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America Salutes You

SAF/PA 2006 Air Force Public Affairs

Armed Forces Day, 2006

We are here today to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, and as an Airman, I single out our Airmen. The work these men and women are doing every day is vitally important to America's interests around the world. Their work is helping spread freedom around the world, and for that, we salute them. 

For more than 50 years, our nation has paused on this third Saturday in May to honor those who wear the nation's uniform. This year, more than most, we are keenly aware of the sacrifices that service requires. We are also aware that without these Airmen - and the thousands who came before them -- the light of freedom would have been extinguished in many parts of the world. 

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has a small American flag sitting outside his office, one of many that have been distributed to our military forces by a local Boy Scout troop. The flag is accompanied by a note that reads: "Here is a flag for your pocket, so you can always carry a little bit of home. We are praying for you and are proud of you. Thank you for defending our country and freedom."

Secretary Rumsfeld said, "That small flag is a reminder that so many Americans - even the young - recognize the importance of the sacred duty each of you [in uniform] have willingly taken: to defend them, their families, their homeland and their freedoms." 

We recently marked the third anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom [19 March], the beginning of the liberation of some 25 million Iraqis from more than three decades under a brutal dictator. 

Three years ago, in March 2003, we saw the courage, professionalism and determination of our fighting forces. They swept toward Baghdad with lightning speed, aided not only by our well-known ability to put bombs precisely on target, but also by unprecedented satellite and other real-time intelligence we wisely invested in years ago - our Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. With the ability to listen in to enemy plans and, in the Predator's case, even provide coalition forces with a TV eye in the sky for hours at a time. JOINTSTARS jets pinpointed enemy tanks and trucks for our ground forces, and AWACS organized airpower to pound the enemy and give the battle to us. Within a month, we saw statues of Saddam Hussein being toppled as joyous Iraqis danced in the streets. And our Airmen had a leading role in ending this brutal chapter in Iraqi and Middle East history. Our magnificent people used today's technology to defeat today's enemy. And we're now implementing a far-reaching plan to prepare for tomorrow's adversaries by recapitalizing our fighters and tankers, upgrading existing systems and weapons, and reconsidering how best our Air Force can continue to uphold our nation's sacred trust to defend it in air, space and cyberspace. 

In marking the third anniversary of Iraq's liberation, President Bush called on all Americans to thank servicemembers and their families for their sacrifices. "Ours is an amazing nation, where thousands have volunteered to serve our country," he said. "Many volunteered after 9/11, knowing full well at the time that their time in the military could put them in harm's way." 

At the same time, our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are still on duty, throughout the region. They're flying vital supplies, providing the "eyes in the skies" and dropping pinpoint-precision bombs our soldiers and Marines depend on for the ground fight. Our Airmen are also sharing the risks alongside our ground troops by riding shotgun on convoys, as well as pushing out heavily guarded perimeters for air bases throughout the region. But one thing all our forces share - they're all fighting a vicious, faceless enemy that is determined to stop democracy from taking hold in Iraq, even if it takes the daily slaughter of innocent men, women and children to do it. 

Our service members are working side by side with the Iraqis, helping them rebuild their country. One Air Force captain told of his visit to a hospital to see a wounded Iraqi soldier. "He had lost both his legs, and we went there to comfort him," he said. "When we were leaving, we told him, 'May God be with you.' He called back out to me, 'For Iraq, I would give up my whole life, not just my legs.' 
"We're also training Iraqis to take over the task of protecting the country against terrorist insurgents. Recently [7 March], our Air Force team in Iraq marked the opening of Al Muthana Air Base, a newly constructed Iraqi Air Base. This base will be an important operating site for the new Iraqi Air Force, whose members are being trained by U.S. Airmen. 

Our Air Force medical teams are treating the wounded - military and civilian alike. They are providing some of the most advanced medical care available, and they're doing it very near the front lines. When ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff was injured in Iraq, the public got a glimpse of these superb medics and the treatment facilities at Balad ["Bah-LODD"] Air Base. Our aeromedical evacuation teams have perfected techniques for transporting critically injured patients to hospitals in Germany and stateside in record time. The result is a survival rate unmatched in any previous conflict. 

There is a growing debate in our country about whether we should continue the difficult work that remains to be done in Iraq, or to simply turn it over to the Iraqis and hope for the best. While the policymakers and elected representatives debate, we Airmen will continue to carry out our assigned mission. That mission is to support the Iraqi people and their armed forces in their battle with insurgents, so that a free and stable government can take root and survive. 

As President Bush said [20 Mar 06], "The United States will not abandon Iraq. We will not leave the country to the terrorists who attacked America and want to attack us again. We will leave Iraq, but when we do, it will be from a position of strength, not weakness. Americans have never retreated in the face of thugs and assassins, and we will not begin now." 

Humanitarian Operations 
Certainly, the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan would be impressive enough. But these achievements represent only a fraction of what your nation's armed forces have done in recent years. 

Think back to last summer's devastating hurricanes along our Gulf Coast. We had Hurricanes Rita, Wilma, and, of course, Katrina. The scope of Katrina's devastation was unprecedented in American history - some 90,000 square miles. That's an area roughly the size of Great Britain. 

The military response to this disaster was nothing short of amazing. Day after day, our Airmen plucked men, women and children from rooftops, where they'd scrambled to escape rising floodwaters. And these operations went on around the clock. Our helicopter crews and combat-rescue boat crews (yes, Air Force boat crews!) used night-vision goggles to find and rescue people trapped in their homes at night -- It was the largest search and rescue operation in Air Force history. 

The maintenance crews were magnificent, too, working hard to keep all these aircraft flying, despite a schedule that was even more demanding than most combat situations. Our military medical teams brought the skills they'd honed in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans. There they treated thousands of injured and elderly patients before flying them to medical facilities around the country. Our aircrews delivered thousands of tons of food and critical supplies to the region, and evacuated thousands of passengers from the devastation. 
Guardsmen and Reservists worked side-by-side with their active-duty counterparts, working security, law enforcement, aircraft maintenance, communications, civil engineering, and dozens of other specialties. 

For example, last September 6th, Air Force Reservists from the 908th Airlift Wing came home to Maxwell AFB, Alabama, from a deployment to Iraq. What's amazing is that they immediately volunteered for hurricane relief duty! That tells you something about the dedication and professionalism of our men and women in uniform. 

Today we salute the members of the National Guard and Reserve for their service, as well. We simply could not do our jobs without the help of our "citizen soldiers," who step in to augment our forces wherever they're needed, whether it be in the Persian Gulf or along our own Gulf Coast. 
Our men and women in uniform reflect all that is good and noble about America and its 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 can all take pride in the achievements of our men and women in uniform. 

Vice President Dick Cheney was recently [21 March] at Scott AFB, Illinois. There he told our Airmen: "Each one of you is helping to write a proud chapter in the history of freedom. At times you may wonder if your fellow citizens truly realize the extent of your achievements. I want you to know that Americans do realize it, and we do not take our military for granted." 

"These are eventful times for the United States, and for the people who wear our nation's uniform," Mr. Cheney said. "Were it not for all of you, this nation could not have started, supported, or sustained our major operations in the global war on terror. That war goes on, and thanks in part to all of you, it's a war that we are going to win." 

We cannot know what challenges lie ahead. After all, who could have predicted the attacks of 9/11 or the devastation along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina? But our Airmen have a rich tradition of rising to meet every challenge. You can be confident they will be up to the task. 

And so, as we honor the men and women of today's armed forces, take a moment to look around you. The next time you're at an air show, look at the youngster tugging at his mom's hand, eager to climb up into the jet on display there on the ramp. Or the little girl, looking up in amazement as the Thunderbirds roar overhead. 

They are your future guardians of freedom. Someday, they too may be standing tall, in uniform, guarding the high frontier or roaring across the sky. Our nation's future is in their hands. America's armed forces represent the best we have to offer, a force for freedom and democracy around the world. For that, we salute you. Thank you for your service.