Secretary of the Army John McHugh stopped by the Cody Child Development Center on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall June 17 to read "Happy Birthday U.S. Army" to about 40 pre-school children.

The secretary showed great ease talking with the four-and five-year-olds.

"All you have to know is that because I'm here you get cake," he told the children at the outset. Before beginning to read, McHugh was offered a chair, which he paused before taking, telling a child care worker, "I was going to get down on the floor so they could see the pictures."

The kids nestled in front of the Army secretary as he read the U.S. Army Child, Youth and School Services-produced book, which follows a boy named Justin who compares the dynamics of his own family to that of the Army family. The book touches on the era of President Lincoln "who used the Army to save the nation," to Buffalo Soldiers, Native-American code talkers and the birds, mules and dogs used in Army service.

"Buffalo Soldiers ... isn't that a cool name," McHugh adlibbed at one point in the story.

After the book reading, several children lined up to blow out candles on the Army birthday cake. As the group inhaled in preparation, McHugh gently reminded them, "No spittin' now."

After the three candles on the cake were blown out - the sculpted numerals two, three and five instead of a fire-hazard 200-plus - McHugh led children in the Army song, clapping his hands rhythmically to set the pace.

"You won't be seeing me on American Idol," the Army secretary joked to children, parents and staff during the sing-along.

McHugh spoke to reporters at the conclusion of the event and explained why he decided to read to kids in celebrating the Army's birthday.

"We use the phrase 'Army Family' a lot, and 'Army Family Strong,'" he said. "We want to put a little real-world meaning into that and what better place to it than with these young members of the Army Family who have made a lot of great sacrifices... It's tough to see mom and dad go away."

"It's been a great week, a great opportunity to visit a lot of folks and help celebrate very black-tie formal events and family get-togethers like this," McHugh said. "The diversity of all these celebrations this past week reflects on the diversity of the Army as well. As someone who is new to this, it has been a great experience and an honor to play a real part."

The secretary of the Army said the Cody Child Development Center was a showcase for the Army.

"It's just two years old. It's a fantastic facility - the largest in the Army," he said. "I wish we had the resources to immediately recreate it everywhere. It really shows the great things you can do when you've got the resourcing and the facilities available."

McHugh said providing such facilities is essential to giving Soldiers and family members a good quality of life.

"We do think about retaining these great Soldiers that have trained hard and learned the Army ways and developed the skills," he said. "But it's more than that. It's an obligation that the U.S. Army owes to these brave men and women - folks who sacrificed so much. The very least we can do is provide quality services to the children for their families. It's an integral part of the Army Family Covenant."

McHugh said his years in Congress have benefitted him as secretary of the Army.

"I think it definitely helps. I go back and talk to these people certainly in a different way than before. There are a lot of overseers in the Army and I enormously respect that. But in 17 years I made a lot of friendships, and a lot of those still endure. I can and do call them up as a friend... I try to use it as an asset for the Army story and for Army programs."

McHugh said he enjoyed reading to the children and did not rehearse beforehand.

"If anybody checked word-for-word, I probably did not tell the tale exactly as it was written. But I did my best," he said.