WEB EXTRA: US Sec. Defense Leon Panetta's remarks to Ft. Benning - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

WEB EXTRA: US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's remarks to Fort Benning troops

FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2012 

Thank you for that introduction, Congressman Bishop, and thank you for your strong support of Fort Benning, its soldiers, and their families.  I'd like to particularly recognize your work as the co-chair of the Congressional Military Families Caucus.  

Good afternoon Hammer Brigade!

It is an inspiring sight to see so many dog-faced soldiers gathered in one place.  This is a big crowd, but one thing I've learned in life – especially as a member of Congress – is that you can never have enough sledgehammers!

When I heard I was going to come down and see you, I asked someone who had spent time on Kelley Hill what I should expect.  He told me you're "not fancy, just tough."

It's an honor to be here with you.  It's also an honor to be here at Fort Benning for the first time as Secretary of Defense.  I actually had the opportunity to come here in a previous capacity – as a young Army Lieutenant nearly 50 years ago. 

As it was for many of you, "Fort Beginning" was my first introduction to real Army life. 

I have to tell you the treatment I've been getting today is a hell of a lot nicer than what I got back then.  The chow is about the same, though.

The main reason I've come here today is to have a chance to thank you in person for making the decision to step forward and serve this country.  Each of you has made a courageous and honorable decision to serve the nation in a time of war.

I'm a big believer in public service. I believe there is no greater service than to wear the uniform of our nation.   This country depends on men and women who are willing to give something back.  We depend on you to make sure that we protect this country and give our children a better life for the future. 

So I thank you for your willingness to put your life on the line. 

I also want to thank your families.  They have to sacrifice as well – long periods of absence and holidays apart.  On behalf of the American people, I thank them for their sacrifice, for their dedication and for their loyalty to this great country.

This country has asked the soldiers of this brigade, and the mighty 3rd Infantry Division, to shoulder a heavy burden over a decade of war. 

The Hammer brigade deployed four times to Iraq – as much as any other BCT. 

From the initial march to Baghdad in 2003, to the worst days of the insurgency, to Operation New Dawn, soldiers of the Hammer brigade fought and died to give Iraq an opportunity to secure and govern itself. 

Many of you deployed there, many of you lost brothers and sisters in arms. 

Seventy-seven heroes from the Hammer brigade gave their last full measure of devotion in Iraq.  We will never forget those brave men and women, nor will we forget what they accomplished.  Because of their sacrifices, the American people are safer today.  Because of all that you accomplished, last December we were able to bring that war to a responsible and honorable conclusion.

This week, as you know, the President made an important trip to Afghanistan, and we are now working to bring that war to a responsible end as well. 

Last year was in many ways a turning point for our effort in Afghanistan – violence levels decreased, and a transition to Afghan security responsibility began.  The Taliban have been weakened, their momentum has been broken.  Al Qaeda's leadership – including bin Laden – has been decimated.  The Afghan National Security Forces have been growing steadily, and they are more and more capable of securing their country.  

The Strategic Partnership Agreement that President Obama signed in Kabul this week affirmed that this transition plan is on track.  It sends a clear signal – to our enemies and to our partners – that we will finish the job right in Afghanistan.  We have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan people.  If we keep our eye focused on this mission, as I know you will, we will defeat al Qaeda and deny them the ability to rebuild.  Too much precious blood has been spilt, and too much progress has been made, to lose sight of the mission now.

There is no doubt that there will be considerable challenges ahead.  We face a determined adversary in Afghanistan, and we still face violent extremists who want to attack America.

The reality is that our enemies are losing on the battlefield, and they will seek any opportunity to damage us.  In particular, they have sought to take advantage of a series of troubling incidents involving misconduct on the part of American troops.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make: I need every one of you, and all of your fellow service members, to always display the strongest character, the greatest discipline, and the utmost integrity in everything you do. 

I know that you are proud to wear the uniform of your country, and that you strive to live up to the high standards that we expect of you. 

But the reality is we are fighting a different kind of war, and living in a different kind of world, than when I was a lieutenant here at Fort Benning. 

These days, it takes only seconds for one picture to suddenly become an international headline.  And those headlines can impact the mission we're engaged in, they can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale, and they can damage our standing in the world.

I know that none of you would ever deliberately hurt your mission, or put your fellow soldiers at risk. 

I know these incidents represent a very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do every day across the world.  But these incidents concern me – and all of the Service Chiefs – because they show a lack of judgment, a lack of professionalism, and a lack of leadership on the part of some of our men and women in uniform.  And they concern us because our enemies will seek to turn them in their favor, at the very moment when they are losing the wider war. 

I want all of you to always remember who you are, and the great country you protect.  You are part of the best fighting force on the face of the earth.  Its greatness lies not in the quality of our aircraft, ships, or tanks, but in the character and the standards that each of you carry with you wherever you go – here at home or abroad. 

We can often be better than our word, but we can never be better than our actions.  Never forget that, and never forget that you have a responsibility to look after your fellow soldiers, and to represent the American people you have sworn to defend.

I know you can meet this challenge, because you have met every challenge we have set for you. 

I have never been more honored in my life than to have been given the opportunity to lead you as Secretary of Defense.  I have the greatest confidence in your ability to make all Americans proud by demonstrating the very finest character, integrity, judgment and your willingness to fight for all of us.

I often tell the story of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other and understand each other's religion.  And so one evening, they thought they would go to a boxing match.  Just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross, and the rabbi nudged the priest and said, what does that mean?  The priest said: it doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight. 

We bless ourselves with the hope that everything will be fine in this country.  But very frankly, it doesn't mean a damn thing unless we are willing to fight for it. 

The Hammer Brigade has always been willing to fight – to keep America safe, to make sure our kids have that better life, but most importantly, to make sure that we will always have a government of, by and for our people

God bless you, God bless this brigade, and God bless this nation. 

Thank you.

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