ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Thanks, Peggy, for that kind introduction. And it really is special to be introduced by someone like you. With one of the greatest living speechwriters introducing me, and Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw in the audience, I don’t feel any pressure at all up here. (Laughter.)
First of all, I’d like to recognize – there are a lot of people that should be recognized tonight, but one in particular that I had the privilege of meeting earlier – I don’t know where he is, but Jack Jacobs, the Medal of Honor winner is here, and I’d like Jack to – (applause).
Let me also say thanks to Monty Meigs for your leadership and your service, for all you’ve done to help save lives and counter IEDs, and all you are doing to bring your experience and perspectives to this great organization. And I know you’re proudly building on the successes of Chuck Boyd’s tenure.
And the only other individual I’d like to say hi tonight to is Chuck, who I saw earlier, who’s a mentor of mine – (applause). Extraordinary American, extraordinary airman, and, at this level, someone – when you’re looking for friends, someone you can really depend on. He set the standard for many of us in so many ways.
And I think it’s safe to say you were an inspired choice, Monty, to pick up his mantle. We just couldn’t have a better successor. (Applause.) I’m grateful for your leadership, your example for so many decades, Monty, and I appreciate your friendship and support; and you’ve saved lives and made us a whole lot better in everything we do.
I’m privileged to be here this evening as well as we recognize two others who’ve made us all better at what we do, Mary and David Boies. Both of you – (applause) – both of you represent well the namesake of this award.
In fact, Eisenhower could have been describing you when he said, “The virtues most cherished by free people – love of truth, pride of work, devotion to country – all are treasures equally precious in the lives of the most humble and the most exalted.”
You won’t find any more humble or any more earnest people than Mary and David Boies, especially when it comes to our national security. And your efforts and the contributions of BENS leaders, as a whole, would certainly meet Eisenhower’s approval, because Ike’s legacy, in my view, was more than his military victories or even his presidency; it was in the manner in which he approached those endeavors; it was his deeper level of understanding. He recognized that our nation must be constantly self-reflective on how we go about the difficult business of protecting it; and he understood that national security is not just the purview of the military or of the government; he understood, as BENS does, that national security is everyone’s business.
BENS brings an important and credible voice of experience to the task of demonstrating how citizens too can contribute to keeping America safe and secure, how their ingenuity and diverse talents can be leveraged for the greater good of the country, and how they can be empowered to go out and make a difference, whether in uniform or not. So I thank all of you in BENS for your talents, your drive and your passion to give back to the country in such profound ways.
And I also want to recognize again and personally thank our Navy EOD technicians here for your service. (Applause.) You’re pretty special, and you make an old sailor like me feel pretty proud. David, Bryan, and Charles represent an elite cadre of brave professionals who put their lives on the line every day to protect their battle buddies and innocent civilians. And I’m sure they would tell you they’re just doing their job, but just by doing it, and doing it so well, they represent the very best qualities of our institutions.
Indeed, they really are our institutions. The more than – and they represent the more than 2 million men and women who serve in the armed forces today. And there are some 200,000-plus on the front lines around the world serving and sacrificing and protecting us tonight.
And I can tell you, I have never seen a more dedicated, more professional, more innovative group of young people than those serving right now. (Applause.) And when I say “young,” these are largely 18- to 24-year-olds, as they have always been in the United States. They raised their right hand knowing what would be asked of them; knowing that while their peers would be preparing for exams, they would be preparing for combat. America has been at war for half of their young lives.
A general in Afghanistan asked one soldier what he was doing on 9/11. He said he was getting his braces taken off. (Laughter.) Today that soldier and his buddies are at the tip of the spear of the most capable force our country has ever put in harm’s way, a force that has shown tremendous adaptability in the most trying of circumstances and has become, without question, the best counterinsurgency force in the world. (Applause.)
As Tom Brokaw pointed out in a recent op ed, our all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less that 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle. (Applause.)
Our troops and their families – (applause) – our troops and their families have held up remarkably well given the demands placed on them, but those achievements have come at significant costs. And so tonight I think it is important – critical really, that we try to understand the long-term costs and consequences of these protracted missions; that we not ignore the greater implications for our nation; and that we really think about, “what’s next? – what’s going to happen when these wars are over?”
I do not believe we’ve even begun to comprehend the bill we’ll have to pay, and it’s not all financial. The human toll – the fear, the stigma and the hard work of recovery and reintegration ahead for our troops and their families, these are the real costs of war. From the every-day sacrifices of missed birthdays, soccer games, and special moments each family cherishes, to the physical and psychological repercussions attached to the post-combat experience, these are lives forever changed.
Their resolve and devotion to duty is impressive and real, and so is the stress and the strain, particularly on our ground combat troops and their families who’ve gone through multiple deployments. You’ve heard some of the numbers tonight. They range oftentimes from five long one-year deployments to as many as 22 to 25 shorter deployments since 2003. Deborah and I see it in our trips to bases across the country. Long and frequent absences are testing their resilience. And though dwell time at home is increasing, they want to know, “How many deployments can a marriage take?”
They’re a very proud group. They don’t always show that they are struggling, and they are guarded when it comes to talking about their needs. One Iraq veteran says, “You just don’t ask for help. You think you can do it and you think you can handle it, because that’s what you’re trained to do.” So a lot of us don’t see what they go through, but the pressure to try to bear the stress with a stiff upper lip is driving some to leave the service, or, most tragically, to leave this life.
Military families live in a war zone of their own. In that same op ed, Tom recounted the story of Annette Kuyper, the mother of a National Guardsman. She says, “We closed the blinds on the windows overlooking the driveway so we don’t see the Army vehicle arriving with a chaplain bearing the unbearable news.”
As committed as our troops and families are to the mission, at some point they too want to close the blinds to the past and try to get on with a normal life. They want to get married, get a degree, watch their children grow up – all things they have justly earned.
But when our military members and families transition from service to civilian life, the challenges for some even get tougher. We’ve seen that many veterans are having a hard time translating their military experience into viable jobs, a situation made even more difficult by our burdened, struggling economy. These and many other factors are driving far too many to the ranks of the homeless at a troubling rate, faster than experienced by those in Vietnam. I heard it said recently, “We are all dishonored any time a veteran sleeps on the very same streets that he or she helped to defend.” (Applause.)
The transition challenges, post-traumatic stress, the stigma, the toll on families; the health-care demands; the rising rate of homelessness, including an alarming rate of female veteran homelessness; the silent epidemic and taboo of suicide – indeed, it paints a stark forecast. But these are the realities we are seeing emerge as the dwell time at home is increasing, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Quite frankly, I believe these are just the first drops of a rainstorm that may last for decades.
And I think most would agree that America’s veterans deserve a more optimistic future; and I think most would agree that the stakes are high; but these are issues we must acknowledge and for which we must find solutions to sustain the kind of military, the kind of nation we need to meet the complex challenges of this new century. There must be a sense of urgency here. The sooner we empower our veterans and their families through these transitions, the less likely they will spiral downward and the more likely they can have the future that they have earned.
To me, this starts with keeping America connected to her military, and those in uniform connected to the society we swore to defend. My fear is that we’re losing touch. And as someone who began my career in the thick of Vietnam, I tend to bring some historical perspective and an understanding of the impacts on our troops when America closes the blinds to her military. Our nation has come a long way since then. Today there’s no question whatsoever about America’s love and pride for the troops, and support of our military families. It’s plainly evident in thousands of ways, big and small. But even for all that, I think for many of us – many of our fellow citizens, the military remains an abstraction.
I recently launched a series of visits to America’s heartland – trips I call a conversation with the country, to look for ways to clear up some of that. This effort has taken me to places as big as New York and as small as Morgantown, West Virginia. At each stop I’ve come away humbled by the admiration with which our citizens regard our troops, yet I’ve – yet I’ve also come away startled by how little they understand the military experience. Truth be told, I believe people want to reach out to us. They want to help. They just don’t know how. And a real challenge, in my mind, is finding ways to help them do that in a time of incredible challenge.
Americans already have a lot on their plate, and I really do understand that, but while we work to build resilience within our ranks, we must also work to build resilience within our home towns. We must make sure that we have the capacity to support and engage our service members and their families at every stage over the long term. The troops deserve recognition, the parades and the care packages. We should never forget all that they have done, so that heartfelt recognition and support is incredibly important. But at the end of the day, just like everyone else, they want to be able to put food on the table for their families, get an education, and have access to good health care. Their lives have changed, but not their dreams.
So we’ve got to make it easier for people to know what our troops and their families need, and then meet those needs more efficiently and effectively. That’s where initiatives like the BENS-led Warrior Gateway have proven so valuable and critical. Thousands of organizations have stepped forward to help veterans meet their challenges. I call it “the Sea of Good Will.” Though well-intentioned, many of these programs are disconnected and are not independently evaluated. Many veterans either can’t find the services they need or are overwhelmed by the maze of options, and administrative and organizational stovepipes, which still exist between the Defense Department and the VA – though we are working hard to tear them down, still block the way.
Reducing the information barrier, as Warrior Gateway does so well, helps connect the needs with the right resources and programs in their communities, and that can help put our veterans and their families on the right path towards future success. Warrior Gateway has already helped transform so many lives.
Juan is an Iraq veteran who transitioned from active duty to the Army Reserves earlier this year and used the GI bill to take college classes. Through Warrior Gateway, he connected with a student veterans group that he says is making all the difference in his transition from soldier to student. He’s able to stay informed about scholarship workshops and veterans events on campus, and stay engaged with others who can relate to what he has been through.
There’s also Beth, a Navy wife and a mom, who opened her home to a family friend who was wounded in Afghanistan. Justin found himself out of the Marine Corps, awaiting benefits, battling traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
Beth and Justin used Warrior Gateway to find a nearby vet center that is helping them get services and support groups to aid Justin’s recovery, and through Warrior Gateway they are sharing their experiences with many fellow wounded warriors. That’s an important piece because it gives veterans a voice, allowing them to rate and review the services they use, sharing their experiences with others. So over time, the value and effectiveness of these organizations and programs will essentially be determined by those that they seek to help.
Through all of this, we have to recognize our military veterans and their families for what they are – talented, skilled young leaders who chose to serve, and will keep on serving and contributing to our communities, to our nation, and to our world for decades to come if we get it right for them now, if we invest well in their future. They are not burdens; they are assets. They are not weaknesses; they are great strengths. They have given us their very best – (applause) – they have given us their very best; it is up to us to make sure they get nothing less than our best in return, now and long after these wars are over.
Eisenhower himself put it best back in 1947: “Leadership,” he said, “demands that we provide material help, so far as we are able, to those who seek to help themselves but who have not yet recovered from the ravages of war. I know many of you share that feeling, and thank you for your leadership and the work you’ve already done. It is not over. We will seek to continue to leverage your expertise and to find, in partnership with you, more creative and effective answers. How well we weather the coming storm and how long that storm ultimately lasts is up to us. The time to get ready for it is now.
And on behalf of all the men and women in uniform and their families, I want to thank each and every one of you again.
And congratulations again to Mary and David. God bless you all. (Applause.)