Good morning. It's great to see so many familiar faces in this audience today. I've been in Washington for over 40 years and I've got to say that this is the best leadership team on the military and civilian side that any Secretary could have.
I also want to acknowledge the presence of Rick Shinseki, thanks for coming, I really appreciate it. I think we've started a whole new partnership between the Defense Department and the Veterans Department to try to meet the challenges that both of us face as we go through the transition of forces.
I also want to acknowledge Janet Napolitano. I always like to have an Italian in the room, you know, just to make sure. Thank you for your leadership as well. You do a great job with regards to protecting our homeland and we all work together very closely to try to protect this country, and that's really what it's all about. And I also want to welcome all the members of our Guard community, including our State Adjutant Generals. I want to thank you for taking the time to be here as we honor these two individuals.
It is a real honor and pleasure for me to pay tribute to Craig McKinley. His nearly four decades of service to this country have really marked an incredible dedication to what America is all about. We also welcome General Grass as the next Chief of the National Guard Bureau; and we recognize the enormous contributions that are made by the men and women of the National Guard to this country's security.
As the 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Craig McKinley has led the men and women of the Guard during a time of intense crisis, a time of mobilization, and a time of intense demand. The Guard responded -- be it patrolling our nation's skies, be it fighting and dying on the war fronts, be it responding swiftly and compassionately to floods, fires, and disasters of one kind or another -- meeting the needs of their fellow countrymen in distress here at home and abroad. And that is what the National Guard is all about.
The men and women of the Guard have shown again and again that they are "Always Ready, Always There." And throughout his career, so has Craig McKinley.
Throughout our history, America has depended on the citizen soldier. That's what's made us great, that's what's protecting us. Those citizen soldiers who are willing to leave their farms, to leave their homes, to leave their businesses, to leave their jobs, and their families in order to fight to protect this country.
Craig has carried on that legacy. His hard work, his dedication to his country, and his commitment to the people of the Guard exemplifies the very best in America's citizen warriors.
General McKinley rose through the ranks, as has been mentioned, of the Florida Air National Guard with command positions at almost every level. He made history in 2008 when he became the first Guard officer to be awarded a fourth star -- a recognition that I believe was long overdue for our country's Guardsmen, these great citizen soldiers who have defended our communities and our nation for more than 375 years.
And Craig has worked to improve the coordination between the Guard and civil authorities in responding to catastrophes and disasters, in securing airports, and providing border security -- as pointed out by Janet -- in fighting fires, and by staging search and rescue operations. He's also worked hard to address the unique employment challenges facing Guardsmen and their families. These Guardsmen, who dedicate their lives to helping to protect this country, should not have to worry about their job security when they are called up to serve and Craig has fought to make sure that they are protected.
He made history again by becoming the first Chief of the National Guard Bureau to serve as a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now, it's fair to say that there were mixed feelings about that happening. I'm not sure what Craig expected when he first walked into The Tank when that became the case, but you know, I think it's fair to say that it was very fortunate that Craig McKinley was in his job when this happened because he had a great relationship with all the other Chiefs, and it did not take long for him to be a part of the team.
General McKinley played an important role in developing our defense strategy, the strategy for the force for the 21st century, and I benefited immensely from his advice and counsel, and I believe the President did as well. The result of that review was a new defense strategy, one that recognizes the crucial role that is played and needs to be played by the National Guard in our nation's defense.
That strategy, as we all know, calls for a leaner force that must be agile, it must be flexible, it must be quickly deployable, it must be on the cutting edge of technology. But, most important, it must be a defense force that can mobilize quickly in order to respond to crises that we will confront anywhere in the world. That is what the Guard has done these past 10 years of war and it is what it must do in the future.
In deploying the Guard, we have made certain, and this is very important, that every community, every citizen shares in the responsibility of defending America. If we are to fight wars, as we must, when we are called on to do that, all of us need to be part of that effort if we are to succeed.
We are beginning to emerge from a decade of war that has seen more than 460,000 Guard personnel deployed to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and to other overseas operations. Last year in Libya, Air National Guard aerial refueling aircraft were the first to respond, providing the bulk of the tankers. And today, more than 28,000 National Guardsmen remain deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan, in Kosovo, and elsewhere overseas.
When I travel to the war zones, when I travel abroad, I cannot tell the difference between Guardsmen and active duty service members -- and that's the way it should be. Because we are, and they are all, part of one team.
Thanks in great measure to General McKinley's leadership, our National Guard today is far more capable, far more experienced, and truly battle-hardened, than at any point, I believe, in our nation's history.
The Guard remains not just an important part of our fighting force but they are our first responders when disasters strike here at home, and Craig has made sure that we maintain the balance between these important missions: fighting abroad and protecting the homeland. We saw this most recently in response to Hurricane Isaac, where more than 7,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen from Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama are assisting civil authorities to try to recover from that disaster.
Leading an organization of this complexity, knowing that at a moment's notice you must be ready to respond to a disaster or to any other contingency, is no easy task. This doesn't just happen by chance. It takes training, it takes work, it takes dedication.
And like all of us in these tough jobs, Craig has been served and supported by the love and support of a great family -- his wife Cheryl, and their children.
Cheryl, I'd like to personally thank you for all that you have given to our country, and the strong support you have offered your husband, and the men and women of the Guard -- especially our wounded warriors. I've said this before, and I say it again: we could not do these jobs without the love and support of our families. And I'd like to wish you, Cheryl, and Craig all the best as you begin this next chapter in your lives.
As I've said before, one of the great things about being the Secretary of Defense is that in our military we have a great bench. I know our citizen-warriors will be in good hands under the incoming Chief, General Frank Grass. A Missouri native, he is a patriot who has served for 42 years as both an enlisted soldier and an officer, rising to the pinnacle of his profession.
He served as Deputy Commander of United States Northern Command since 2010, and he's vice commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, responsible for protecting the air and maritime approaches to this country.
Today, we entrust General Grass with a national treasure -- a force that has been transformed from a strategic reserve to an essential part of the operational military, and whose ranks are now filled with skilled combat veterans.
As we draw down from these wars, and we face the complex and threatening international security environment, with threats that are real, and threats that we have to confront in order to protect this country, I know that General Grass will work harder to ensure that we retain that hard-won experience and expertise in the Guard. That is something we cannot lose. That is something we must protect for the future. And I know that the Guard is ready to respond to the call of duty.
He will help guide innovative approaches to readiness and training, and efforts such as the State Partnership Program that also help equip our allies to share in the security burden, something that is very much a part of the new defense strategy
And along with his wife Patricia and his great family, I am confident that General Grass will be a strong advocate for the National Guard's most valuable asset: its soldiers and airmen and their families.
Ceremonies like this remind me that the reason why we are the greatest military power on earth lies not in our weapons, lies not in our planes, or in our ships, or in our advanced technology, as great as they all are. The strength of our military lies in our people -- the men and women in uniform who are willing to serve this country, who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect America. And it lies in their leaders, people like Craig McKinley and Frank Grass, who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to keep our country safe.
May God bless both of you, may God bless the National Guard, and may God bless the United States of America.