Secretary of the Army John McHugh delivers remarks during the Army's 239th Birthday Week kick-off event at George Washington's Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Va., June 13, 2014. During the ceremony, McHugh and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III presented Purple Hearts to two Soldiers. The original Purple Heart, designated as the Badge of Military Merit, was established by General George Washington by order from his headquarters at Newburgh, New York, August 7, 1782 and today is awarded to members of armed forces wounded in action. (U.S. Army Photo by John G. Martinez)

Thank you Mrs. Petri and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for hosting yet again what has become for us the official kick-off for our annual Army Birthday Celebration.

As we mark 239 years since the Second Continental Congress first established the Army - and the appointment soon after of Virginia farmer George Washington as its first Commander in Chief - there is simply no more fitting place to celebrate and commemorate our history and traditions.

I want to add a special word of thanks to the Sgt. Major the Army, Sgt. Major Ray Chandler for not just joining us here today to help honor two of his beloved NCO corps but from my personal perspective, sir, for your advice, counsel, and leadership on behalf of all Soldiers, particularly, as our Army has been at war. Our enlisted men and women have no better advocate, no more passionate leader than you. I'm grateful both for your service and your friendship.

Walking these grounds and touring this estate, it's easy to understand why President Washington wrote to his friend, David Stuart, that he would "rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every power in Europe."

Washington's letters while Commander-in-Chief of the Army during America's more than eight-year war for independence show the incredible fondness he had for Mount Vernon, and the deep longing to return here, as he put it, "free from care and as much (at) ease as possible."

Mount Vernon was such a central part of Washington's life, and Washington such a central figure in our American history, it seems almost unimaginable that this property was nearly lost to future generations due to indifference and neglect. As such, we all owe the Mount Vernon Ladies Association a tremendous debt of gratitude for saving, restoring and preserving this truly priceless American landmark over these past 154 years. So again, we thank you so very much for your amazing organization.

Today, as the United States Army begins observances here for our 239th birthday, Mount Vernon has tremendous significance to each and every one of us. Long before he was President, Washington was our commander-in-chief, our first commanding general; so our history, like that of the entire nation, is deeply intertwined with the personal history of George Washington. But that's not the full extent of it.

Mount Vernon is significant to our Army, its history and future for another very important reason -- one which Mrs. Petri has mentioned -- and that is as the starting point for the nation's Purple Heart Trail, that network of roadways all across our 50 where we pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces who have been awarded the Purple Heart.

Birthdays are, of course, naturally a time of celebration. And this week, we will again celebrate the achievements of our Army since its inception -- from victory and freedom in the War for Independence, through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous conflicts, both large and small this Army has endured.

But our celebrations are ever tempered by reminders of the tremendous sacrifices made by those who have fought our wars, who pledged their lives and spilled their blood in service to our nation and our way of life.

Just as Washington saw the original Badge of Military Merit as a means to honor Soldiers regardless of rank or privilege today's Purple Heart knows no rank or service, it comes with no requirement or limiting condition beyond being wounded at the hands of our nation's enemies; a recognition that one selflessly has given of themselves in service to freedom and to liberty, the people and ideals of these United States of America.

And I can think of no better way to honor the Army's history than by recognizing the Soldiers who continue to write it, who, through their service and their sacrifice ensure that our country remains the most prosperous and free nation in the history of mankind.

We are honored, indeed we are blessed to have two of those American Soldiers here today; two soldiers who, though their actions on the battlefield earned the right to wear the Purple Heart.

Sgt. Peter Francis was born in Brooklyn, New York -- I hope he's a fellow Yankees fan -- and joined the Army in 2009. Sgt. Francis had deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was wounded in Afghanistan. Sgt. Francis continues his recovery at Walter Reed and is assigned to Battle Company of the Warrior Transition Brigade. Peter, to you and your wife, and family joined with you, to your mom, dad, and those others, thank you, sir, for selfless sacrifice and your heroism.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Hamilton joined the Army in 2004, and was assigned to my hometown installation, Fort Drum, New York. Staff Sgt. Hamilton served some 40 months of combat deployments with the 10th Mountain Division and is the recipient a Bronze Star with "Valor" for battlefield heroism, and now, not one, not two, but three Purple Hearts.

Today, we are presenting him with that third Purple Heart for wounds he suffered in an IED blast that caused not only some TBI injuries, but also further damage to his previous wounds. Joe, to you and your wife, Janette, thank you, so very much for your selfless sacrifice, your service and please, no more Purple Hearts.

And to the battle buddies who have joined us here from Walter Reed, thank you for your selfless service and sacrifice, and for all that you have done and for making this Army all that it has been-the greatest land force the world has ever seen and the greatest force for good the world has ever known.

A few days ago, I had the tremendous honor to be with our President at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. It is simply awe-inspiring to consider the valor and sacrifice made by those who hit the beaches of Normandy that day, knowing full well that their success or failure might determine the fate of the free world. Those brave men have rightly earned our eternal respect and gratitude as the Greatest Generation.

But I when I look at Soldiers like Sgt. Francis and Staff Sgt. Hamilton, I know why this generation is being rightfully hailed as our Next Greatest Generation.

They and their comrades-in-arms volunteered their service to an Army and a nation at war, knowing full well that they would likely be sent into harm's way, and they performed magnificently.

As we wind down what has become America's longest war, the valor, the courage, and sacrifice displayed by the extraordinary men and women who served this nation in Iraq, and to this very moment continue to serve in Afghanistan, is as remarkable and awe-inspiring as that of any of who have gone before. And today, as our Army celebrates 239 years of service defending this great nation and its values, Soldiers like this give me hope, they give me confidence for a future that will be as glorious and free as our past.

On the very day that Congress declared independence from Great Britain, George Washington issued this General Order to his troops.

And I quote: "The time is now near at hand which (will) determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves…whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed and they consigned to a state of wretchedness which no human efforts will probably deliver them."

Washington continued "the fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army."

The courage and conduct of Washington's Army made this nation free, and for 239 years, we have honored that legacy by defending freedom and keeping peace wherever and whenever the call has been raised. That is a legacy embodied in the soldiers we honored today, in the memory of all who have served, and those who continue to serve our nation, this moment, God bless them.

God bless you, God bless America, and God bless this great and glorious Army that keeps her free.

Thank you.

Page last updated Fri June 13th, 2014 at 00:00