Story by Nick Simeone, American Forces Press Service
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel helped the Army celebrate its 238th birthday at the Pentagon with a cake-cutting ceremony and a reminder that after 238 years, the service, perhaps unique among militaries, continues to have “the astounding confidence and trust of the American people.”
“I don’t know of any other country in the world that can say that,” Hagel said, citing what he said were consistent results of Gallup polls that “put the military in the stratosphere” in terms of public opinion, even though most Americans have never served in the military.
“You could also say it’s the 1 percent that bears all the burden. … That’s true. There is still an outstanding respect for our military in society even though they are disconnected, probably more so than at any time in the history of this nation,” added Hagel, who is the second consecutive Defense Secretary to have served in the Army, and the first enlisted combat veteran to lead the department.
He attributed the great respect for the military to the values that have shaped it and the sacrifices that have been made, especially by Army families, who he said “are not covered in great glory or attention, but they deserve as much recognition and thanks.”
Hagel was accompanied by Army leadership, including Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who noted the service began as and remains an all-volunteer force, always ready to sacrifice everything when the nation calls — no more so than during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he said more than 2.5 million soldiers have served.
“Over 600,000 have deployed three, four, five, six times,” the general said. “Over 4,800 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice, over 35,000 have been wounded, but over 15,000 medals of valor have been handed out.”
Hagel said the ethos of the soldier goes far beyond fighting and winning wars. Having just completed several days of congressional testimony, he recalled being asked why the military’s mission should include responding to natural disasters overseas.
“I said when you look at what the soldier is about, it’s about preserving the peace, because it’s the soldier, when we don’t have peace, that makes the sacrifices,” Hagel said, noting the iconic photos that have been taken of American soldiers through history engaged in actions far beyond those on the battlefield.
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the first orange he ever saw in his life came from an American soldier, Hagel noted.
“The Americans troops were marching into this German village, and every German citizen was scared to death, thinking they would be massacred,” the secretary said. “And the American troops hugged these children and gave them chocolate bars and oranges.”
This year’s Army birthday is tempered somewhat by the spending shortfalls triggered by the budget sequester and uncertainty over future spending, Hagel acknowledged.
“These are difficult times,” he said. “But if you ever want to put your money on an institution, you want to put it on the Army. The Army has weathered a lot of things, and we will get through this.”