Secretary of the Army - Salute to the Military Speech, Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce
January 11, 2008
Honorable Pete Geren
Secretary of the Army
Salute to the Military Speech
Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce
Corpus Christi, TX
05 December 2007
Solomon Ortiz, thank you for your kind words. We've been friends for nearly 20 years, and it is great to be here tonight with you in your hometown with your friends and supporters. Your life story is truly an American dream. Born right here in Robstown, you joined the Army at age 18 and went to basic training up the road at Fort Hood and then served in France.
The Army quickly recognized - then offered you a chance to pursue - your interest in law enforcement by assigning you to the 61st Military Police Company's Criminal Investigation Office.
That Army training laid the foundation for what would become your political career following your military service, a career that began when you were elected Constable of Nueces County in 1964. In 1968, you were elected to the County Commissioners Court, where you served until 1976, when you returned to your law enforcement roots as the Nueces County Sheriff.
And, since 1982, you have served the people of the 27th District of Texas in the House of Representatives. Today, you are the third ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee - and the chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee - as well as the fourth-ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. These assignments and your work in Congress all reflect your commitment to service to the people of the 27th District and to our men and women in uniform. Solomon Ortiz looks after the people of his district.
Congressman Ortiz, thank you for your service to our nation - as a Soldier and as a public servant and for being here tonight to salute our nation's military.
I also would like to recognize LTG Charles Rodriguez, the Adjutant General of the State of Texas and the extraordinary service of the Texas National Guard. They have served around the world and distinguished themselves with their service; LTG Marc Cisneros and his wife, Edie; Admiral and Mrs. Christenson; and Admiral and Mrs. Guadanimi.
I also would like to thank the Freddie Martinez, Jr., and the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce for hosting this event and allowing me an opportunity to return to Texas, return home - a place I don't see much of these days.
Tonight we salute our nation's military, which includes more than the 2.4 million service men and women in uniform. Tonight we also salute the families of those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Guardsmen - the spouses, the children, the parents. Our All Volunteer Force - our service men and women and their families - truly the strength of our nation.
Tonight we are joined by family members of Soldiers and Marines - 21 Coastal Bend Texans - neighbors - who have given their lives in the Global War on Terror, who sacrificed their futures for our present. Our hearts and prayers are with you and your loved ones in your grief. You honor us with your presence. These families of our fallen heroes were brought together tonight thanks to the Gold Star Mothers, who helped organize this occasion.
The Gold Star Mothers organization was founded shortly after World War I, an organization of mothers who had lost a son or daughter in war.
The name, as many of you know, comes from an American custom - families of servicemembers who display a service flag in a window of their home. A blue star symbolizes a living servicemember - a gold star symbolizes a fallen servicemember.
Gold Star Mothers, courageous women who have suffered a parent's greatest loss, continue to provide emotional support for mothers and families of servicemembers and for veterans. To you and to those families you assembled tonight, our grateful nation owes a debt we can never repay. Ladies, I am honored to be here with you tonight. We all are humbled by your sacrifice and your service.
Thank you for providing us this opportunity to pay our respects to the families of those who have given their lives on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
We also honor tonight recipients of our nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, and I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the courage and sacrifices made by these warriors. Many, if not all, of them, I know, prefer not to be called heroes. They will tell you that they were just doing their jobs.
But to a grateful nation, they are more than that. Indeed, they are our heroes.
My thanks go out to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for its work in support of tonight's gathering.
Today, in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, all too often the stories of the courage of our men and women in uniform fail to reach beyond the limits of personal communication. You seldom hear their stories on the news or in the press. So, tonight, I'd like to talk about this war and the noble service of the men and women who have volunteered to put their lives on the line in the Global War on Terrorism.
I will begin with the first Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor in the Global War on Terrorism, a man who served in the tradition of the heroes we honor tonight.
A man whom we did not have the chance to honor or thank - a man who gave his life in the heroic deeds our nation recognized with our highest honor: Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith of the 3rd Infantry Division. He was killed in action in Iraq, April 4, 2003.
On that day, Sergeant First Class Smith's Task Force was attacked by over one hundred enemy fighters. Realizing that his fellow soldiers were in grave danger, Paul Ray Smith quickly organized a defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers.
During the battle, Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons. Ignoring his personal safety, he organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier that had been hit and immobilized.
Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. From this exposed position, he continued to engage the enemy force, protecting his soldiers, until he was mortally wounded.
His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed. His actions also allowed the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers and saved the lives of scores of his comrades. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in the spring of 2005.
It is important that we tell this story - repeat this story - as a tribute to Sergeant First Class Smith, and a tribute to all the men and women who wear the uniform today, because it is a story largely ignored by our media.
Paul Ray Smith's wife and son accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf from the President of the United States in a ceremony at the White House on April 4, 2005.
As recently recounted by a newspaper columnist Robert Kaplan, by June of 2005, two months after the posthumous award to his family - the first Medal of Honor in the global war on terror - the story of Sergeant First Class Smith had drawn only 99 media mentions, while the alleged Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay had drawn 4,000 mentions, and the court martial of Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England had drawn over 5,000 media mentions.
Lynndie England is nearly a household name in America. Paul Ray Smith is known to too few. I cannot explain the why, and I won't even try. But the media silence about the service of our Soldiers and Families allows an inaccurate and jaded image of our military's men and women and of the war effort to in which they fight. Our men and women in uniform are the best led, best trained and best equipped our nation has ever fielded - they have served with courage and professionalism.
You would not know it by the media coverage they receive.
Last month we began the seventh year of combat operations in Afghanistan. We are more than four and a half years in Iraq.
This is the third longest war in our Nation's history, behind only the Revolutionary War and Vietnam. And the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen fighting this war are all volunteers - every one of them. America's All Volunteer Force - our uniformed military Active, Guard and Reserves - numbers only 2.4 million, yet it shoulders a burden for 300 million Americans and most of the free world.
This reality brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill, Great Britain's prime minister during World War II. Churchill said of British pilots and crews in the Battle of Britain, the devastating, months-long aerial bombardment of England by the German Luftwaffe in 1940: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Today, we can say the same - a few shouldering the burden for the many.
Our Army today is a combat Army. We have 280,000 Soldiers arrayed around the globe, from the Philippines to the horn of Africa, and Soldiers stationed in the continental United States in support of the Northern Command, an ever-present reminder of the global reach of our adaptive and treacherous enemy.
Over 500,000 of our Soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 220,000 have deployed multiple times. Tens of thousands have served in other combat zones - Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo.
I'm telling you what you already know. This Army, our Soldiers, are battle-tested and combat-hardened. Army strong.
I told you about Paul Ray Smith - let me tell you about a fellow Texan, Sergeant Kenneth Thomas of Utopia, Texas.
Sergeant Thomas was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He was on a river boat patrol in the Tigris River last February with Iraqi policemen. The patrol was ambushed from the river bank by over 50 insurgents. The Iraqi policeman who was manning the machine gun, the primary weapon of the boat, abandoned his position.
Sergeant Thomas jumped on the weapon and began returning fire as incoming rounds bounced off the steel plates around the boat. They tried to punch through the ambush. They couldn't.
They diverted to the opposite side of the river, got everyone out of the boat and out of the line of fire, but they couldn't get out.
The squad leader turned around and looked at this young Texan and said, "Get us a way out of here." Thomas charged up the bank of the river under fire, only to find that the way out was blocked by a fence.
He took out his wire cutters and began cutting the fence. The fence was electric. It knocked him down. He got back up. He continued to cut the fence while his gloves were melting in his hands. He got through - and pulled the whole squad through.
The last man got hung up on the fence. Sergeant Thomas - still under fire - went back knowing he was going to get jolted again. And he got knocked down again. But he dragged the last guy through, organized the squad, assaulted a house and secured it so he and his fellow soldiers could be evacuated, after about an hour and a half of steady combat.
For that, he was awarded the Silver Star. That's the kind of men and women that you have in your armed forces today.
But our military isn't just the great Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Guardsmen. It includes families - wives, husbands and children. Our All Volunteer Force - service members and their families - a national treasure.
The All Volunteer Force began in 1973, launched during a deeply troubled era for our Army, when many called our Army hollow and broken. It was an experiment that many thought would fail.
The demographics of the All Volunteer Force today are different from any Army so long at war. We are 2.4 million service men and women, Active, Guard and Reserve.
In the Army, more than half of our Soldiers are married, with more than 700,000 children.
And for our 500,000 spouses and 700,000 children, six years of war is uncharted territory. This is the longest conflict we have fought with an All Volunteer Force.
When a married Soldier deploys, he or she leaves behind a single parent household, and all the challenges of that family dynamic. When a single parent deploys, he or she leaves the child in the care of others.
One deployment is hard; two is harder; and three are harder still. Twelve months were hard; fifteen months are harder. Holidays - Christmas - they always are hard.
But military Families hang together. They help each other out - neighbors helping neighbors. In the military, the bond of Family extends beyond bloodlines. Military Families take care of Military Families.
But the challenge grows with each deployment. We are in an era of persistent conflict. We are an expeditionary military. Our support must adapt to this new normal for our Families. We must do more for military Families. Our Services must do more. Our Nation must do more.
As in all the services, our Army Families will continue to serve selflessly and honorably. They too are Army Strong. And we all should feel humbled by their service and their sacrifice and the nobility of their efforts. Our Families get no medals, but they are heroes, nonetheless.
Tonight we honor Gold Star Mothers and Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines and their families, men and women who offered everything they hold dear in the service of our nation - those who made the ultimate sacrifice --mothers who gave that which they held most dear. It is only when we reflect on the human side of war that we appreciate the cost and sacrifice of war - appreciate the enormity of the debt owed by all of us to those who have borne the battle.
Let me continue with the story of Paul Ray Smith - his story did not end with his death. He died a hero - he left behind a hero.
David Smith is his 12-year-old son. Earlier this year, David and his mother were interviewed at Fort Stewart by CBS's Katie Couric.
They walked together down the Warrior's Walk, alongside the trees planted to honor the fallen heroes of the 3rd Infantry Division, the Dog Face Soldiers, as they call themselves, those killed in the Global War on Terror. They walked by the tree honoring David's father.
Ms. Couric asked David if it wasn't hard to talk about his father's death. David, standing tall next to his mother, said simply, and these are his words, "I am doing this to help out all the kids who have lost a father or mother in the war. When I speak out and I go on the news, they probably see me - that I have lost my father. Then they will feel better because they'll see that they're not the only one who's lost somebody."
Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines - and their families. Offering the last full measure of devotion to our nation.
The debt of the many to the few grows daily.