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Remarks presenting the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award of the Guard and Reserve

Thanks very much, Jonathan – for being here, for spending your time here, and you obviously get it, you get why we’re here and what this occasion is about.  So also does the chaplain – I appreciate that invocation rendered in that distinctive Missouri accent.  And Paul, his wife, thank you.  And to everybody in this organization, it’s great to be with you all – leaders here from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve; our Guard members and Reservists, their families, friends; previous award recipients; DoD personnel past and present; and our special guest, Lee Greenwood – thank you all for joining us.

I’m glad to see so many Guard and Reserve members here.  And to just repeat what Jonathan already said, we thank you for what you’re doing for our country – more on that in general in a moment.  And I know many of their families and employers are here as well – and to each of you, family members and employers also, we’re grateful for what you do for our  Guard and our Reserve, our members, and the mission that they perform for our country.  

For more than 40 years, in fact, ESGR – yes, that is the acronym, Jonathan – has encouraged and worked with employers around the country to strengthen their support for their employees who serve in the Guard and Reserve.  And our entire country is stronger for it. 

We see that in the awesome performance of our Guard and Reserve, especially, particularly over the last 15 years. 

We see it in the more than 4,500 ESGR volunteers nationwide who donate their time to this important cause and to ensuring that our Guardsmen and Reservists not only retain their current jobs, but find new ones. 

We’ve seen it in Louisiana just over the last two weeks, where over 3,500 Guardsmen have been responding to unprecedented flooding – helping rescue thousands of people, providing meals, and bottles of water, cots, blankets, tarps, sandbags, more. 

And we see it in this ceremony – when our community gathers again to present this Employer Support Freedom Award, which is the highest recognition given by the U.S. government to civilian employers for their support of our Guard and Reserve members and their families.  

And today, we award no fewer than 15 truly deserving employers.  These 15 are helping make DoD and our country stronger.  But for a moment, I want to focus on another number: the more than 2,400 nominations submitted by Guardsmen and Reservists who felt that their employer deserved recognition for all they do to support the Guard and Reserve.  

Think about what those 2,400 nominations mean.  They reflect the breadth and the depth of what our nation’s employers – large or small, public or private, recognized or not – do for our Guard and Reserve members, and therefore for the mission of the Guard and Reserve.  Those nominations represent all the bosses, all the supervisors across America who go the extra mile to help their employees serve the country.  The coworkers who are getting the backs of their colleagues and their families as they serve.  The HR departments that are making their organization a more attractive place to work for citizen-soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – because also they know that hiring, and taking good care of, and retaining these Americans is not only the patriotic thing to do, but the smart thing to do for their businesses because of the tremendous ability of the people who make ours the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  

And we have many of these servicemembers here today.  Each of you and your colleagues across the country and around the world have my thanks.  You help keep our most solemn commitment as a military, which is to provide for our fellow citizens the security they need to live their lives, to dream their dreams, to give their children a better future – even if that means sometimes having to put your own lives on hold, or even at risk.

Many of you have responded when we needed you most – perhaps never more so than over the last 15 years.  Indeed, since 9/11, more than 770,000 of our Guard and Reserve personnel deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes – many times – more than once.  As their service in both those countries demonstrates, the Guard and Reserves are a critical component of our total force – a vital operational reserve that brings to bear the experience and skills of our citizen-warriors, wherever and whenever they’re needed to confront the challenges of a complex world.  

And a complex world it is, and today our nation, our great nation, with its global responsibilities, with its global opportunities and global interests, have no fewer than five immediate, major, evolving challenges:  first, countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia-Pacific region, where half of humanity lives and half of the economic activity in the world resides, where China is rising, which is fine, but behaving aggressively, which is not; strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf; and confronting terrorism, including especially accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and everywhere around the world to which it metastasizes.  And as history has shown, we also have to be flexible and agile in preparing to contend with whatever comes in the future.  The future’s uncertain; we can’t anticipate everything we may need to do.  We need to keep our game up.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines of our Guard and Reserve are right now helping ensure we meet those challenges – but as the nominations for this award demonstrate, they don’t have to do it alone. 

After all, their families serve, too.  That’s something today’s honored employers know – employers and employees – know very well.  And thanks to their employers, and many more across the country, Guard and Reserve members have been able to count on additional care and support for their families, particularly when they’re on duty or on deployment.  

That’s important, because personal families and, as these awardees will demonstrate, our servicemembers’ work families, too, are the foundation of our force.  Thanks to employers like the ones we’re recognizing today, our Guardsmen and Reservists can have the flexibility and the training they need to accomplish their mission.  They’re able to have the time off before and after deployment.  And they have a job to go back to when they come home. 

Some of our employers – especially the 15 we honor today – go above and beyond that level of support.  One, for example, shipped 2,000 pounds of household goods for their Reservist employee, which is fitting.  Another employer heard that his National Guard employee – who already been deployed for eight months – would need to be out for six more months to heal from a deployment injury, and so he offered to pay the Guardsman’s college expenses.  And one other employer got really creative – this is workplace flexibility taken to a high level – he joined his employees in warrior yoga sessions – but with a serious purpose, which is to help people who were returning from deployment who were having some stress, and this was an important way for them to relieve it.

So these are just a few examples of all the awardees have done for our men and women in uniform.  And you don’t have to take my word for it.  One Guardsman, when nominating an employer we’re honoring today, said that the company he works for set the standard that all companies should abide by.  That’s why we’re giving out each of these awards today – because these organizations are leading, setting the standard for employer support for our Guard and Reserve. 

That leadership also helps bring the country together.  We live at a time when less than 1 percent of our population serves in uniform, which means fewer people are connected to those who do.  So we need to keep building bridges to our fellow citizens and communities who aren’t as connected to those who serve and sacrifice on their behalf as they once were.  Our Guard and Reserve, and their employers – especially our awardees – build those bridges every day. 

So on behalf of the entire country and the men and women of the Department of Defense, I thank you all for doing so.  And I congratulate today’s awardees.  Today, more than ever, the commitment they’ve shown to our country, and to those who serve our country, is indispensable.  To meet the challenges and opportunities we face as a nation and as a Department of Defense, we need each of you – all our Guard and Reserve, all our families, all our employers.  

Thank you, each of you, and congratulations to our awardees.