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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Unveiling of the Pentagon Portrait of Former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (As Delivered)

Good morning. 

Distinguished guests, colleagues, and friends, welcome.

There are too many people here to acknowledge by name, but I want to especially welcome Secretary Wormuth, General Milley and other members of the Joint Chiefs, and many more.

And for the man who is the reason that we’re all here: Secretary Esper, welcome. Thanks for joining us for this special occasion. 

And I’m delighted that we’re also joined by your wife, Leah. Mrs. Esper, thank you for everything that you’ve done to make your husband’s service possible—and for your own tireless efforts to improve the lives of our military families. 

Let me also welcome the Esper children: Luke, Jack, and Kate. I know how proud you make your parents. 

Secretary Esper, I think we also have your mother, Polly, and your sister, Donna, here as well. And we’ve got more family members joining us remotely. I know that this is a proud day for your entire family.

It’s also great to see so many of Secretary Esper’s former teammates and staff—including our dedicated career professionals, both in and out of uniform, who make this Department run. Thanks for being here with us. 

Now, the portraits that hang in the Pentagon are a big deal. 

They are a constant reminder of our history, of the great American story written by the people who’ve served in our Department, and of those who have sacrificed so much to keep our republic secure.  

You know, when I walk through the E-Ring, I always know that the eyes of those former secretaries of defense are on us all. In fact, Secretary Esper’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, used to say that when he walked out of his office and down the hall every night, he felt like he could actually see the eyeballs in those portraits following him around. 

And then he would tell them, “Hey, come on, give me a break—I’m working on it…”

[Laughter]

And everyone here is working on it. Everyone in this Department is striving to safeguard our Constitution and strengthen our democracy. 

So we’re joined today by a group of outstanding public servants. And Secretary Esper, they’re all here because of your deep commitment to serve. A commitment to showing up, to wanting the ball, and to supporting the great men and women of this Department. 

In fact, your drive to get things done became a bit notorious. 

I’m told that you always carried a list of your top priorities on a card in your pocket. And every time that you’d reach in your pocket for that card, your staff knew that it was in trouble. 

Actually, I’m told that you probably have a card on you right now, just to keep the staff on their toes. 

[Laughter]

Now, that brand of tireless dedication is something that you learned at West Point. And as many of you know, Secretary Esper is a proud West Point graduate. 

And your West Point class motto says: “Courage Never Quits.” 

Let me welcome more than 20 members of the West Point Class of 1986 who are here with us today. 

[Cheers and applause]

For your benefit, Mr. Secretary, I’m going to try this again: Let me welcome the Class of ’86 who are here with us today. 

[Louder cheers and applause]

Secretary Esper, West Point taught you discipline and diligence. It taught you the obligation to take care of your people. And it taught you that service to your country is both a duty and a privilege. 

Over the decades, you found many different ways to serve, including working in several key roles on Capitol Hill. You later had an impressive run in the private sector, including leadership positions with key members of our defense industrial base. 

Then you served as Secretary of the Army. Alongside General Milley, you worked to improve training, and to modernize the force, and to refocus our efforts at recruitment, retention, and so much more. 

In July 2019, you became the 27th Secretary of Defense. And you began your tenure as this Department was facing historic challenges. 

You led DOD through the frightening early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was a time of dread, uncertainty, and terrible loss. 

Yet thousands of DOD personnel helped to get desperately needed supplies and care to Americans around the country. And the Department worked urgently with other agencies and the private sector to ramp up domestic production of tests, masks, and other essential equipment—and to help develop the COVID vaccines that have now saved so many lives.

You also worked to focus this Department’s attention and resources on China, an effort that we are carrying forward as we speak. You pushed to rebalance our posture around the world, including bracing for competition with other great powers. 

And you worked hard to modernize our military—and to improve its lethality and readiness.

You helped oversee the creation of our newest service, the Space Force. And today, our Guardians are vital to deterring conflict across domains.  

And I know that you’re especially proud of your efforts to improve the quality of life for our service members and their families. And that’s a cause that’s dear to your and Mrs. Esper’s hearts. 

You worked to improve military pay and benefits, to improve on-base housing, to provide greater career flexibility for service members with families, and so much more. And that touched the lives of thousands of men and women who serve.

And finally, Secretary Esper, we all know that you served during turbulent times for our nation. 

We may face more rough seas in the days to come. But I am confident that our ship of state can weather them. And I know that everyone here shares that faith. 

Ladies and gentlemen, our democracy only works if it works in difficult days. 

But I hope that we can use days like today to remind us of the things that unite us and the beliefs that we share. 

Democracy.

The rule of law.

The noble calling of public service. 

The shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation with the allies and partners who magnify our strength. 

The summons to be good stewards of institutions like this great Department. 

And the oath that we all swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 

Those are the beliefs that will always guide us home.

So Secretary Esper, thank you for serving at a time of great uncertainty and challenge.

Thank you for your love of this great institution. 

Thank you for your profound care for this Department and the people of this Department.

And thank you for this capstone in a long life of service. 

Again, to everyone here this morning, I thank you again for joining us. 

And at this point, Mr. Secretary, I’d ask you to join me at the front here, and we’ll unveil your portrait. 

[Applause]