Secretary of Defense
Remarks at Secretary of Defense Armed Forces Farewell Parade
Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall
Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for being here.
Thank you, Chairman Dunford, for those kind remarks, and to you and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the recognition.
My time as Secretary of Defense is growing short, and people are beginning to ask me the question, “What’s the best decision you’ve made as Secretary of Defense?” And I say without hesitation, it’s Joe Dunford. Recommending General Dunford to the President to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is my best decision. From him I have benefitted from the soundest, and most candid, and always trustworthy professional military advice, and he’s made sure I got the same from the Joint Chiefs and the Combatant Commanders. And Joe doesn’t just offer advice and observations, but solutions – whole and rounded out. That’s very rare and very valuable. For all of that, for your friendship, thank you, Joe.
I’ve imposed upon Ellyn Dunford also, and besides expressing my gratitude to her I want to recognize all she does to ensure the well-being of troops and their families. Thank you too, Ellyn.
Last week, I spoke of President Obama and his leadership and accomplishments as Commander-in-Chief in this hall. Now I want to add my deep gratitude for the trust and the confidence he reposed in me in three different positions over eight years.
My precious, yes perfect wife Stephanie is here, as are my wonderful children, who have become impressive, accomplished adults in the years I’ve been here.
Stephanie has her own big job, and she can’t travel with me often. But when she does, I’m always struck by the effect she has on our troops and our spouses. You know, our all-volunteer force is largely a married force, a family force – and it matters to troops on far-flung bases and around the world when our family shows our love for their family. Angel, I’d not only be a lesser Secretary of Defense without you, I wouldn’t be Secretary of Defense without you. And I truly wouldn’t be who I am without you.
So it was 35 years ago this year that I first walked the halls of the Pentagon.
In those decades I worked in administrations of both parties and for eleven Secretaries of Defense – and I suppose that makes me the 12th that I’ve worked for.
Back then, at the start of my DoD career, the Cold War was at its peak, and I worked on the issues of the time: missile defenses, the so-called “Star Wars,” basing modes for a new intercontinental ballistic missile, nuclear command and control, continuity of government, and more.
Now, when the Cold War ended, the agenda changed. I ran the program to remove and dismantle former Soviet nuclear weapons and what we would recognize now as the early days of a greater focus on counter-terrorism.
Then in 2009 I became Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, working on improving the performance of our acquisition programs and on rapid support for the warfighter in a time of large campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then I became Deputy Secretary of Defense, and then Secretary of Defense.
Through it all, I’ve learned how important it is for defense leaders to be mindful of the arc of history and the inheritance they received from those who came before them.
Therefore, in addition to setting forth for the President, along with General Dunford, the strategic path we need to traverse to meet each of the five challenges we face today – from North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, and terrorism, especially ISIL – there’s a whole other side to being Secretary of Defense, and that is to make sure your successor, and your successor’s successor, also has the finest fighting force the world has ever known in the future. I’ve tried to the best of my ability as Secretary, and indeed in each of my roles in the department, to meet that sacred commitment.
As we plan for the years ahead, we’ve needed to face the fact that we’ve never foreseen the strategic future perfectly, which the arc of my own career with its major changes in the world around me illustrates. And in a rapidly changing, uncertain, and fiercely competitive world, remaining the best will require the best of technology, agility, full-spectrum readiness, innovative war plans, and above all recruiting, retaining, and developing the people – uniformed and civilian – who will comprise the Force of the Future.
One of the things that makes me proudest about the Department of Defense is its ability to adapt and change. And I am confident in the logic and good sense of what our leadership is doing best to keep us the best.
And last, I want to say something about the troops. In troop talks I always tell them that they are what Stephanie and I wake up for every morning. I’m so proud of them, I’m so proud to be their leader. I tell them they’re doing the noblest thing a young person can do with their life, which is to provide security for our people. Only with that precious security can our fellow citizens wake up in the morning, get ready for work, hug their kids, dream their dreams, live lives that are full.
Earlier this year, I was visiting basic training and I went into the bunking area for some brand-new recruits. Each stood rigidly in front of his bunk at attention. Now, it wasn’t obvious that they really knew who I was or even what the Secretary of Defense was – but they looked terrified just the same.
And as always, I went up to one of them and said, “Why’d you join us?” He was 18 years old, little stubble of a moustache, alarmed eyes. But without hesitation he said, “My parents came here when I was three, and they always told me America gave us much and I should give back.” And then he started to cry, right there in front of 50 bunkmates. And I’m sure he got a lot of ribbing for that. But that’s an example of the kind of kid we get, and also the kind of servicemember we want to keep.
And that’s why a little later along in their careers, retention’s the issue. Most of our NCOs and officers are married, so lunch with them and their spouse is a good way to get a sense of them and what it will take in their lives to make the best ones stay. Our military is deservedly well-regarded in this country, so these young people have options. And at this point in their lives, both mission and family are usually important to them. So to keep these people we do what we can to make [family] life compatible with military life, consistent with our military necessity.
Those troops and DoD civilians – almost 3 million of them in every time zone of the globe, represented by those here before you in this hall – are what makes America’s the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Everywhere I go in the world, leaders say they like working with America’s troops. It’s not just because they’re awesomely capable. It’s also because of how they conduct themselves, and the values they embody. That’s why the United States has so many friends and allies, and our antagonists have so few or none at all.
Because of them – because of them – America’s future is bright. May they always be guided by the love of their countrymen, and by civility and decency in our whole country equal to theirs. May God bless them. And may God bless this department and this country.
Thank you, and farewell.