Secretary of Defense
Remarks at DoD Disability Awards Ceremony
Good afternoon, everyone. And Stephanie, thanks so much for that introduction – above all, thanks for what you do here. She’s one of my partners in this great enterprise, and as I look out here in this audience, I see so many others…DoD leaders, colleagues, and then we, of course, have our honorees, their family, and their friends: welcome. Welcome to this which is the 36th annual Department of Defense Disability Awards Ceremony – 36th.
It’s an honor to be with you today to recognize 18 outstanding servicemembers and civilians for their service to our department, our mission, and our nation.
From budgets to logistics, management to intelligence and more, these men and women help defend our great country and make a better world for our children.
To our honorees, you’re exceedingly valuable members of our team. You make us smarter and stronger every day by what you do for our mission. And you help to keep our nation and our people safe. And what nobler mission in life can there possibly be than that? I’m proud to have you in the DoD family, and I’m proud to call you colleagues. Let’s give – first of all – all of our awardees a big round of applause.
And – as Stephanie said – this afternoon, we’re also celebrating five DoD components and military departments for exemplary practices in employing individuals with disabilities. Now, it was almost thirty years ago, in 1987, that then-Secretary Weinberger – and yes, I worked for him – made a pledge to increase the employment of individuals with significant disabilities to 2 percent across the Department of Defense. While we still have work to do to meet that pledge, our honorees and all our components and military departments have made real progress in hiring – and making our workplaces more accessible to – those with disabilities.
Four of the component awards today recognize programs and practices that promote the hiring, the retention, and the advancement of individuals with disabilities. And we’ve added a new award this year to recognize achievements in ensuring accessible information and communication technology to every employee, which is obviously important in today’s digital workplace.
As we recognize these components and military departments, I want to commend the Air Force for “aim[ing] high,” as their motto says, and winning, for the fifth year in a row, the Achievements in Employment of Individuals with Disabilities Award for best military department – way to go, Air Force. And I also want to acknowledge the great work by our other awardees – the Defense Finance and Accounting [Service] office, Washington Headquarters Services, the National Security Agency, and the Missile Defense Agency. Let’s give all them a round of applause as well.
Now, one thing Stephanie said was true, and that is that my first priority as Secretary of Defense is to our people. And whether it’s our men and women in uniform, civilians, we have the best people in the world, and that’s what makes ours the finest fighting force the world has ever known. We recognize, moreover, that the thing that matters most about each person, in turn, is what they can contribute to our great and noble mission. That’s necessary – that’s a necessary perspective of an all-volunteer force. We have to start from a position of inclusivity, and not exclusivity because we depend on the most qualified, and we can’t rule anyone out of the pool from which we select the most qualified. So we need a department where everyone who can serve and wants to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so. Anything less isn’t just plain wrong; it’s bad defense policy, and it puts our future strength at risk.
We can’t afford that at a time when our department is addressing five rapidly evolving, evolving – I’m sorry – rapidly evolving and immediate, major, international challenges. We’re countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe. We’re managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific – the single region in the world of greatest consequence to America’s future. We’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile provocations. We’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and protecting our friends and allies in the Middle East. And we’re accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL…in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and everywhere else it metastasizes around the world, even as we protect our people here in the homeland. And we’re preparing to contend, moreover, with an uncertain future – ensuring that we continue to be ready for challenges we may not anticipate today.
To meet those challenges, today’s and what lies in the future, we need to keep our military edge as sharp as possible. And our awardees today – these fine individuals and these departments and components – are doing just that.
They’re ensuring that any person who wants to serve – who wants to help us tackle those five challenges and help us seize the many bright opportunities before our nation – can do exactly that.
As National Disability Employment Awareness Month begins, we’re reminded of our commitment to live the values we defend – to make the Department of Defense more open and accessible to all who can make a contribution to our mission. So I encourage all DoD components and military departments to renew their commitment to increase the employment of individuals with disabilities.
Together, we will make our workplaces more accessible to all. We will meet the five challenges we face. And we will continue to keep America safe long into the future…by harnessing the talents, the skills, and the perspectives of 100 percent of America’s population.
Thank you, and congratulations.