It’s always good to be back among so many mentors and friends, but especially on the Army’s 234th birthday. My thanks to Creighton Abrams and the Foundation’s board for inviting me to say a few words this evening.
Though you didn’t invite me here to speak about the Department of Veterans Affairs, let me just report to the Veterans in the audience that, in nearly five short months, we have begun to set priorities and fight for resources to enable achievement of President Obama’s charge to fundamentally and comprehensively change the Department into a 21st century organization. 288,000 people come to work every day at VA trying to do the right thing and serve Veterans to the best of their abilities. Not all of us are working on the same priorities nor pulling in the same direction, so there’s leadership work to be done to harmonize our efforts.
In the short term, even as we begin to make advocacy — advocacy — on behalf of Veterans our overriding philosophy and retrain the workforce to achieve that outcome, we must quickly put in place a successful execution plan to get something on the order of 200,000 young Veterans into college this fall under the new G.I. Bill — like going from zero to 60 in my Ford Explorer in under 4 seconds — more than difficult, and we’re not there yet, but we’re going to find a way, even if I have to help handwrite tuition checks. We must also expand our services to welcome back up to 500,000 Priority Group 8 Veterans — 266,000 of them within this first year in 2010 — who had lost their entitlements in 2003.
Finally, I am committed to reducing the backlog and processing times of disability claims so that Veterans don’t have to wait 6-12 months for their checks, and I don’t have to have 11,100 claims adjudicators in the Veterans Benefits Administration and 60 judges and 300 lawyers in the Board of Veterans Appeals involved in delivering benefits to Veterans. This is the paper-bound corner of VA, and the long-term solution is I.T., but that will take years to put into operation. In the meantime, the equivalent of the 82nd Airborne Division processes claims for us each and every day.
For the long term, I have asked why 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary is still adjudicating claims for presumption of service-connected disabilities tied to its toxic effects. And why 20 years after Operation Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of whatever causes Gulf War illness. Left to our processes, 20-40 years from now future Secretaries of Veterans Affairs will be adjudicating the service-connected disabilities from our ongoing conflicts — and probably Vietnam and the first Gulf War, as well — if we don’t find a better way. I don’t have answers yet, but I’ve asked the questions, and we’re going to find that better way.
Women will constitute 15% of the Veterans population in 10 years. Today, that population numbers 23 million. You can do the math — that will be a big number, and we are structured as a male-oriented institution. We have time, but we have to begin restructuring now.
We will also be holding a mental health summit some time before this year is out. Veterans lead the nation in joblessness, substance abuse, depression, homelessness, and suicides. 131,000 Veterans sleep on our streets every night — male, female, young and old, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. I have told my folks we are working to take that to zero in the next five years. I know that there are no absolutes in life — ever — but I also know that if I don’t put a bold number on the table, we’ll all be working for something less and not doing enough. As long as a single Veteran sleeps on the street, I want us not to find ways for excusing it. You see, homelessness is just about the last step in a downward spiral, and to get to zero homeless Vets we have to work on jobs and education, on mental health (hence, the summit), on substance abuse and suicides. We have to attack the entire cycle to get to zero homeless Veterans in the next five years.
We’ve been busy, and there’s much work to be done and we’ll take any help and good ideas anyone has to offer. It’s why I agreed to come back to government — to harness the potential in this country to give back to the folks I went to war with and those I sent to war and to those on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in this profession. It has also given purpose to my daily energies.
I was in France last weekend for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings and was privileged to travel from Paris to Normandy with the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment — the “Band of Brothers” of HBO fame. On that long train ride, a number of them recounted their memories of the Battle of the Bulge and the siege at Bastogne, Christmas 1944. Their voices still tremble all these many years later recalling the cold, the misery, the casualties, and being cut off by the Germans. But then, their voices steady when they described being saved by tanks of the 4th Armored Division in Patton’s Third Army, which had led the breakthrough. Though they didn’t recall the details, the lead battalion was the 37th Tank, commanded by then-LTC Creighton Abrams. Its lead company was Charlie Company, and the lead tank was Charlie-6, “Cobra King” as its crew had named her. This bold strike saved the lives of countless Screaming Eagles.
By chance and thanks to Army historians and curators, an M4A3E2 Sherman “Jumbo” assault tank, which has been on display at Vilseck, Germany, since about 1994, and for several decades prior, at Crailsheim, has been positively identified as “Cobra King.” I understand that it is on orders to the Army National Museum at Fort Belvoir, where the heroes of Bastogne may have a chance in their waning days to greet “Cobra King.” When that happens, history will truly close on itself.
Three weeks ago, we honored our Nation’s war dead on Memorial Day and recommitted ourselves, as a Nation, to remembering the sacrifices made by Soldiers and their families for our freedom. Last week, we commemorated the Normandy invasion, a turning point in World War II. Tonight, we celebrate the 234th birthday of the United States Army and its contributions to the security and the greatness of our Nation. And the one constant among all three observances — Memorial Day, D-Day, and Army Birthday — is the American Soldier, who has stood resolute and unyielding throughout the years, as both servant and savior of our Nation.
Shortly before we both retired in 2003, then-Secretary of the Army Tom White and I commissioned something called the “Warrior Ethos Study” to better define for us the profession of soldiering. Out of that study came “The Soldier’s Creed,” which, in part, makes four simple, declaratory statements:
I will always place the mission first;
I will never accept defeat;
I will never quit;
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
To some, these may sound like just words, which roll easily off the tongue — but, as this audience knows, they mean much more to Soldiers. Each declaration is a promise Soldiers make to one another, promises that become the foundation for the trust that must exist between them — Soldier to Soldier, leader to led, unit to unit, the Army to the American people.
Throughout history, Soldiers have fought for one another. Trust was a sufficient bond to produce the precious few, whose acts of gallantry can never be explained by any of the rest of us. They have become the stuff of legend and have given themselves up to the ages because of their indomitable spirit — the willingness to give everything, even the last full measure of devotion, for others. They are, of course, recipients of our Nation’s highest award for valor — the Medal of Honor.
The award itself was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to honor those supreme acts of gallantry and intrepidity that go beyond human comprehension — acts of courage so profound that all of the rest of us feel somewhat uneasy in the commonness of our own humanity. It is not possible to train for the circumstances that give rise to such extraordinary courage and sacrifice. No one is ever expected to make this kind of sacrifice, and no one would have been criticized for not having acted. Amongst the 3,467 recipients, there are a few we all know, like Sergeant Alvin York and 2LT Audie Murphy. But on that list you will also find the names of:
Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, for conspicuous gallantry on 30 November 1864, in retrieving his regimental colors from the hands of a dying color sergeant and rallying his regiment to continue the attack after one half of its officers and one third of its enlisted Soldiers had been killed or wounded, all the while exposing himself to volleys of enemy fire.
Corporal Freddie Stowers, squad leader, Company C, 371st Regiment, 93rd Division, for conspicuous gallantry on 28 September 1918, during an attack in the Champagne-Marne sector, France, World War I. Minutes after the attack began, enemy forces ceased firing, climbed onto their parapets, held their arms up in surrender. As the Americans moved forward to within 100 meters to take them under control, the enemy jumped back into their fighting positions and caught Corporal Stowers’ company, which had been leading the attack, in a murderous crossfire, causing over 50% casualties. Stowers leaped into action, inspiring his squad to follow him to save his company. Exposing himself time and again, he led his squad to attack machinegun emplacements which were inflicting heavy casualties on his company. After destroying the machine guns and capturing that position, Corporal Stowers moved forward to attack a second trench line. Even after being mortally wounded in this second effort, Corporal Stowers pressed forward encouraging his men to continue to attack, enabling his company to escape the kill zone and, against incredible odds, achieve its objective.
First Lieutenant Beryl Newman, 133rd Infantry, 34th Infantry Division, for conspicuous gallantry while conducting a leader’s recon near Cisterna, Italy, when two enemy machineguns opened up from the crest of a hill 100 yards to his front. Lieutenant Newman called back to his platoon and ordered it to advance, but one squad was immediately pinned down. Advancing alone on the machinegun nests, Newman returned their belt-fed fire with fire from his Thompson submachine gun. Wounding two of the enemy and pursuing the other two he had driven from their guns into a nearby house, Newman was surprised by three of the enemy, when they burst from the house, trying to get to a third machinegun. Lieutenant Newman killed two of them and pursued the third back into the house by rushing it alone, firing at the doors and windows as he called for its occupants to surrender. Kicking in the door, he found 11 enemy soldiers, armed with rifles and machine pistols. Shocked by his audacity, they immediately surrendered.
Sergeant First Class Stanley Adams, Company A, 19th Infantry Regiment, for conspicuous gallantry while manning a combat outpost in Korea. Detecting a company-sized enemy element advancing on his position under the cover of darkness, Sergeant Adams led his 13-man platoon in a bayonet charge that surprised the enemy by its ferocity and daring. After an hour of vicious close-order combat, a wounded Sergeant Adams and his comrades routed the enemy, killing over 50 and forcing the rest to withdraw. His superb leadership and incredible courage so inspired his comrades that the enemy attack was thwarted, saving his battalion from possible disaster.
Captain “Rocky” Versace distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism while a prisoner of war. Severely wounded during an attack by a heavily armed enemy battalion, Captain Versace fought until he ran out of ammunition and was taken captive. He continued to resist his Vietcong captors — assuming command of his fellow prisoners, scorning the enemy’s brutal mistreatment of him, making three unsuccessful escape attempts. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America, his captors executed him after two long years on 26 September 1965. The last time his fellow prisoners heard his voice, Rocky Versace was singing “God Bless America” at the top of his voice to rally his fellow prisoners and strengthen their resolve in resisting the enemy’s efforts to break their spirits.
During the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, 3 October 1993, two Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously to Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart, members of Task Force Ranger, who volunteered, knowing the risks were overwhelming, to go to the aid of two downed helicopter crews with enemy forces closing in around them. Inserted 100 meters from the crash site, both Soldiers fought through the encircling enemy to reach the downed helicopters and, forming a defensive perimeter, killed numerous enemy militia until they ran out of ammunition and succumbed to enemy fire.
Soldiers have been awarded two of the five Medals of Honor presented posthumously for conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Sergeant First Class Paul Smith, Company B, 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, for conspicuous gallantry on 4 April 2003, in the vicinity of the Baghdad International Airport, where he was mortally wounded while leading his engineer work party to repel a company-sized attack that threatened to overrun their position.
Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis, M2 .50 caliber machine-gunner, Company C, 1/26th Infantry Regiment — the Blue Spaders — for conspicuous gallantry on 4 December 2006, in giving his life to protect his teammates, while conducting combat control operations in Adhamiyah, northeast Baghdad, Iraq.
Now, we all know that there were more heroes — far more — on those battlefields than the recipients of the Medal of Honor. Why focus on them on this Army Birthday? It is to remind us that, in the Army’s formations, there have always been young Americans like these, who rise to do magnificent things in the most frightening and painful moments we could imagine. They represent an ideal; and none of us knows who they will be until the moment presents, and they decide to act. No one can train Soldiers to do these things, but their leaders can strive to be worthy of their courage and their selflessness. It is a reminder that all, who are privileged to command, should approach their duties with a sense of reverence for those whom they serve.
The history of the Army is a collective biography of all who have served in her ranks. In the words of General Creighton Abrams: “People are not in the Army. They are the Army.” It would be a fitting tribute for our national museum to celebrate, as its star attraction, not the hardware of war — the weapons, vehicles, and equipment of the Army, which have changed over the ages — but the Soldiers themselves, who have not — the men and the women who have borne the battle, endured the pain, suffered the loss, set the example, led the way, won the victory — made and kept the peace.
I admit that I’ll be one of those eager to see “Cobra King” when she finally reports for duty at Fort Belvoir, but I’d be even more excited at the opportunity to meet the tank commander, then-1LT Charles Boggess; gunner, Corporal Milton Dickerman; loader, Private James G. Murphy; driver, Private Hubert S. Smith; and [bow] machine-gunner Harold Hafner. (Yes, we had five-man tank crews in those days.) As historic as she is, “Cobra King” didn’t fight herself and can’t tell her own history. It’s up to historians to preserve her crew’s collective memory of their ride to the guns that historic Christmas in Bastogne. And so it is with every battle in every conflict.
The American Soldier, ennobled by acts of selfless courage, remains virtue incarnate. We see the strength and goodness on which peace and freedom and civilization itself depend. That’s the image of the Army that this generation, and every future generation of Americans, needs to see and understand.
In and amongst our heraldry and the weapons of war, let’s be sure to celebrate the countless, who made us great — in gratitude for the good they have done and still do in the world, but also as an inspiring and instructive testament to what it takes to preserve for all of us our legacy as Americans. And it remains my privilege to care for them at the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of that legacy and our history.
Thank you for your commitment to telling the Army’s story and preserving its history. God bless each of you, our men and women who serve the cause of peace, and our great nation.