Patty and I are honored to be here in balmy Chicago to help celebrate the founding of a National Military Academy at West Point, New York, 207 years ago. This commemoration provides an opportunity to renew old friendships, revisit old memories, and recommit ourselves, as Omar Bradley once noted, to the “cadence which echoes and re-echoes deep in the heart of each of us.”
Omar Bradley rose to fame as one of the great field commanders of World War II, but it was in the shadow of Battle Monument that his life changed, much as many of ours did, reshaped from carefree youngster into the Soldier’s General and a leader of armies.
We were lectured about the great privilege and responsibility of leading Soldiers and accepted those sermons without fully absorbing the weight of them. And not until we commanded our first formations, which for many of us was in combat, did we appreciate the magnificence of the American Soldier and the significance of those lectures we had received. In time, we learned that the national defense was not always just about the weapons of war and the techniques for employing them but our responsibilities for leveraging all the instruments of national power.
Like other Soldiers of my generation, I grew up in Vietnam. My instincts about what is important to our profession were born there. It’s difficult to ignore that kind of imprinting. Though I remind myself that Vietnam was a very brief snapshot in the 233 year history of our country and our Army, the lessons I learned there remain with me, even today. We, too, were part of a “surge,” President Lyndon Johnson’s surge that began in April 1965. Prior to it, there were 16,000 Americans in Vietnam. When it was over, a year and a half or so later, over 540,000 Americans were fighting there.
Our units deployed so quickly that many of us, second lieutenants, were sent into combat, mere months after commissioning, without the benefit of our branch officer basic courses. It was a draft Army that had no noncommissioned officer education system or Sergeants’ Major Academy and just the skeletal outlines of what is today a robust officer education system.
We, lieutenants, went to war on the skills of our noncommissioned officers, and they grew us into company commanders. In my case, Sergeant Ernie Kingcade was my officer basic course, during the two weeks that we deployed to Vietnam by troopship. He took the time to teach me what I would have learned in officer basic and then drilled me to competency. You can appreciate why this experience has stayed with me for 43 years. Had it not been for Ernie’s own competence, I would not have succeeded professionally. NCO competence became an important aspect of readiness in every unit I commanded. The unique bond between young officer and NCO is just as crucial today as it has always been.
Shortly before we both retired in 2003, then-Secretary of the Army Tom White and I commissioned the Warrior Ethos Study to better define for us the profession of Soldiering. The attacks of 11 September, 2001, confirmed for us the danger in the shadowy forces that had been moving across the landscape for much of the previous decade. The Warrior Ethos Study resulted in what is today called “The Soldier’s Creed.” That creed, 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 be just words, but they mean a lot more—no matter the uniform, no matter the nation, no matter the affiliation. These are, after all, promises that Soldiers make to one another.
It is difficult to appreciate what the phrase “I will never accept defeat” means to Soldiers until you stand, somewhere, such as the water’s edge at low tide, and understand just how far Soldiers, seasick from bobbing about for hours in assault boats, had to go to escape the killing fires of the defenders on high ground—defenders who were determined to deny them any footholds on the Normandy Beaches that 6 June, 1944. Somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 allied Soldiers died there on D-Day—we will probably never know the exact count.
“I will never quit" resonates differently when you stand at the base of Point Du Hoc and gaze upward to understand that Army Rangers scaled those cliffs, hand over hand, into the plunging fires from defenders on the escarpment.
And because they and our allies “placed the mission first” the grand crusade to liberate Europe gained momentum 65 years ago—one tank, one truck, one Soldier at a time. And until you’ve stood amongst the tens of thousands of headstones at Saint Laurent, in Margraten, at Netuno, in the Philippines, Punchbowl, Arlington, and the countless other pieces of hallowed ground, where those who fell in battle lie in final rest, “ I will never leave a fallen comrade,” could pass for just words.
On 15 December, 1967, then Specialist 4th Class Allen J. Lynch was serving as a radio operator with company D, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, near My An, Binh Dinh Province, when the forward element he was with became engaged by a superior enemy force. Though they were greatly outnumbered, Specialist Lynch quickly and accurately provided his commander with information that proved critical to the unit’s successful actions.
Observing three wounded comrades lying exposed to enemy fire, Specialist Lynch dashed across 50 meters of open ground, through withering enemy fire to save his comrades. Moving to reconnoiter a nearby trench for a covered position to protect the wounded, he killed two enemy soldiers at point blank range. With the trench cleared, he returned to the fire-swept area three times, carrying the wounded men to safety.
When his company was forced to withdraw under intense enemy fire, Specialist Lynch remained behind to provide aid and comfort to the wounded. Alone, he defended his isolated position for two hours against the advancing enemy. Using his rifle and a grenade, he killed five of them, stopping the assault just short of his trench. Again, under hostile fire, he crossed 70 meters of exposed terrain five times, moving his wounded comrades to a more secure area.
Once he saw to their safety, Specialist Lynch located counter-attacking friendly forces and assisted in directing their counter-attack and in evacuating the three casualties.
I will always put the mission first,
I will never accept defeat,
I will never quit,
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a better example of the Soldier’s Creed than Al Lynch. And there were and are Al Lynch’s serving in every formation in the Army. We just don’t know exactly who they are or what spark might ignite equally magnificent performance in battle.
America expects its men and women in uniform to be loyal, and they more than meet those expectations—loyal to the constitution; loyal to the Nation and its people; loyal to the government and its leaders; and loyal to each other in uniform—Soldier to Soldier, leader to led, unit to unit, the Army to the Nation. In return, they deserve our loyalty and respect for all that we ask them and their families to bear in the name of the American people.
Today, magnificent young Americans continue to shoulder the burden of going into dangerous situations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where uncertainty reigns, and where the outcomes are never assured. They are willing to be our assurances that crises will be resolved in our favor, not by bombs or missiles or weapons platforms, but by men and women who will stand and do their duty when the time comes. And we must do a better job of taking care of them.
Since 21 January 2009, I’ve rediscovered what was so very special about General Omar Bradley. As you may know, he single-handedly modernized the Department of Veterans Affairs pre-cabinet predecessor, the Veterans Administration, in the wake of World War II. Over a period of two years, he rebuilt the Veterans Administration from the bottom-up, laying the foundation for much of what the department looks like today in terms of benefits, programs, and services. In this evolution of the department, it was Bradley’s leadership and determination that leveraged change in a rapidly expanding organization—skills honed through combat command of large formations.
I am deeply honored to follow in his footsteps. It is my opportunity to give back to those, who served with and for me, in uniform, and to those heroes of World War II and Korea, on whose shoulders we all stood as we grew up in the profession of arms.
My charge is to fulfill President Obama’s vision to transform VA into a 21st Century organization—a transformation demanded by new times, new technologies, and new demographic realities—a reorganization that leverages the power of 21st Century technology and know-how, while honoring the nobility of VA’s 19th Century heritage.
In the years ahead, VA will leverage what we learn from such projects as the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, scheduled to open here in Chicago on 1 October, 2010. The Lovell Center will merge Great Lakes Naval Hospital with the North Chicago VA Medical Center and affiliate them with the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science—the first collaboration of its kind. When the last construction phase is completed, the Lovell Center will stand as the flagship, collaborative standard for intra-service, intra-government cooperation, a health care model for others to emulate, and a new facility to better serve the men and women who have earned the best care we can provide.
Many years ago, as a young commander in United States Army, Europe, I listened to one of our generals use a quotation in a speech, one that I’ve remembered all these years and used myself, from time to time. It goes like this: “I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet—not on my knees, with my head up—not bowed.” Standing then only miles from the Iron Curtain, I realized that I had been taking a lot for granted. I could utter the same words. You see, that statement is my legacy, and it is yours, as well. And because we share that in common, our children and grandchildren have that legacy—the right to make the same statement boldly. As free people, we bequeath that legacy to them. Only the free, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath freedom to others. The shackled cannot, and the free, who are not willing to fight, cannot. Only the free, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath freedom to others.
Tonight, as we celebrate the 207th year of West Point’s founding, I am privileged to join you in this annual tradition held close by the members of the Long Gray Line. And as I stand for a period of time in General Bradley’s boots as head of your VA, I enlist each of you, your counsel and your support, in the effort I will lead in the days ahead.
Our Nation will continue to call on its military to safeguard our freedom and our liberty. West Point’s mission to provide men and women of character to lead the Army in peace and in war has never been more crucial. Two hundred years from now, at Founders Day celebrations like this one, I hope graduates of West Point are still gathering to remind all of the enduring legacy of our alma mater by repeating this refrain:
‘Let duty be well performed,
Honor be e’er untarned,
Country be ever armed,
West point, by thee.’
God bless our magnificent Soldiers; God bless our great Army; God bless our Veterans, and God bless this wonderful country.
Thank you, and good night.