October 12, 2015 -- 21st Secretary of the Army Hon. John McHugh AUSA 2015 keynote address

By U.S. ArmyNovember 18, 2015

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(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Gordon, sir, thank you, for the seventh time, for that very kind introduction.

And as I tried to convey in the past, thank you, to you personally, for the great leadership that you have provided, certainly your time in uniform as an American Soldier, but here as the head of AUSA. And I want to thank all of the great members of AUSA -- many of whom have joined us here this morning -- for all of your outstanding support for our soldiers, families, and civilians. Each and every one of us in this Army appreciate the opportunity that this gathering provides for us each year to share ideas, to learn from one another, and further advance the Army profession.

As I've already noted, I'm no stranger to this event. Did I mention this is the seventh time? The seventh opportunity I've had the honor to appear here as Secretary. And I'm not sure if that's some kind of record, but for those of you who sat through all six of my previous speeches and you are here again this morning, you really should have learned by now. But thanks for your repeated courage.

As I've noted in the past, I'm once again a little surprised we find ourselves here, once again, on Columbus Day, celebrating our great Army on what should really be a navy holiday.

After all, Columbus gained fame for sailing the ocean blue and, of course, is widely credited with discovering the new world.

But the day is not without its controversy, because many historians contend that it was, in fact, the Viking Leif Erikson who first discovered America more than four centuries before Columbus.

Isn't that just like a navy -- to try and take credit for all the hard work someone else has done.

So in the spirit of "jointness," I wore a purple tie, and let me say, "Happy Columbus Day, US Navy!"

Today, as you might imagine, is truly bittersweet occasion for me. While this will be . . . I might have mentioned this . . . my seventh time with you, it will be my last as Secretary. In just a few weeks, I will end my time in the Pentagon. And if that day you hear a loud scream of ecstasy coming from the parking lot, I'm sure you will understand my joy. I have no doubt that those who worked in the building with me will be overjoyed I'm leaving as well. So it's a win-win.

But I want to say this. As much as all of us like to joke about the Pentagon -- a building with five-sides and a million angles and so forth -- the work within its corridors is damn serious business, and I deeply appreciate all those, both civilian and military, who toil long and often thankless hours to keep our nation secure and our soldiers safe.

Even after my now 42 years in public service, which included time in by state and local government levels and nearly 17 years as member of the U.S. House of Representatives, this job has been the singular honor of my career. I am enormously grateful to President Obama for this great honor, this great opportunity, and I deeply appreciate the faith he placed in me. I hope that I've served him, our nation and our especially our soldiers capably.

I'm also grateful to all those with whom I've had the honor to work for, to work with, and to work under. I've now served with four Secretaries of Defense -- Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel and now of course Ash Carter.

I have learned much from each and every one of them, and appreciated their strong support for the men and women who wear this nation's uniform. Our country…our Army…are better because of their leadership.

I've worked alongside fearless warriors and inspired leaders. I've relied upon four different Army Chiefs of Staff for their counsel and their leadership -- George Casey, Marty Dempsey stopped by for a few days, Ray Odierno and of course now, Mark Milley -- and four different Vice Chiefs - Pete Chiarelli, Lloyd Austin, John Campbell and now Dan Allyn. These all are men tested in battle, and each brought a passion and a commitment that inspires me to keep their trust and the trust of every American soldier.

In my time as Secretary, I've also been blessed to have three different Undersecretaries -- Joe, now Ambassador Joe Westphal, Brad Carson and now Eric Fanning. Each too brought a different perspective to the job, and all worked -- and now work - tirelessly on behalf of our total Army - soldiers and civilians alike.

I would fully acknowledge that my record of swaying my former colleagues on Capitol Hill has been, shall we say, mixed at best, but I'm hopeful that they will act wisely and quickly, and support Eric to succeed me as Secretary. In my seven years, I've met few people who are more respected in the Pentagon, the Hill, or within the defense community as is Eric.

His intellect, experience and temperament are exactly what this Army needs in the challenging days ahead, and I've appreciated the chance to work with him, and know what a tremendous job he will do.

Of course, every senior leader is surrounded by personal staff. Here too I've been blessed -- a great succession of XOs like Trevor Bredenkamp, who recently joined our team.

Military aides like Buddy Ferris, who serves so tirelessly in that capacity -- a true leader, a warrior, whose only fault is a pathological obsession with the Boston Red Sox. Yes, I know Gordon Sullivan is a Boston fan, and I know the new chief is a Boston fan -- one of the reasons I had to leave. It's getting to be too much.

And especially the three staff members who have been with me since the beginning -- Col. Greg Bowman, who amongst his many responsibilities had the dubious of preparing me every year for those little fun exercises called posture hearings.

Kate Cox -- the individual who heads up my office, who takes care of my life, my schedule, and who day-after-day, as I have noted often, runs my life like my mother wishes she could have.

And most of all, Anne Lemay -- someone who's been with me for 20 years both in Congress and now every minute - on Capitol Hill, and I have been blessed by her devotion, her dedication, and have been amazed by here ability to get on top of a problem and solve it before most of us even know there's a problem.

They're terrific people all, and I am deeply in their debt.

Of course, as I talk about all the change that's happened while I have been there these nearly seven years, with all the names of those I've worked so closely with and who chose repeatedly to leave, I know what you're thinking. My God, McHugh, can't you take a hint?

Well, I got the hint.

But before I depart for the last time, I want to share a few other thoughts, if I may, with you.

Most importantly, my sincerest thanks to every man and woman who wears the uniform of the American soldier -- Active, Guard, Reserve -- and to every family member who cares for them, and every civilian who comes to work each and every day committed to supporting their mission.

When I first came to this job, we were a nation not just at war, but at two wars.

Every senior leader who has ever served in the Pentagon is expected to bring with them some type of vision -- what they want to work towards in their time, what they hope to achieve. I did that. I had hoped to focus on such vital issues as acquisition reform, the professionalization of civilian personnel in our ranks, and the transformation of our generating force, to name a few.

But when the reality of two wars hits you in the face, you soon learn that there is no more important job than making certain that those we send into harm's way have the training, equipment and leadership they needed to fight those wars, and then return home safely. And that in turn largely consumes everything else you may wish to do.

One of my early bosses and a great personal mentor, New York State Senator Doug Barclay, used to have a cartoon in his conference room, and it showed a man trying to escape the jaws of pack of vicious alligators. The caption read simply this: "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember your original intent was to drain the swamp."

In life -- especially in the Pentagon - visions and ideas give way to priorities and realities.

I know I'm not telling any of you in this room anything you don't already know, but I have been continuously awestruck by the talent, the teamwork and dedication of everyone who has committed themselves to that critically important mission.

I've been blessed to have been a small part of so many events honoring the valor of true American heroes. Along with you I learned of the stories of men like Sal Guinta, Leroy Petry, Clint Romesha, Ty Carter, Will Swenson and Ryan Pitts. Each joined us in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, after receiving the Medal of Honor from President Obama. We are blessed to such warriors in our midst, and blessed to have them in our ranks.

We also had the opportunity to mark and other wars and other heroes, some long overlooked. As an Army, we've worked to right past wrongs, whether they were simply overlooked in their time -- such as Civil War hero Alonzo Cushing -- or because they may have been denied because of their religion or color of their skin -- like World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson.

I'm proud of the fact that I've approved 22 Medal of Honor packets for those previously overlooked, and whether through omission or prejudice, we have a responsibility to ensure that American heroes receive the honor and recognition they deserve and have earned in service to their country wherever…whenever…that service may have occurred.

As I wind down my time as Secretary, these six-plus years have given me a unique opportunity to understand where we've been, where we are, and where we may be headed next. Most of the challenges we face won't be easy, and working to implement change in a bureaucracy as large as the Pentagon's comes with its own unique problems.

Some of you may know I am from Watertown, NY, which is about as far north as you can go on this continent without showing a passport. I know a thing or two about Canada and a thing or two about moose. In fact, I speak fluent Canadian.

Speaking of moose, there is a tale that I am going to share with you, and I hope you'll bear with me. But I think it depicts life in the Pentagon. And that tale is this:

So there were two hunters. Every year the hunters did one thing -- hired a bush pilot with a pontoon plane, single engine. They'd hire that person and go moose hunting in a remote corner of a Canadian lake - for a week.

And this year, they were coming in with a new pilot, one they had never hired before. As they taxied gently to the shore line, the pilot said, "I'll be back at this very spot one week from now. And I wish you all the best, but this is a small plane, and it is a small lake. No matter how well you do, we can only takeout one moose."

So the hunters de-planed and they went hunting.

True to his word, one week later that pilot came back. As he was taxiing, there were the hunters on that spot on the shore. Their gear was packed up. But the pilot noticed not one, but two moose.

He immediately got out of his plane when he reached the shore and began telling them, "Look, I'm glad you had a great week, but as I told you, we can only take one moose."

And with that, the hunters began yelling and screaming and pleading, and crying. The pilot was unmoved.

So finally, one of the hunters said, "You know, we hired your competitor last year, and he didn't have any trouble taking out two moose."

Well, the pilot's ego was hurt. So they loaded up the gear, put one moose on one pontoon, one moose on another pontoon, got into the plane, backed up to the furthest point of the lake, revved the engine as far and as fast as it would go, slammed it forward, and they gently started to take off.

Just as they almost cleared the final stand of pine trees, a bough caught the pontoon, and it flipped the plane -- moose this way, hunters that way. The two hunters landed on the shore next to each other, and after a few moments, one raised up and said, "Where the hell are we?"

The second hunter took a moment, looked around and said, "About a hundred yards further than we got last year."

That's it in a nutshell -- that's life in the Pentagon. See my point? Progress, however, is hard. It comes slowly. Generally every gain is accompanied by a crash or two. Nowhere has that pain and has that struggle -- in all seriousness -- been more clearly demonstrated than during the last 14 years, the longest period of sustained conflict in our Nation's history. Two theaters of war --Iraq and Afghanistan--members of our Total Army accomplished what many said could not be done.

But now, regardless of their many achievements, the focus is on other things. The focus goes from this Army to other places. As you know, and as you heard in the pageant before, every post conflict period in our Nation's history has been followed by retrenchment - a stepping back, if you will, of both funding and of forces.

After World War I, the "War to End All Wars," America came home only to find that "The Big One," World War II, followed relatively closely behind. After that horrific period, surely we had learned our lesson…no more war

Sadly, our history demonstrates otherwise. This morning as you heard, after Korea, Vietnam, and even after the Cold War, this nation sought peace dividends, peace dividends which were ultimately paid for by the next generation of military, who had to face that new challenge--the one we believed would never come, the one we hoped would never come.

So with this kind of track record in mind, we tried to do it better.

We tried to rationalize our declining budgets with--what was at the time--we hoped--a reasonable strategic vision of where the threats in the days ahead might be found. In short, we attempted to predict the future. There is just one problem with that . . . that's fortune telling, and fortune telling doesn't work.

As Secretary of Defense Bob Gates famously noted, when it comes to predicting the future, we have a perfect record: we've been wrong every time.

Unfortunately, as recent events around the globe have shown us, Secretary Gates' words were quite prophetic. I don't know about you, but I didn't foresee the United States Army being the foundational force to fight the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. I'm don't think we fully understood the rapid pace of expansion of terrorist cells throughout a growing part of Africa -- Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and the Lord's Resistance Army, to name just a few. We really didn't plan for, what I'll call Putin's adventurism in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, causing major security disruptions throughout much of Europe and certainly all of Eastern Europe. We sure didn't see ISIL.

But, nonetheless, your Army has responded to each of these things - all the while facing unpredictable funding, which has eroded our readiness, reduced our force structure and cut critical modernization efforts. The fact of the matter is, not once during my time as secretary has the Department of Defense received a budget on time. Not once. But your Army continues to answer every call…your Soldiers continue to march.

So, the question before us now: What is the future for this Army? As I have thought about it over these recent years, I really see two possibilities.

The first is the Army, and the future America needs and, I would argue, it's a future our Soldiers deserve. We should always think about those things through their eyes, through the minds and lives of the Soldier - the individual on the ground far from home, often given a strategic task of epic proportions, who must have the support and resources to get the job done quickly, effectively, and, we hope, permanently completed.

It is a future of power. It is a future of readiness where America's enemies, known and unforeseen, respect our capabilities and are either deterred by our strength or destroyed by our lethality. I hope, and I pray that is the future for this Army. It is certainly the future our Soldiers deserve.

The second future is a much darker one, a much more dangerous future--one based largely on ill-conceived notions of the nature of war. One based on, what I hear once more, on a growing discussion in this town that questions the very need for an Army at all.

It is a posture seemingly based upon what I would call a grossly naive view of the geo-political environment - a perspective rooted in unsupported optimism, which would shape our force and our military for a world as we wished it were, rather the perilous reality we truly face at this moment. In this future, we would budget, size and train for a fight that may never come - ignoring the threats that have come, and that we are facing each and every day, as well as the unpredictable contingencies that history has shown us time and time again will surely happen tomorrow.

I mentioned some of those tomorrows -- those unpredictable contingencies. None of them is the Army properly sized or funded to pursue, certainly in their totality.

But the thing I fear most is what comes next, what don't we see that is headed towards us at this moment. What's that next unforeseen danger to face this Nation, our Allies and the world? Will we have an Army agile and ready enough to meet that challenge? Or, will a dark and dangerous future emerge in which the Army is built for a fantasy world that does not exist.

The recently departed Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and I have testified repeatedly that we are on the "ragged edge."

Our BCT readiness level right now is at some 32-33%. Our standard is 60-70%. We are simply consuming that readiness as soon as it is produced. Sending soldier back out, as soon as we have raised them to the appropriate levels. But more funding cuts loom before us.

If we continue to strip resources from this Army, I have said repeatedly, that at some point, someone is going to have to tell us to stop doing something. As I look at the world right now, I don't now what that would be. It's just that simple…it's just that stark - our requirements are quickly over taking our capabilities.

It would be great if we could sanitize war--as critically important as the joint force is -- it would be terrific if we could truly fight and win from 30,000 feet or from 12 miles off shore. But that's not how the world works, and it is certainly not how war works. People don't live in the air or in the sea. At its core, war is a human endeavor and humans occupy land.

Conflict can only be fully resolved, fully resolved, when some force stabilizes the human domain--when someone controls the land.

This is a reality that is as true today, as it was generations before. Because as recent history has shown us, after we shocked, after we awed, we did as generations did before: We marched. And today, your Army continues to march.

As in the past, this Army remains the only Service that can seize and secure large expanses of territory for extended periods of time. When you own the ground, you make the rules. Until nations exist solely in the water or in the sky, land will remain critical.

To protect the freedom and interests of the United States, the Army must remain the cornerstone of our Nation's defense. There is no other way -- no matter how strongly some may see it differently.

None of this is to suggest we don't need to do our part. We can - we must -- and I would argue we are - striving to be ever better stewards of our Nation's resources.

At its peak, your Army's base budget was $144 Billion. Today, it sits at $120 Billion -- that's a cut of $24 billion -- a nearly 17% reduction for an Army still at war.

Just a few years ago, our civilian population totaled 285,000 personnel. By the end of FY18, that number will decline to 233,000…that's a cut of more than 50,000 positions -- more than 50,000 jobs lost to the American economy.

Amid all these cuts and recent predictions of "rampant peace," today, at this moment, over 180,000 soldiers -- your soldiers -- are supporting combatant commanders' requirements in 140 locations around the world.

We have been increasingly diligent in using scarce dollars more efficiently, more productively, while simultaneously preparing for that next big thing. Over the last six years we have directed the implementation of dozens of reforms ending our pursuit of immature technologies, unrestrained requirements and so-called "generation skipping must-haves."

While we have made important and significant progress, such initiatives have their limits. There are no silver bullets. A force can only be cut so much before it becomes ineffective. If America hopes to continue to rely on its Army, those limits, my friends, have been reached.

So what does all that mean for us?

We can't lobby. We can't vote. But we can tell our story.

We need to continue to further educate Congress about these very real-world needs, we continue to and must demonstrate the critical value of land power, and make sure this nation and its leaders understand most of all that the greatest land force in history is indispensable, and must be jealously guarded. For without a balanced, modernized and ready Army, the freedom of our Nation and I would argue ultimately the world, is at risk.

As I thought about this event, and the last chance I was have to speak before you as Secretary, I was pondering an appropriate way to end my remarks.

Then a thought struck me.

For those who know me well, I am a diehard Yankees fan, and I thought about Lou Gehrig and what was called his "baseball's Gettysburg Address" -- his emotional 1939 farewell to a sold-out Yankee stadium.

And, no, I wasn't at the game --I wasn't even born yet, believe it or not.

But as Gehrig, a man who knew he was dying, famously said, "today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." And I do as well. For more than six years, I have been in the company of heroes -- many with a chest full of ribbons and medals; many, many more without.

But to a person, they committed themselves to a lifetime of selfless service -- to loyalty, duty, respect, honor, integrity and personal courage. I could have no greater honor than to have served as their secretary. It is for them, it is for you -- every soldier, every civilian, every family member -- that I came to work each day, and tried to make some small difference.

During his farewell remarks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, my good and dear friend, the late Ike Skelton remarked, "to paraphrase my fellow Missourian, Harry Truman, I've done my damnedest every single day."

After 17 years serving with Ike on the Armed Services Committee, I know he did his best every day, and I hope, too, that that is how I might be remembered: That despite my many failings, I tried every day to do the best job I knew how for the men and women of this great and proud Army, because they deserve nothing less.

So thank you again for all that you do for this Army. God bless you, God bless America and God bless this great and glorious Army that keeps all of us free.

2015 AUSA Opening Ceremony: Secretary of the Army John McHugh Keynote Address