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Remarks at Retirement Ceremony for Admiral Winnefeld

Good afternoon.

Fifty-one years ago today, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise and two other Navy ships embarked on a 65-day, 30,000-mile voyage circumnavigating the globe – the first by an all-nuclear-powered surface fleet. It was memorialized in an iconic photo of the Enterprise’s flight deck, with an array of fighter jets fore and aft flanking the crew, who stood in formation spelling out, “E=MC2.”

Now, having taught theoretical physics, I’m going to resist the temptation to explain what that means…but for those of you who remember, that photo went everywhere – it went viral before viral was a thing. One place it appeared was the cover of National Geographic, a copy of which wound up in the hands of a nine-year-old boy in Norfolk, Virginia. And, as he would recall years later, when he picked up that magazine and saw the cover, he thought to himself, “how cool is that?”

So began the journey we celebrate today,  a career in which that nine-year-old grew up to be a top naval aviator, went on to command that very same aircraft carrier – how cool is that? – and ultimately rose to the highest levels of America’s Armed Forces.

So ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, leaders of the Defense Department past and present, colleagues from the White House, President’s Chief of Staff: thank you for helping us honor America’s ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr.

I want to take a moment to recognize Sandy’s family here this afternoon – as the Chairman’s already done – starting with his dad, retired Rear Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Sr. Sir, Mrs. Winnefeld, Judy, ma’am, I can only imagine how proud you are today. Admiral Winnefeld, thank you for serving not only your country, but also serving as an inspiration to your son.

You see, the Navy is a family business for the Winnefelds. Sandy’s oldest son, L.J., is a Midshipman at Annapolis – you’ll hear from him in a moment. If we’re lucky, it won’t be long before his brother Jon, a standout high school pitcher like his dad – no pressure, there, Jon – joins the Navy too. Or perhaps he’ll throw a curveball, and go Army.

Then, there’s Sandy’s wife Mary. She’s been at his side for decades. After meeting at Miramar – and, as one more Top Gun thing– they never lost that lovin’ feelin’. And if you know Mary, you know she’s a force of her own – constantly working with military families, wounded warriors, survivors, and veterans. She’s at Walter Reed so much, they call her “Aunt Mary” there.

So Mary, L.J., Jon, today we also thank you – for the love and support you’ve given Sandy, and for your service to our country.

Now, over 37 years, Sandy has served just about everywhere – from the cockpits of F-14s, to the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, to NORAD and NORTHCOM’s headquarters in Colorado. And as Vice Chairman, he really made his mark. For the last four years, he’s challenged a lot of institutional assumptions – strategically, technically, conceptually. He’s helped DoD build trust around the interagency. He’s been the grease in the machinery between our special operations forces and our most senior decision makers, helping remove some of the worst terrorists from the fight. And he’s worked immensely hard to improve our cyber security, our nuclear deterrent, and our space capabilities.

Sandy’s mind is so wide and so deep that it dominates an astonishing range of issues – the budget, operations, missile defense, you name it – instantly grasping and analyzing even the most complex of problems. I’ve been fortunate to see it up close these past, now, six years. Beginning when Sandy was J5 and I was Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, then working closely together as Vice Chairman and Deputy Secretary – which is a close and vital partnership – he’s been a trusted partner in crafting realistic solutions, plans, requirements, and in fact, that’s what I value so much in Sandy, and what is so rare, is that he generates actual solutions to problems. For the past several months as Secretary, I’ve been lucky to benefit from his expert advice. And I know, I watch, President Obama and his senior staff feel that way, too. I watch it. Sandy is preternaturally articulate, able to explain things without condescension or oversimplification.

But even bigger than Sandy’s mind is his heart. And many of us have seen that up close, too.

We’ve seen it in his many unheralded visits to hospitals. One time, he and Mary went up to Walter Reed and discovered the patients there didn’t have Wi-Fi connections. Sandy came back and made sure the problem got fixed – helping patients connect with their fellow wounded warriors, their battle buddies, and their families.

I was at the Warrior Games a few weeks ago, and a servicemember came up in a wheelchair with his wife, and his wife pointed to the wheelchair and said, “We have that because of Mary Winnefeld.” Just out of the blue. “We have that because of Mary Winnefeld.”

We’ve also seen that heart in the USO tours Sandy lifts – leads to lift the spirits of our troops around the world. In his will to get everything done during the day so he doesn’t have to miss any of his sons’ baseball games. In how he quietly, humbly mentors the enlisted, officer, and civilian men and women who serve on his small, yet highly effective staff – the so-called “Vice Squad” – so they can learn and grow into future leaders themselves.

Sandy, that’s the legacy of excellence you leave with us. You’ve helped this department and its people succeed. In so doing, you’ve protected the American people, and you left a better world for our children. We can’t thank you enough for that. And although we know you won’t be going very far – after all, Nats Park’s right across the river – we’re still going to miss you very, very much.

So on behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, I wish you, Mary, and your family fair winds and following seas, as they say, and some much-deserved rest.

And as we look back on your career of service to our country, I think everyone’d agree with me in saying, it was cooler even than a nine-year-old could’ve imagined.