WASHINGTON, May 29, 2011 -- Flanked by the memorials of wars past, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today said he has had no greater honor than serving and leading the U.S. military.
"I will always keep them in my heart and my prayers as long as I live," Gates, who retires next month, told thousands of troops, families and veterans gathered for the annual Memorial Day weekend Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride.
Rolling Thunder began in 1987 as a demonstration to bring awareness to the plight of prisoners of war and those missing in action. Today more than 250,000 motorcycles participate in the weekend observance, which has evolved into a patriotic demonstration for Soldiers and veterans from all wars.
Gates praised the efforts of the organization for ensuring the sacrifices of the military and families are recognized, honored and never forgotten.
"For most Americans, Memorial Day weekend is a respite from work,” he said. “But for those of us gathered here, it is an affirmation of our commitment to remember those heroes who have fought and died or who have been captured in defense of our nation -- not just this weekend but every day of our lives."
The United States has a sacred obligation to those who have borne the heavy burden of service in the past, the secretary said.
"The men and women now protecting us on the front lines gain comfort knowing that if today they are missing or captured, we will not rest until they are accounted for and welcomed home to the honor they deserve, even as the conflicts recede into history," he said.
Gates said today's troops will join the likes of the veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam as a heroic generation that battled in far away lands to preserve the freedom and security of the United States.
"The American people can never repay the debt they owe to those who have fought and served, and to their family members who have stood so strong at home," he said. "Your work, and the sound of your bikes, reminds them of the costs incurred, the blood spilt, and the enduring need to maintain a strong military in a dangerous world."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen introduced Gates at the event. The chairman, himself a Vietnam War veteran, gave a special "shout out" to his fellow vets.
"One of the things that I have seen over the course of these two wars that we're in is my generation stand up in a way that many of us were not allowed to back in Vietnam for lots of reasons, so I'm particularly proud to be a Vietnam vet," he said.
Mullen said such events demonstrate to those serving now that America is still connected to its military members.
"Everywhere I go these days the troops ask me one thing, 'Are the American people with us?' And I can unequivocally answer that, 'yes,' the American people are with our troops," he said. "Based on what I see here today and what's going on over this weekend, that answer is very obvious."
Supporting the troops is important during their service, but it is equally important to continue that support after their military obligation ends, Mullen said.
"We can never forget their service,” he said. “We can never forget them as a nation, and you and many others keep that vigil, keep that very important part of who we are as a nation front and center. And I will be forever grateful that you do."