By John M. McHughSeptember 26, 2011
Thank you very much, good Afternoon … you can say it … good afternoon. [laughter]
[Under] Secretary [of Defense] Carter … congratulations to you on your Senate confirmation as the next Deputy Secretary of Defense, I look forward to working with you. More importantly, for this moment, thank you so much for joining with us.
With us, we have three of the most effective -- I might say important -- Assistant Secretaries of the Army: Mr. Lamont, Ms. Hammack, Ms. Matiella (in the middle) … thank you for being here.
Sergeant Major [of the Army] and Mrs. Chandler, thank you for joining us.
To all of those in the Army Family -- Civilian and Military -- we equally appreciate your coming here and helping us take part in a very important ceremony in saying thank you to some extraordinary individuals and those associated with two extraordinary organizations.
Any time we have the chance to recognize the efforts of individuals such as these who have committed themselves to honoring the service and the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, it's especially gratifying. As I noted, we have that chance here today.
We're here, as you know, to say thank you to an extraordinary man. To thank him for his sustained efforts to help America's heroes -- the men and women in uniform who've been wounded or injured while fighting for our Nation … fighting in our Nation's wars … and their Families, of course, who as always serve beside them.
As you heard, unfortunately, Ken Fisher can't be with us here today. He was scheduled, in fact, to be recognized with the Department of Defense Public Service Award for the absolutely incredible things that he, through his Fisher House Foundation, achieved. That honor and that opportunity will be postponed. But we are, as you heard, deeply blessed to have David Cooker who is the President of the Fisher House Foundation, standing in very ably.
The point being, of course, is that the Fisher House Foundation is an amazing organization. And it's particularly poignant for me, because it happened that, shortly after my confirmation as Secretary of the Army, I was attending a dinner under the auspices of the AUSA -- the Association of the United States Army -- where Ken Fisher was recognized and awarded the George C. Marshall Medal for all that he and the Fisher House Foundation have done and continue to do on behalf of our Service Members.
And, the remarks he made that night stuck with me. And I recall that he noted particularly that after years of war, repeated deployments and family separations -- in his mind that merely saying "thank you for your service" was no longer enough.
And he went on to say, and I quote: "Maybe the thanks of a grateful nation can and ought to be more tangible. Maybe the warm feelings we experience when we shake a Soldier's hand and offer best wishes ought to be accompanied by resolve. A resolution to not just SAY something, but," as he put it, "to DO something."
Well, clearly Ken Fisher's done something -- clearly, he and the Fisher Foundation have done a lot -- and our service men and women and their Families are incredibly grateful.
But, it's that same spirit of service that we're here to recognize at this moment and award in today's other very deserving nominee.
This afternoon we have the great pleasure, the honor, of presenting the 2010 Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award -- named, of course, in honor of Ken's uncle Zachary and his aunt Elizabeth.
This award recognizes those individuals who've chosen to do -- as Ken said -- something; who demonstrate exceptional patriotism and humanitarian concern for American servicemen and women and their Families and embody Zachary and Elizabeth's patriotism, generosity and selfless dedication to improving the lives of our men and women in uniform and, again, their Families.
I'm very proud that this year the Army is the lead agent for the award, but it's important to emphasize that this is a joint award and it's given on behalf of all of the Services -- the Secretaries of Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
So, a little bit about this year's honoree. Like myself, he never served in the military. But for, like so many Americans, the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 rekindled the patriotic fire inside him.
John Gonsalves has always been proud to be an American -- proud of the Army service of his grandfather, also named John, who was killed at Normandy in July of 1944 and his other grandfather Anthony, who was at Pearl Harbor and as such, was awarded the Bronze Star and received a Purple Heart.
But like so many others, John wasn't always sure how to best serve the Nation. As it happened, he found inspiration in the story of a wounded Soldier who lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq.
John's a construction supervisor from Raynham, Massachusetts, and he set out on a mission to volunteer his time and expertise in building homes for our Wounded Warriors returning from combat -- homes that supported the unique needs of those most severely injured that have been serving our Nation.
The only problem was, at that time, there was no organization doing that kind of work.
So, John thought, OK, that's an easy fix -- I'll start one.
He traveled to military hospitals, visited with Wounded Soldiers and their Families, spoke with Veterans organizations and dove head first into researching the difficulties facing our injured service members and the unique challenges they encounter when they're in their homes.
And then, dedicating most of his life savings, in February 2004, he founded Homes for Our Troops -- a non-profit organization dedicated to providing specially adapted homes for disabled Veterans.
John, I have to wonder -- when you were building that first house in Middleborough, Massachusetts, with little more than a tape measure, a couple of hammers, and some like-minded buddies -- did you really know how big this would become? Did you ever know how far your path of graciousness and goodness would bring you?
Among the first homes that was delivered by Homes for Our Troops was to Army Staff Sergeant Arthur "Bunky" Woods in Warren County, Virginia. Bunky was paralyzed from the shoulders down as the result of a sniper's bullet entering his neck.
During the Key Ceremony, Bunky wanted to address the crowd of volunteers who worked to build his new home. He proceeded to thank the crowd for all that had been done, quick to divert the attention from himself. He said: "I don't need you to thank me, I'd do it all over again. In fact, I really just want to thank you all for making America worth fighting for."
I'm told that it was at that moment, that John Gonsalves realized the magnitude of what Homes for Our Troops was accomplishing.
To all of you, I'd say -- to date, they've donated more than 100 homes to injured Veterans in over 35 states, and John has made a further commitment to building another 100 through the organization's 100 More…Homes for our Troops campaign.
I'm not really sure how he deftly made the jump from construction supervisor to managing an absolutely incredible national non-profit, but the fact is Homes for Our Troops has been recognized as one of the best charities in the Nation -- receiving top honors from the American Institute of Philanthropy and other independent watchdog groups. I suspect it's because John was smart enough to surround himself with great people -- highly talented and equally-committed to such a noble cause.
John Gonsalves truly represents the best of the American spirit -- and the spirit of this award -- finding inspiration by serving those who serve.
So, John, on behalf of the Army, and my partners -- Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus and Secretary of the Air Force Mike Donley, the men and women of the armed forces, and particularly the Wounded Warriors and their Families who you have helped so much, it's my pleasure to present you with the 2010 Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award.