A Tradition of Heroes

SAF/PA 2004 Air Force Public Affairs

Armed Forces Day, 2004

Today we are gathered to pay tribute to some of the finest men and women our nation has to offer - the men and women of our armed forces. They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives. But they have one thing in common - they are part of the greatest military force in the world. 

For more than 50 years, our nation has paused in May to recognize the contributions of those in uniform. But this year, we are especially mindful of what it means to serve. We are here today to thank the men and women in uniform for their service and their sacrifice, because we know that without them - and the thousands who have gone before them -- the light of freedom would have been extinguished around the world. They truly are carrying on a tradition of heroes. 

Once again, we see the forces of freedom and democracy being threatened around the world. We are going through difficult times in our efforts to allow the people of Iraq to live in democracy. Television news broadcasts are filled with images of bombings and civilian uprisings. But it's worth stepping back to consider just how far we've come in the past year. 

The war for Iraqi liberation began in March 2003. Thanks to a small army of reporters embedded with military units, we saw firsthand the courage, the professionalism, and the determination of our fighting men and women. They swept toward Baghdad with lightning speed, confounding the critics who predicted they would get bogged down in the sands of Iraq, defeated by Saddam's so-called "elite Republic Guard." We saw spectacular displays of precision bombing of key military facilities that left key oil and power plants undamaged, so the Iraqi people would have the tools they'd need to begin their new lives. 

Within a month, we saw statues of Saddam Hussein being toppled as joyous Iraqis danced in the streets. They were celebrating the end of more than three decades of a brutal regime that relied on fear, intimidation and torture to control its people. And it was our armed forces, working with those of our Coalition partners, who made those celebrations possible. 
But in a way, the battle for Baghdad may have been the easy part. President Bush said last May, "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort." 

And our armed forces continue to serve in Iraq, working to rebuild that shattered nation. It is a commitment to liberty that upholds an American tradition. We believe the advance of freedom is the surest way to undermine the forces of terror. As President Bush has said, "Where freedom takes hold, hatred gives way to hope. When freedom takes hold, men and women turn to the peaceful pursuit of a better life." 

This belief in the power of freedom is part of a long tradition bequeathed to us by those who fought for freedom over the past two centuries. But this year, we especially want to remember the heroes who liberated the world six decades ago. 

Later this month [27 May], members of "The Greatest Generation" will gather on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to dedicate the new World War II memorial. They are older and grayer now, and sadly, we are losing them in ever-increasing numbers. But it is fitting that we at last recognize the incredible debt we owe these veterans. They came of age during the struggles of the Great Depression, and then they went off to fight the Second World War. 

They didn't just carry the weight of the world on their shoulders - they carried each other, through some of the bloodiest battles in human history. Tragically, thousands of them did not come home. Instead, they lie buried in many now-quiet fields from Normandy to Iwo Jima. But those who did come home went on to build the world we know today. 

Looking back, it seems inevitable that the power of freedom would prevail. But at the time, it was anything but inevitable. It began on that sleepy December morning in 1941, when our naval forces suffered a devastating attack at Pearl Harbor. The storm clouds of war had been gathering for years, but Pearl Harbor was our wake-up call, just as September 11, 2001, was the wake-up call for members of a new generation of Americans. 

Next month [June 2004] marks the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the day the Allied forces began the liberation of continental Europe. American forces faced some of the fiercest fighting on the bloody beaches of Normandy, code-named Omaha and Utah. We tend to forget how tenuous their hold on these beaches was. But for the fierce tenacity and courage of these men, the Germans might well have pushed them back into the sea, stopping the European liberation campaign in its tracks. 

Yet, they did prevail. Soldiers who had only months before been farm boys from Iowa or subway operators from Manhattan forged a cohesive fighting team. They rolled back Hitler's highly trained forces, mile after bloody mile, all across Europe. 

The hardships and the sacrifices they endured are almost unimaginable. One soldier named John took time to jot a letter home the month after D-Day. He told of a fellow soldier in his unit who'd just gotten word that his sister, an army nurse, and his brother, a flyer, had both been killed in the South Pacific, and that his only remaining brother had been critically wounded with another division in France. And yet, he continued to do his duty. John added, "Our bombers are roaring overhead just now, in the hazy afterglow of sunset. In a few seconds I'll hear the crunch of bombs - a goodnight kiss for the Nazis." 

This selfless and steadfast determination was not simply the virtue of one soldier, but the guiding ethos of hundreds of thousands of his comrades-in-arms. 

By late April 1945, the Allies had begun their final drive to end the Nazi domination of Europe. The war would be over in a matter of days. But 2Lt Ray Knight was determined to carry out his duty as though the war's very outcome depended on it. On April 25, he volunteered to lead a flight of P-47s against a heavily defended airfield near Milan, Italy, where German fighters and bombers were based. He destroyed a twin-engine bomber on the runway, but his plane was severely damaged by flak. Rather than simply bailing out of the wounded plane, Knight attempted to fly it back to his base, knowing the critical shortage of flyable planes in his unit. But over the Apennine Mountains, Knight's plane crashed and he was killed. The war in Italy ended just one week later, when the Germans surrendered on May 2. 

The war may have been all but over, but Lt Knight's war was not, as long as there was still a threat to the men on the ground he was there to protect. He was driven by duty, not by thoughts of personal glory. For his heroism, Knight was one of only two fighter pilots to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the war in Europe. He was also the last Airman to earn the Medal of Honor in World War II. 

When World War II ended, much of the world was in ruins. But while the United States had lost hundreds of thousands of its finest young men and women, its homeland had been spared. 
President Ronald Reagan once reminded Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev about what happened in the war's immediate aftermath. "When W orld War II ended, the United States had the only undamaged industrial power in the world," he wrote. "Its military was at its peak, and we alone had the ultimate weapon, the nuclear bomb, and the unquestioned ability to deliver it anywhere in the world. If we had sought world domination, who could have opposed us?" 

"But the United States followed a different course, one unique in the history of all mankind. We used our power and wealth to rebuild the war-ravaged economies of the world, including those nations that had been our enemies," Reagan wrote. And think of what those efforts brought about. The liberated nations of Europe joined with us to stand up to the forces of Communism, and by the end of the 20th century, liberty had spread across the entire continent of Europe and beyond. 

Today the challenges continue. In the streets of Iraq, and in the mountains of Afghanistan, members of our armed forces are carrying on the tradition of those heroes who won the Second World War and the Cold War. They have defeated the forces of tyranny, but they won't stop there. They will stay until the job is done, and stability and democracy comes to the region. They are rebuilding these troubled countries so the people of Iraq and Afghanistan can live in peace, freed of the oppression and brutality that ruled their lives for so many years. 

Our men and women in uniform reflect America's people - their decency, kindness, strength and goodwill. They are determined to do the right thing, to stay the course, to get the job done. We see it in the wounded soldiers whose strongest desire is to get well and to return to their buddies in Iraq or Afghanistan, to finish the job they began. 

We can all take pride in our latest generation of heroes. A few years ago, many wondered whether today's young people had "the right stuff," the fortitude to take on the world's toughest challenges. Well, we found out on that terrible morning in September 2001, when our nation was attacked by shadowy enemies who killed thousands of innocent men, women and children. Our young men and women answered the call in the finest tradition of the Greatest Generation, and they remain at their posts, doing the tough jobs that freedom requires. 

TSgt John Chapman epitomizes the new breed of warriors. A special operations combat controller from Pope AFB, North Carolina, Chapman guided precision airstrikes on Taliban strongholds while operating in the most primitive conditions in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. During some of the fie rcest fighting of Operation Anaconda, Chapman volunteered to help rescue a fallen comrade. Sadly, Chapman lost his own life in the rescue effort. 

In a tribute to Chapman, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said: "To his comrades, John's personal bravery in the face of the enemy was emblematic of his warrior ethos; to his family, those actions were merely the latest in a lifetime of devotion to others. By his sacrifice, we, the living, are called upon to adhere daily to the values of this country, to cherish freedom, to respect and to watch over each other, and to defend liberty and justice against any who would seek to remove them from us. He died fighting terrorism. And we continue to live free today because of his sacrifice." 

These young men and women are operating some of the most sophisticated weapons ever devised, and they are doing it superbly. For example in the 24 new F/A 22 Raptor aircraft that are flying today, America's warriors are mastering technology that can defeat any adversary aircra ft currently flying or in development, ensuring absolute air dominance in the coming decades. But, as General George Patton said, "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men." 

Today's armed forces are the most highly trained and best-equipped troops ever to see combat. They need to be, in the face of an entirely new breed of enemies who attack without notice, against civilian targets. And that quality, born both of necessity and an enduring spirit of dedication and selfless service, is reflected in the Total Force that defends America: Active-duty members, Guardsmen, Reservists, civilians, and contractors. 

Much has changed in the past two and a half years. For decades our military had been organized to defend against large, conventional armies and navies in specific regions. Now we are menaced less by armies and fleets than by catastrophic technology in the hands of a few embittered terrorists. Our armed forces have suddenly been asked to take on a global network of individuals who can bring chaos and destruction to our shores for less than it costs to buy a single Humvee. 

The war on terrorism will no doubt be "a long, hard slog," as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said. But our men and women know what they have to do. A colonel in the 101st Airborne Division explained the job to his soldiers this way: He told them that what they're doing in Iraq is every bit as important as what their grandfathers did in Germany or Japan in World War II, or what their fathers did in Korea or Europe during the Cold War. It is critical for us to remember on this Armed Forces Day that this imperative to prevail over tyranny and terror is not the possession of any one Service. It is the proud responsibility of the entire Joint warfighting team: Every Sold ier, Airman, Sailor, Marine and Coast Guardsman.. 

I have every confidence that our men and women in uniform are up to the challenge. And so, I would ask that when you see one of our men or women in uniform, take a moment to thank them for the sacrifices they've made. They are heroes in every sense of the word, in the finest tradition of the Greatest Generation. They represent our nation's finest, and they deserve our best. Thank you.