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Remarks at Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Change of Responsibility

Pause a moment, all of us, pause and behold this sight in front of you – so magnificent, so proud. They, out on that field, represent the millions of men and women who make America’s military the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

President Obama, so many distinguished guests and elected officials: your presence with us here today signifies the awesome responsibility reposed in the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which we are about to transfer from General Marty Dempsey to General Joe Dunford.

The current Chairman shares with me the duty to love and respect those who defend this country; to advise the Commander in Chief with candor, carry out his orders with excellence, and share just a bit of the enormous weight he bears; and to help this great nation to make a better world.

Marty Dempsey was nominated to be Chairman at the same time I was nominated to be Deputy Secretary of Defense.  He and Deanie, and Stephanie and I, sat down for dinner together and talked about what we wanted to accomplish, and how we wanted to conduct ourselves.  In him I saw the dedication to hard work, devotion to the force and the country, and the civility to all, that I hoped to have.

Marty had already shown all these traits and more for 37 long years of service.  He had led the 1st Armored Division during difficult days, returned to reconstitute the Iraqi Army, and had been Chief of Staff of the Army.

Three and a half years later, I became Secretary of Defense and once again turned to Marty for inspiration and brotherhood.  There is so much I could say about what Marty has done to make sure tomorrow’s force is as superb as today’s, to drive forward in new domains like cyber, space, and to manage as well as possible through unconscionable budget turbulence.

But since President Obama is present, I would like to alight for a moment upon the benefit I immediately observed Marty bringing to the President’s decision making.  In the Situation Room, all listened attentively when Marty offered his advice from the military leadership.

As a physicist by training, I’m partial to one way Marty describes leadership.  The challenge is not unlike Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Marty has often said: “When you touch it, you change it.” 

Now I’m not going to quibble with Marty’s physics here, but I’m certain he’s exactly right about this:  Every decision a military leader makes, large or small, touches the lives of our troops; it touches the lives of countless families; it changes the nature of our world and the destiny of our country.  For men and women who operate every day during a time of rapid change and uncertainty, this is the constant weight and responsibility of leadership.

In those councils, Marty Dempsey speaks with the concision of the English student he once was, and invariably with a little of the sparkle of the Irishman he will always be.  He has lived by the words of his favorite Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, that: “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than before.”

I’m confident in telling you Marty: you will be missed.  

Marty has also said the best leaders make us want to be better versions of who we are.  And of course, we know one remarkable woman who has done that for Marty, and that’s his wife Deanie.  So when Marty heard, for example, Time Magazine named him one of the world’s most influential people, it caught him by surprise.  He said he didn’t know he was even the most influential person in his family. 

Marty and Deanie make a wonderful team.  Over the years, no one has attended more memorials, wakes, or weddings.  For the Dempseys: There are truly no strangers in our military family, to quote Yeats yet again: “There are only friends they haven’t met.”

So Deanie, we thank you for finding Marty during your days at Goshen High School.  And for sharing with him the blessings of three children – all of whom answered the call to serve – and no fewer than nine grandchildren. An Irishman indeed.

Now on to the other Irishman: Joe Dunford.  Since, not all of you were able to be present yesterday at the Marine Barracks, when we retired Joe Dunford from the job every Marine considers the best job in the military – Commandant of the Marine Corps – it bears repeating.  But first and foremost to Ellyn. 

Ellyn has been Joe’s rock-solid foundation for more than three decades.  Her support for military families and wounded warriors is much more than dutiful – it is personal.  The rest of Joe’s family – three children, Joseph, Pat, and Kathleen – and parents Mr. and Mrs. Dunford  have supported Joe and Ellyn in providing that warm support.

And I want to give Ellyn a special word of appreciation, and here’s why: She was just settling in joyfully to her duties as the Commandant’s wife, and enjoying having Joe home from Afghanistan, when a different calling came.  Joe was the clear choice to be the President’s next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but he wasn’t Ellyn’s.  Ellyn, thanks from all of us for going one more measure of devotion.

Now, to why Joe is the right man for the job.  Joe Dunford is the kind of officer Marines want to follow – in the early years of the Iraq War, Joe commanded the 5th Marine Regiment.  Joe refused armor inserts in his flack-jacket until every Marine under his command was already issued a pair.  

That story says more than any of us ever could about the character and leadership of this great man. Humble. Strong. Centered. Always faithful to his people and mission … wielding the operational acuity of a battle hardened commander and the strategic wisdom of a statesman.

We saw that clearly during Joe’s time leading U.S. and allied troops as the NATO ISAF Commander: we saw his compassion in handwritten condolences sent to families of the fallen…we saw his tenacity in the way he managed dealing with President Karzai…and we saw his skillfulness in transitioning security responsibility to Afghan Forces.

During that time, all that time, and over the past 14 years, in two complex, all-consuming wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Marines and all our Service Members performed spectacularly. 

Today, the Marine Corps is at the center of a great strategic transition in our military:  emerging from 15 years of counterinsurgency and strength in presence…to preparing for a full spectrum of threats, where we remain overwhelmingly strong in posture, and not only presence. 

In a way – that’s what Marines have always done.  Answering the call across the full range of military operations.  No one understands that better than Joe. 

As the 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe answers the President’s call.  Joe will provide him critical counsel and serve as a critical bridge, between military and civilian leadership, and also between two administrations, between 14 years of war and a time of strategic transition for our force. Once again, we thank Ellyn and their family for sharing Joe with our country. 

The Chairman will soon change, but the quality of counsel he provides the President and the caliber of their leadership will endure. 

The characteristics that Marty and Joe so excellently demonstrate: flexibility and creativity the ability to act courageously and decisively – these are the attributes of our greatest leaders.  These are the qualities they share with our Commander in Chief.  So as we say farewell to Marty and welcome Joe as Chairman, we also thank the President for his leadership and constancy, for his deep commitment to the safety, welfare, and dignity of our men and women in uniform. 

The example and commitment of these three leaders has indeed made each of us nobler and stronger. 

And because of their unwavering service to country and commitment to our military, our nation is nobler and stronger, and will be, forever more. 

Thank you.