HomeSpeakersSpeech ArchiveStanding on the Shoulders of Giants

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

SAF/PA 2006 Air Force Public Affairs

Veterans Day, 2006

Today marks the 53rd year America has gathered to celebrate Veterans Day, to "pay appropriate homage to the veterans of all wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this nation," as stated in the 1954 Presidential Proclamation issued by President Eisenhower. 

Today, we remember the armistice between the Allied nations and Germany that went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, President Woodrow Wilson called for the people of America to reflect on the heroism of those who died and be grateful for the victory proclaiming November 11th as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. Following World War II and the Korean War, President Eisenhower officially changed the name to Veterans Day. 

Today is a day set aside for our veterans: men and women who exemplify patriotism, commitment, and service. Men and women who, with love and respect for this great country, offered themselves as shields for America to keep war from reaching our front door. Men and women who experienced trauma, endured pain, and witnessed the worst horrors of man so that we here in the United States of America can live and work in peace. 

Our veterans are the reason our children can live as children without being stripped of their innocence by extremist organizations. Our veterans are the torchbearers of freedom and democracy. Our veterans are our loved ones who have adopted America as their child and sworn to protect this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. 

For these reasons, we honor our veterans, especially our veteran Airmen, today. 

Last month, in honor of all veteran Airmen, we dedicated the Air Force Memorial overlooking the final resting place of thousands of brave men and women. Standing 270 feet tall between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, one interpretation of the memorial's three spires is that they emulate the starburst of our aerial demonstration team and serve as a reminder of the courage and dedication of our air power pioneers. 

Veterans have laid the foundation for today's Air Force operations. We build and grow upon this foundation in order to continue in the tradition of the legacy we've inherited. Nearly 60 years ago, Secretary W. Stuart Symington had the bold and noble task of establishing the United States Air Force as a vital, respectable and independent branch of the military. Secretary Symington had to contend with being "the new kid on the block," having an under-funded budget, and suffering allegations of wrongdoing surrounding the production of the B-36 bomber. In less than 5 years, however, with the onset of the Korean War, it became abundantly clear that the most recent addition to America's armed forces was, in fact, invaluable. 

For the past 59 years, Airmen have continued to demonstrate the vital role they play in joint operations around the world. We must not forget that our Airmen have been at war for the past 15 years in Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield and now the Global War on Terror. Reservists, guardsmen and active duty Airmen are not only in the air, but are also on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan--a fact that remains unknown to many Americans. Airmen have proven that they will go the distance. They are full partners in joint operations in the Global War on Terror including Airmen like the 59th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron. The 59th was called to Shindand, Afghanistan to rescue three soldiers injured by a landmine. Amidst darkness, cloudy skies and severe thunderstorms, the helicopters hovered over the active minefield knowing detonation was a dangerous possibility. Despite the risks, the helicopters lowered pararescuemen, who provided vital medical care to the two soldiers who survived. After the two were flown to safety, the flight returned to recover the one soldier killed in action. The 59th truly epitomized the Air Force pararescue motto: "These things we do that others may live." 

Thinking back to 1966, when Airman First Class William "Pits" Pitsenbarger gave his life to protect the lives of 20 Army infantrymen during the Vietnam War, we are reminded of the dedication of our veterans. When he came under fire, A1C Pitsenbarger had the opportunity to board the litter basket of his helicopter and be taken to safety. Instead, at only 21 years of age, he remained to protect the wounded and demonstrated true selflessness and valor. A1C William Pitsenbarger was a pararescue jumper who participated in more than 300 rescue missions. In Vietnam, pararescue jumpers--all volunteers--earned more decorations per capita than any other group of Air Force personnel. 

The beauty of Veterans Day is that it gives us the opportunity to remember the gallantry of those who are no longer with us and honor the heroism of those who are still with us today; great Airmen like former POW and retired Brigadier General James Robinson "Robbie" Risner. Brig. Gen. Risner is one of only a handful of Airmen to be twice decorated with the Air Force Cross for his extraordinary heroism in action against enemy forces during the Vietnam War. Risner, a fighter pilot who served in Korea and Vietnam and drew acclaim for his seven-year imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. He spent more than three years in solitary confinement, yet, as a ranking officer, he helped lead the American resistance in the North Vietnamese prison complex through the use of communication codes and other improvised messaging techniques. 

On this day, we not only honor our veterans of the battlefield, but we honor those veterans who have come to the aid of victims of manmade and natural disasters. For almost 60 years, Airmen have been on the frontlines of providing hope and an outstretched hand when disaster strikes. 

During the Korean War, in 1950, Air Force Combat Cargo Command transported more than 1,000 war orphans to safety. A year later, they returned with Christmas trees, rice bowls, notebooks and toothbrushes. In addition to celebrating the holiday season with the children, they donated money to repair and modernize the orphanage. We honor these veterans today. 

Our veterans have delivered food and supplies to schools in Uzbekistan, helped fit elderly persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina for eyeglasses, and built homes for earthquake victims in Pakistan. In Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, Airmen have delivered more than 2,200 tons of humanitarian daily rations. All over the world, veteran Airmen have shown their compassion and stepped up to the plate to lend a helping hand. 

People from around the globe have shown their appreciation to Airmen who have offered assistance to the sick, to the dying and to those in need. No two individuals have shown their gratitude more than two Iraqi patients from Kirkuk, Iraq. The two Iraqis were injured in a vehicle accident in November 2003. They received medical treatment from an Air Force medical team, the 506th Expeditionary Medical Squadron. The family of the two patients was so thankful for and pleased with the medical care offered by the Airmen that they tipped off the US Army on the location of Saddam Hussein's hideout. Entrenched in a tragic war, our Airmen continue to serve and show compassion to all--whether, Iraqi, Afghan or servicemen--living up to the true meaning of our second core value: Service before self. 

One year ago, in fine fashion, Airmen rushed to offer aid to the evacuees and victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast region. They delivered meals, water, and medical supplies. Most importantly, bases offered their capability to conduct search-and-rescue missions throughout the region. Guardsmen and reservists labored side-by-side with their active-duty counterparts, working security, aircraft maintenance, communications, civil engineering, and dozens of other specialties. At home and abroad, Airmen have been there in times of need, and every day Airmen are working to find ways to enhance their ability to protect and serve America. 

Off the ground and beyond the skies, the Air Force is also defending America in space and cyberspace. The Air Force's dominance in space and cyberspace delivers sovereign options for the defense of the Unites States of America and its global interests. Delivering sovereign options means operating across the joint spectrum to provide the President with a myriad of choices that are unlimited by distance and time, and span the entire range from humanitarian assistance to nuclear strike. 

For all Airmen that have defended our freedom or risked their lives to help another, there are loved ones who keep the home fires burning, awaiting their return. For all family members who have borne the burden of worry, we express our sincerest gratitude. We thank you for your sacrifices and we honor you today. 

Hundreds of thousands of men and women who served in the United States Air Force have exemplified bravery, tenacity, and determination. Sir Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Today, as we continue the count down to our 60th Anniversary, we know that we see further, stand taller, and fight harder because of our veterans on whose shoulders we stand. 

Today, Americans pause to consider the sacrifices made by veterans on behalf of our nation. Whether attending a parade, a memorial service or observing the day in private, Americans are reflecting upon and marking this occasion. If it were possible to call every name and express our gratitude, we certainly would. On this day, we salute and say, "Thank you," to all veterans of our nation's armed forces, and especially the men and women who proudly served and are serving in the United States Air Force.