WASHINGTON -- As Army leaders, Soldiers, and politicians gathered at the Dirksen Senate Building on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the Army's 242nd birthday, they reflected on the vital role the Army plays in the nation's defense against growing threats to national security.

Acting Secretary of the Army Robert M. Speer was joined for remarks and a cake cutting by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, Senators James Inhofe and John Boozman, and Representatives John Carter, Ted Yoho, Warren Davidson, Tim Walz and Trent Franks.

This year's theme of "Over There! A celebration of the World War I Soldier" commemorates the United States' entry into World War I and its historical significance to the Army. Speer said the war was a pivotal period in the service's history.

"World War I was a transition time in the history of our nation," Speer said. "It's when the United States stepped forward into the role that it has today ... I believe right now is that same transition point for the United States and our defense."

Speers mentioned the importance of sustained, predictable funding in remaining the nation's premier fighting force. The Army is encouraging support for its $166.1 billion fiscal year 2018 budget request that supports facility sustainment, critical requirement restoration, installation and cyber security, readiness and power projection. A three percent increase in investment funding will provide support for modernization of combat vehicles and the acquisition of preferred munitions, he said.

The funding request is reflective of the immense growth of the Army in its 242-year history. The U.S. Army was created on June 14, 1775 -- more than a year before the signing of the U.S. Constitution -- with about 27,000 Soldiers stationed in Boston and New York. Today the Army has about 183,600 Soldiers deployed around the world in 140 countries supporting combatant commanders and protecting America's vital strategic interests.

"The United States Army today is a large organization of a million strong," said Milley. "All three components [active duty, National Guard, and Reserve]... easily constitute the greatest army in the world today."

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahome agreed. "When you see the [Army] uniforms out thereā€¦ that's the biggest protection that we have."