By Secretary of the Army John McHughOctober 16, 2013
You know, as I was sitting listening to the Chief (of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno), I looked at this stage as all of you are, and, like many of you, I've had the honor of attending literally dozens of events here; but never so much as in this kind of occasion does this place look so special and so beautiful. And fittingly so.
And speaking of beautiful, you all look good. Chief (Odierno) as he always does, did a great job of introducing individuals by name, so I'm not going to recount all of those; just know that you are all very, very welcome, and we all deeply appreciate your attendance, whether you are a part of the civilian or Army uniformed family or a member of the Department of Defense family, we are deeply appreciative.
I do want to give a couple special welcomes to our distinguished members of my former haunt for 17 years, the House of Representatives, Welcome. So, how are you doing? How are we doing? We'll talk later. You are truly welcome and thank you for during a very busy time for coming here and sharing this special moment.
Mr. Secretary, Secretary Hagel, as always, we deeply appreciate your personal attention to these kinds of occasions, the deep concern you bring for the men and women in uniform and their families. Your presence here today is making this an even more special occasion.
But we would not have an event, to state the obvious, without Captain Will Swenson, without the love and support of his parents, Carl and Julia, the continued love and special relationship with Kelsey Long, all of the distinguished guests that he and others have brought with them, you make this moment what it is.
By way of confession, I have to tell you whenever I share a dais with the Secretary of Defense, I get a little bit more self-conscious about my remarks. I want to be honest with you, as well. I'm even more on edge this afternoon, and frankly, Mr. Secretary, it doesn't have much to do with you. It's Will's mom's presence that has me a little nervous. Now, if you had occasion to read or see President Obama's remarks yesterday at the White House during that very touching ceremony, he observed that both the Captain's parents are retired Seattle University professors. Carl was a math professor; that one field of study more than any other that drove me into political science. But more frightening, Julia's field was English. And as the President noted, she made sure that even at a young age, Will not only dotted his i's and crossed his t's, but he practiced perfect grammar at all times. So, Julia, ma'am, I have done my best today and will continue to ensure correct usage and correct syntax. Or, as we say back home where I'm from, I hope I got good English.
Most importantly, truly, thank you both very much for being here; you have much to be proud of -- or, I guess I should say much of which to be proud.
To state the obvious, this is a tremendous honor, for the Army and, if I may, for me, personally, as we gather to induct Captain William David Swenson into our Hall of Heroes -- the first officer in the United States Army to receive the Medal of Honor for any conflict since the Vietnam War. And that makes this special occasion even more special. This is also, as Will himself has said, a time of mixed emotions, a time when we pay tribute to uncommon valor, but at the same time, we mourn and we remember the horrible loss of comrades and friends.
The Battle of Ganjgal was ferocious. And it was tragic. And we lost so many good lives that day. But following the violence, and the death, came inspiration. And we were inspired by those who fought there, by those who would not accept defeat -- and, as the Chief noted, we are indeed, honored to have many of those warriors who fought by Will's side that day -- his battle buddies -- joining us -- both Army and Marines -- and I deeply appreciate the rightful recognition you gave them. But I would say to you: If you question what this concept of "jointness" is about, if you really doubt it's being applied -- look at this battle; look at those uniforms. I don't think you'll question it anymore.
Gentlemen: God love you. God Bless you for your service, and for all that you not just did that day, but every day that you serve in uniform.
I will also say that from that single fierce battle -- two Medals of Honor, two Navy Crosses, a Silver Star, Nine Bronze Stars with V(alor) device -- that is an amazing measure of honor. And even by that incredible standard, Will Swenson is truly a hero amongst heroes. And today, because of this event, he will have his name enshrined along with those who have gone before, forever a part of our Nation's and our Army's history. And his name will be displayed alongside such others as Alvin York and Audie Murphy and Les Sabo.
The reason I single out Les Sabo, even though his name, certainly outside this room, may not be as recognizable as others, is that his story, and Will's, offer a common and an important lesson for our Army.
About a year and a half ago, I stood in this very room, close to this very spot as we inducted Specialist Sabo into our Hall of Heroes. And that followed a ceremony in which Les' family received the Medal of Honor at the White House just the day before. In 1970, Les Sabo sacrificed his life in a far away field in Cambodia, and he did so to save the lives of his fellow Soldiers.
For more than 40 years, his story was all but lost to anyone outside of his family. And as you may recall, that was the case until a writer happened to stumble upon his records in the National Archives. And that writer began to push anew for the Medal of Honor that should have been awarded decades earlier.
And today, we similarly pause to bestow an overdue honor, once more.
Now, I couldn't do much for Les Sabo at the time; perhaps there is something, Will, I hope I can do for you, and, as I know you feel even more importantly, for those who may follow in your footsteps.
This morning I issued a directive requiring that all Medal of Honor nominations be sent immediately to the awards and decorations branch of the Army Human Resources Command (HRC). As soon as an honors packet is created at battalion level, we will have immediate visibility at Army headquarters. Each subsequent command's review will also be required to be immediately forwarded to HRC; and in return, HRC will follow up with the original command every 30 days until that award packet reaches its final review. A parallel process that will provide greater oversight; a way by which we can ensure that no future award packet is lost along the way, or paperwork misplaced or somehow forgotten in the fog of war.
Our heroes have always taught us many things, and that's true here, today. Sometimes our heroes teach us how to make ourselves better. And Will, for that as well, I -- we all -- want to thank you.
But Will has taught us a lot more than how to make our processes better. He's also taught us about things like valor and courage and teamwork and sacrifice. And there's more.
To prepare for today, I watched some of the videos that we coerced Will into doing, and he did incredibly well. And for all of the impressive things that I heard from him, I was particularly struck by something he said in relation to that day.
As the Chief (of Staff of the Army) noted, on that day, we lost three Marines, First Lieutenant Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson, Staff Sergant Aaron Kenefick; we lost a Navy Corpsman, James Layton; and, about a month later, Army Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook -- the Soldier whose forehead Will gently kissed as he lifted him onboard a MedEvac helicopter.
I know that their families have already been recognized, but I would ask, respectfully, that we pause once more to remember their sacrifice, and to again thank each of them for being here today. Join with me (Applause). And I would say, from the bottom of my heart, no matter what uniform your loved one wore, from this day forward, you are all a beloved part of our Army family. God bless you, and thank you.
We also lost nine Afghans, men whose names Americans will likely never know, at least not in large numbers. And in the interview I mentioned, Will spoke about them, their sacrifice, and their struggling nation. And Will observed, and I'm going to quote here, "the Afghan people in Kunar Province got to see their government, their leaders, their Soldiers, their brothers, out there trying to do the right thing, trying to find the Afghan solution to their problems," he concluded, "they saw the Afghans … fight."
In telling the story of those Afghans, those warriors who fought alongside them that day, in witness to their courage and conviction, Will may have taught us the most important lesson of all. He taught us all: There's hope.
Hope comes in many forms, comes in many faces and many voices. Where a baby's cry is heard, there is hope that the world will go on. Where a teacher, someone who has devoted an entire lifetime not to power, not to glory, not to money, but for the conveyance of knowledge, when that teacher speaks in understanding tones to a struggling student, there is hope for a better future. And when a prayer of remembrance is said over the casket of a fallen hero, what that Soldier died for -- freedom and liberty and the right to breathe free -- that sacrifice gives us hope that all the people of the world, wherever they may live, may one day realize what is universally proclaimed as the American dream.
Since 1775, the Army -- the United States Army, along with the comrades-in-arms we have, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard, band together as a band of warriors -- have continuously brought hope, have continuously brought that dream to the oppressed. Wherever those forces are stationed, they have always brought hope.
Will, you and your comrades that day were many things, but you were true messengers of hope -- hope to the Afghan people. And a renewed hope to every American who like all of us has lived in the cloak of freedom and liberty that the courage and skill and conviction of the American Soldier has provided for more than 238 years, that that freedom will endure into the future, as well.
Will, that is a high honor and, in its own way, a heavy burden. And through your service, your courage, your leadership and sacrifice, you have given me -- you've given us all -- hope. So, Captain Swenson, congratulations, to you, to your family on this very special tribute, and thank you, too, on behalf of our Army, our Nation, for your service and your valor.
God bless you, God bless the United States of America, and this glorious Army that keeps her free. Thank you.