course, our support for today’s force includes our commitment to help care for our military’s wounded, ill, and injured, and support our military families, because they serve, too.  It includes our enduring pledge to support the families of the fallen, whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of us and our country, like those laid to rest here at Arlington.  And it also includes what we’re doing to ensure the dignity of our people, which is why we’ve been prioritizing the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. 

Now, even as our force of today is outstanding and meeting the challenges we face, the Pentagon has to continue to adapt and change to build what I call the force of the future and – to think as I like to say outside of our five-sided box – to ensure we stay the best.  And we can’t take that for granted, because as generations change, as technology changes, and as labor markets change, as kids change, we need to stay competitive and continue to attract and retain the most talented young people that America has to offer. 

And we’re doing that with several changes to the management of the talent of our all-volunteer force, but given this setting here today, I’ll focus on one part of this effort – my decision almost a year ago to open up all combat positions to women without exception.

I made this decision so we can benefit from the service of every American who can meet our high standards and contribute to our mission.  In the 21st century, and in an all-volunteer force, that requires us to be able to draw talent from the broadest possible pool of qualified Americans.  And that includes women, because they make up more than 50 percent of our population.

To succeed in our mission therefore, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half of the country’s talents and skills.  We have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our standards.  That is mission critical.

Any woman who qualifies can now contribute to our mission in ways they could not before.  They can drive tanks, they can fire mortars, they can lead infantry soldiers into combat.  They can serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men.  

And as a result, any woman in uniform will be able to realize her full potential.  That’s important because while we had previously benefitted from the skills and perspectives of women, like Yeomanette Frieda Greene a century ago and millions of others, they had long only been allowed to serve in limited roles or had limited  opportunities simply because of their gender.  That was bad talent management, and it also wrong.  And that’s why we ended it.

And now, I’m proud to say that everyone who’s able and willing to serve their country, and who can meet our high standards, has the full and equal opportunity to do so. 

So today, we honor every American, and now that’s a wider group, every American who has stepped forward to serve…those like Frieda Greene who did long ago.  The more than 20 million veterans living today.  And the more than 2 million Americans serving in uniform at this very moment across this country and around the clock, in every time zone on earth, and in every domain…in the air, ashore, afloat, in cyberspace – all in service to this great nation.

You know, it’s said that security is like oxygen…when you have enough of it, you pay no attention to it. 

But when you don’t have it, you can think of nothing else.  America’s servicemembers have long provided the oxygen…the security that allows millions and millions of people, not just in America, but in so much of the world to be safe, to raise their children, to dream their dreams, to live lives that are full, and to leave behind a better world.

In each of the five challenges, and at a time of great change and competition in our world, we must and will continue to provide that oxygen. 

To do so, we’ve changed how we plan and how we operate, how we fight and whom we allow to do the fighting, but we’ll never change what we’re fighting for:  for our safety and freedoms, for those of our friends and allies, and for our values and principles. 

Our people make all of that possible.  Whether they’ve served years ago, are serving right now, or are just joining what will be our force of the future, I couldn’t be prouder of our men and women for what they do every day – and for what they have done – for us.  Stephanie and I wake up for them every morning.

Their excellence is unparalleled.  Their service is invaluable.  And their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

May God bless them.  May God bless the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Thank you.