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Remarks at the Veterans Interfaith Prayer Breakfast

November 10, 2015

Washington National Cathedral
As prepared for delivery

Contact: Caroline Rabbitt (202) 224-2353

Thank you for that very warm welcome. Reverend Magness, thank you for the kind introduction. Dean Hall, thanks to you and all your team for organizing and hosting this prayer breakfast in honor of Veterans Day.

I also want to thank Bob Coutts, who first encouraged me to speak today. Among Bob's many distinctions, he is father to Doug, my old battle buddy, then my campaign manager, and now my chief of staff.

And I want to welcome two very special people, my parents, Len and Avis Cotton. Along with my aunt and uncle, Phil and Patty Bryant, and our family friends, Kenny and Carol George, they made the trip to Washington to celebrate this special occasion with us. They also deserve our special recognition, since my dad, Phil, and Kenny are all veterans as well.

I'm honored to join you in our national house of prayer. It's good to be back at the National Cathedral. I haven't been inside these walls for nearly eight years, since December 2007, to be exact. Back then, I was a young soldier with the Third Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, stationed at Fort Myer. The Old Guard's primary responsibility is to conduct military honors funerals in Arlington National Cemetery, though it also conducts many types of ceremonies in the national capital region.

One very special, and very rare, ceremony is a state funeral for a deceased president. These don't happen very often. In over a century of history, the National Cathedral has only hosted three such state funerals, for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford. You might think, then, that The Old Guard doesn't dedicate much time to these rare ceremonies.

But you'd be wrong. The Old Guard, the ceremonial units of the other four armed services, and the Military District of Washington plan and rehearse extensively for these funerals. When I was there, we had quarterly talk-throughs and rehearsals at Fort Myer, plus the annual on-site rehearsal here, and at Andrews Air Force Base and the Capitol.

Thus, on a cold, rainy day, I found myself leading the casket team at this cathedral. For several freezing, wet hours, the ten-man team and I moved the sandbag-filled casket in and out of the cathedral. Other teams conducted the same meticulous rehearsal for their roles inside the cathedral, as they did at Andrews and the Capitol.

I share this story not just to stroll down memory lane, though we veterans do enjoy doing that, or to impress you with The Old Guard, though they are quite impressive. After all, drill-and-ceremony training in the cold rain pales in comparison to what thousands of American troops face today in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other forbidding places around the world.

Rather, I think it's illustrative of the professionalism, dedication, and above all the character of those soldiers. That day here in the cathedral was nearly eight years ago. No state funeral has occurred in the interim. Yet the rehearsal then-and surely every year since-was taken with the utmost seriousness, as if the funeral were tomorrow.

This isn't remarkable in our military; it's typical. There's a brigade at the 82nd Airborne prepared at this moment to deploy worldwide in just a few hours. Marine expeditionary units are postured overseas to evacuate Americans from troubled regions if needed. Sailors on our ballistic-missile submarines are conducting drills to be ready with the ultimate nuclear deterrent. Airmen are training to deliver ordnance on-time and precisely on-target anywhere on the globe.

These troops and all the others are highly skilled and proficient, of course, but the foundation of it all is their character. Any common criminal can learn to shoot a gun. Any warlord can give some AK-47s to a few kids and teach small-unit tactics. Any nation-state can develop capabilities to rival ours, if on a smaller scale. What they can't do, what they don't do, is ensure that those skills are put to good use, not to ill. But the United States military does.

The focus on character development starts from the very beginning. When soldiers arrive at the reception battalion, they get a "smart book" along with their haircuts, ID tags, and boots. It has technical details about their rifles, other weapons, radios, and such, but the most important stuff is the Army Values, the Warrior Ethos, and the Soldier's Creed. This is what they recite each morning at first formation.

As basic training progresses, soldiers go through training rituals familiar to many in this audience-the obstacle course, the bayonet course, the rappelling wall, the marksmanship range, and many others. The Army uses this training to teach basic soldiering skills, of course, but also to instill character. It's common at each such training site to have a vignette posted prominently about the heroic deeds of a soldier from a past war. And it's typical for the unit to read the vignette before the training begins.

All this effort at basic training is designed to teach soldiers, in words I heard time and time again from Drill Sergeant Norton, to do the hard right over the easy wrong.

Lest anyone think this is reserved for the newest and greenest soldiers, I recently had the opportunity to meet a man who had led the selection and assessment of new personnel for one of our country's most elite special-operations units. He said that their top criteria isn't speed, it isn't strength, it's not expert marksmanship or proficiency at close-quarters combat-all those things can be acquired in training. No, their number-one criterion is character. The stakes of their missions are too high and their soldiers are given so much autonomy that they must have men and women of character from day one.

It's this character of our troops as much as their battlefield successes that make the military the most respected institution in our society today. According to Gallup's most recent poll on the question, 91% of Americans have confidence in our military-and 72% have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence. Unfortunately, Congress clocks in somewhat lower, at a whopping 8%. It reminds me of the earnest woman who asked me early in my first campaign why I wanted to leave the most-respected institution in our country to join the least-respected one.

But Congress might be a little more respected if it displayed more of the character of our military-for instance, character like that displayed by Airman First Class Spencer Stone and Specialist Alek Skarlatos last August, when they stopped a deadly attack on a French train. Off-duty and not responsible for anything or anyone, they nevertheless took responsibility, subduing the attacker and saving many lives. Airman Stone, a medic, even helped save the life of a wounded passenger, despite suffering from grave wounds himself.

Bravery, initiative, teamwork, sacrifice, care for the innocent-this is the character we've come to expect from our troops, though it's no less remarkable for being expected. For generations, we've recruited the finest young men and women in America, and we've turned them into the world's finest soldiers, sailors, coastguardsmen, airmen, and Marines.

They've kept America safe. They've defended our Constitution and our freedom. They've saved millions of lives. They've gone abroad and waged war not to conquer, loot, and pillage, but to liberate, and to secure "a just, and a lasting peace" with our fellow man, in the words of the president who commanded over our most awful war.

They've done so in an unjust world. As long as mankind has thought about justice, dictators and sophists have contended that justice is merely the interest of the stronger and that, in foreign affairs especially, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. Too often, this has been the reality of our world. But, thankfully, in the world America made, the strong are also the just.

Since the days of the Pilgrims, America has been a city upon a hill, a shining beacon of justice for the world, of the natural equality and dignity of all people, and of self-government founded upon such principles.

But the city is on a hill-not an island or a fortress. It must interact with the outside world. Foreigners who see the city may grow jealous and resentful, coveting its prime territory and its riches. The citizens must leave the city and descend into the valley to draw their water and into the fields to grow their crops and cultivate their herds. They must traverse roads and build ports to cross the seas to exchange their goods for those they lack. And they will travel not only as merchants and traders, but also as tourists and missionaries.

In short, the city upon a hill will not live in splendid isolation, nor can it adopt a pacifist creed and survive. Walls will be needed, as will guards to protect those walls. An Army and a Navy must be raised to defend the borderlands, guard the valleys and the fields, secure the ports and open the sea lanes, and to protect citizens around the world.

None of this is to say the city must lose its luster. On the contrary, the city can shine even brighter for these things. The city will represent not merely an abstract ideal of justice, but also the very real commitment to defend it. For brave men and women will emerge in each generation to take up these tasks, to pick up a rifle and guard the city and its ideals. In doing so, they will inspire the just and terrify the wicked.

We each pray that our troops will not again be called into battle. Our veterans in particular seek peace, because they know the depredations of war. Yet they also know something deeper, in the words of John Stuart Mill:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

In an ugly world, full of injustice and war, America is the noblest of things. There is no more certain trumpet than the justice of America's creed, and our troops are thankfully prepared for the battle. We are grateful to them, as we are grateful to all our veterans on this Veterans Day-a day marking not a war they started, but the Great War they ended.

May we all live in peace, if not undisturbed by evil then restored by America's fighting forces. And may God keep them and care for them, in times of war and peace alike.

Thank you, God bless you, God bless America, and God bless our troops.