NEWS | Feb. 21, 2017

Armed Services YMCA 40th Annual Salute to the Military

By ADM Harry B. Harris, Jr. U.S. Pacific Command

Adm. Harry Harris
Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

Armed Services YMCA 40th Annual Salute to the Military
Anchorage, Alaska

February 18, 2017
As Delivered

(Introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski)

Folks: before we get started, let’s give it up for our emcee Josh Revak.

Senator Murkowski, thanks for the invitation to join all of you tonight and for the warm introduction – pun intended. I’ve been told that it’s downright balmy here today in Anchorage. But I’ll remind everyone that the temperature differential from where I came from to where I am is still over 50 degrees! I know that some of you in the audience may be silently questioning my sanity for leaving my headquarters in Hawaii to travel to Alaska… in February. To tell you the truth, so am I.

But, it really was a no-brainer when the Senator asked me to join this community in saluting our military service members stationed here. And folks, how about a big round of applause to all those who worked so hard to put this event together. 

You can probably tell by now that I’m not from around these parts. Anyone here from Tennessee? If so, please interpret for me tonight. You Alaskans give a whole new meaning to the term ‘Northerner.’

Our service members here in Alaska are fortunate to enjoy the strong support of a YMCA as great as this one. This organization is special to me. In fact, my wife Bruni served on the Hawaii Armed Services YMCA Board while I was the Pacific Fleet Commander. Her service there showed me the breadth of what this organization does every single day. From pre-school to robotics camp, yours is meaningful work, and I appreciate all that you do.

Before I get started, not only do I want to recognize Senator Murkowski, I’d like to acknowledge Senator Dan Sullivan, who as he said (by video message) earlier, couldn’t be here tonight because he’s at the Munich Security Conference with Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Mattis and many others. You are lucky here in Alaska, and we are lucky in the lower 48 and Hawaii, to have a strong Congressional team here who care for this state, our nation and her military. Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, and Congressman Young are leading voices on America’s security.

Another great friend of the military is Governor Bill Walker. As Senator Murkowski said earlier, famous Airman Billy Mitchell once said, ‘whoever holds Alaska holds the world.’ Governor, thanks for your continued support of our Alaska-based forces and critical training exercises like Northern Edge and Red Flag that take place right in this great state.

I’d also like to recognize Mayor Berkowitz; President & CEO of the Armed Services YMCA, retired Vice Admiral Bill French; and Sarah Riffer, Executive Director of the Armed Services YMCA of Alaska; Lieutenant General ‘Cruiser’ Wilsbach, who’s another famous Airman; Fellow Flag and General Officers, Senior Enlisted Leaders Sergeant Major Spadaro and Chief Master Sergeant Veale, distinguished guests; and especially those families here today, who so proudly represent their military service members who are defending our nation around the world – a special welcome to each of you. 

Ladies and gentlemen, as I was preparing for this trip back in Hawaii – you know, packing my flannel aloha shirts – I asked my aide, Major Spike Jurewicz, who grew up in this beautiful state, for some advice in case we found some time to go hiking. He told me that we had to get some tiny bells to attach to our clothes when hiking up here in bear country. He said the bells would warn away most bears, but not grizzlies. For grizzlies, we’d have to watch out for bear droppings. I was perplexed until he told me that one can easily recognize grizzly bear droppings because they’re loaded with tiny bells. I’m still not sure if Spike was joking, so let’s just say we won’t have any time to hike during this trip.

Obviously that was a joke, but if you want to hear a real bear story that is truly frightening, then I recommend you have a conversation with Brigadier General Gettys.

Folks, this event, the 40th annual Salute to the Military, bonds our Service men and women to the community that supports them. Many of those stationed here in Alaska are away from home for the first time. Your efforts make a positive difference in their lives. You are making this their new home.

By acknowledging those who volunteer to wear the cloth of our nation, you help imbue our society with a sense of patriotism, of being a part of something truly big. Your efforts inspire others to become part of the greatest military force in history. 

Those who serve today are among the nearly 25 million living Americans who have served, or are currently serving, in our nation’s armed forces. Since General George Washington commanded the Continental Army, 40 million Americans have served. And one million have given their lives in defense of our nation. 

There can be no doubt that America’s fighting men and women have given much to ensure that our great nation stays free. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who served, to all those who were injured, and especially to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice – this includes Alaskans like Staff Sergeant Carletta Davis of Anchorage, and Sergeant Derek Stenroos of North Pole, who were killed in Iraq during the same I.E.D. attack back in 2007.

On the night of September 11, 2001, when President George Bush addressed the nation, he said ‘America was targeted for attack because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.’ 

And today, members of our Armed Services are deployed around the world – at sea, in the air, and on land. They protect our national interests to ensure America’s beacon of light continues to shine, even to the farthest and darkest reaches of the globe.

Our forces stationed here in Alaska are integral to Pacific Command’s mission. ‘Top cover for North America’ is not just a slogan, it’s a way of life up here. This state’s geopolitical significance becomes readily apparent when you flip your globe around and center it on the North Pole. Our forces here are positioned to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and to ‘fight tonight’ when needed. As Senator Sullivan has told me often, Alaska is closer to North Korea than Hawaii is.

The units here go through some of the best training in the world. Northern Edge 2017 will take place this May and it will ensure your military is honed to the razor’s edge. I need Northern Edge because without it and other exercises like it, we would cede the tactical advantage to our potential adversaries in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The 6,000 men and women participating in Northern Edge are shining examples of the joint force serving your nation.

This generation of warriors not only has the strength and physical courage to defeat our enemies anywhere in the world, they have the integrity and moral courage to succeed in difficult jobs, in dangerous places.  

They didn’t enter the civilian workforce, taking coveted jobs in industry, manufacturing, I.T., or the financial sector. They didn’t choose a predictable 40-hour work week. And they didn’t choose to stay close to home, amidst familiar settings, close to family and friends. Instead, they chose uncertainty and difficulty. They chose to join our Armed Forces, and for our nation, that has made all the difference. 

You see, I know that the United States is the country she is because of young men and women like those representing their Services here tonight, who put patriotism above profit, who willingly travel along an uncertain road fraught with peril. Who choose to live, instead, lives on the ragged edge of danger, lives that matter on a fundamental level, to serve our nation in times of peril.

And of course my tribute today would simply not be complete if I didn’t recognize the families of those who serve, our military families. They also sacrifice so much for our nation. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons, close friends and loved ones. When our military members deploy abroad, they leave behind their families, their friends, who in their absence soldier on. Life as normal – only you and I know, it’s anything but normal. 

Across the many distant miles that separate them, over the weeks and months that divide them, those who are deployed abroad are always in our thoughts and our prayers. Those who stay behind carry the concern, and the worry, and the fear that their loved ones might go in harm’s way. 

For our military families, theirs has never been an easy burden.

So as we thank those who serve, let’s also remember our heroes on the home front. Our nation’s military forces simply could not carry out our duties without the critical support our families and loved ones provide every day. To those families holding down the home front, I salute you tonight.

Our collective recognition of the military service rendered by men and women who chose to serve – and their tremendous families who support them along every step of that service – is a sacred obligation. So I want to thank the Armed Services YMCA of Alaska for your year-round support. This is a fine tribute. I think that your efforts define Alaska’s character as America’s true ‘last frontier,’ where people look out for each other and willingly help those when they need it.

And it’s been a long and enduring relationship. The Armed Services YMCA of Alaska has been helping our military members here since 1941 – for over three-quarters of a century – or about as long as some of you think this speech is taking.

So in keeping with Shakespeare’s words that brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll close so that you remember me as someone witty rather than as someone who kept you too long after dinner. So let me close with this thought.

Each of our Service members volunteered to put on the uniform and serve our nation. No one made them do it. They’ve made their own destiny. I believe we’re approaching an inflection point in history, and certainly not the end of history. Freedom and justice hang in the balance. And the scale won’t tip of its own accord or because of wishful thinking.

Ladies and gentlemen, our nation continues to draw her strength from those who have served in the past, and those who are serving today.  And our nation will continue to draw strength from those who will serve tomorrow – an unbroken chain, linking Americans, generation to generation, keeping that scale of freedom tipping in mankind’s favor.

Our strength as a nation also comes from loyal citizens like each of you in the audience tonight – Americans who are aware of the challenges, aware of the opportunities, and aware of the dangers we face. 

Those of us who serve are grateful for patriots like you, who support us, who support our families when we are deployed, who help make us what we are today – the world’s greatest force for stability and peace on the face of the Earth. I’m grateful for all that you do.

May God bless you and every one of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, DoD civilians, National Guardsmen and our reservists, past and present, who answered our nation’s call to duty. 

May God bless this truly beautiful state of Alaska; and may God bless the United States of America, which will always be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Thank you very much.