Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates Speaks at the Military Child Education Coalition Conference

GRAPEVINE, Texas — GATES: Thanks, Beth, for that kind introduction. From consoling the wounded to comforting families, Beth Chiarelli has served this nation in countless ways. She has also moved the Chiarelli family more than 25 times in over 30 years of marriage. That alone should qualify you for a medal with oak leaf clusters – though whether for family mobility or being married to Pete, I’m not sure.

As Beth said, General Pete Chiarelli has been my senior military assistant for the last 16 months. He has provided wise counsel on just about everything that has crossed my desk; he has traveled with me from Bagram to Baghdad and beyond. He has always been an honest broker to make sure that I see and hear what I need to do this job. Pete is known Army-wide for his personal commitment to and compassion for the soldiers who followed him through fire as a senior commander in Iraq – twice. I can’t help but praise – and therefore embarrass – this good and trusted friend by saying how much I’ll miss him when he moves in just over a week to become the Army’s next vice chief of staff. Pete is the right leader at the right time for this demanding job. And our soldiers are truly fortunate to have you leading from the front, Pete.

It’s also good to see General Ward again. Thank you, Kip, for your service at Africom and your support for this wonderful effort.

It is great to be here today among so many people involved with military children. After retiring as director of CIA in 1993, I soon became involved with young people beyond my own. I became president of the National Eagle Scout Association in 1996, interim dean of the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M in 1999, president of Texas A&M in 2002, and secretary of defense in 2006.

So, over the last 15 years, I’ve learned a lot about young people beyond what my own taught me. For example, the humorist Robert Orben once said, “Never raise your hand to your child – it leaves your midsection unprotected.” Or President Truman who said, “the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

In all seriousness, the accomplishments of young people in history have always fascinated me. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was 21 when he gave a speech that put Martin Luther on trial. Richard II of England was 14 when he put down a rebellion with a speech. Rossini first wrote an opera when he was 14. Pascal inscribed his essay on conic sections at 16, and Alexander Hamilton was George Washington’s aide at 20.

Today, our children may not be emperors or kings, but their potential – and their deeds – can be just as inspiring. Our military children are awesome, just as their parents are. But they have extra hurdles to clear, burdens to bear – repeated moves, the absence of a parent at war, an injured parent, or the loss of a parent.

Many of our men and women in uniform will tell you they fight for our country, but they also fight to keep their children – and all children – safe.

And this is why the extraordinary efforts of local communities and groups like this, which support military families, are so vitally important. You give our fighting men and women peace of mind because they know what you are doing for them and for their families – helping to mitigate the effects of these sacrifices on their children – helping to make sure their children can reach their full potential.

And so, I have come here to thank organizations like the Military Child Education Coalition, which have done so much to help those in uniform and their families. Congratulations on celebrating your 10th year and your many successful programs, among them:

  • “Parent-to-Parent,” which has trained more than 26,000 moms and dads on how to become a child’s strongest advocate;
  • “Student-to-Student” is now active in 164 high schools and 43 middle schools around the country;
  • “Space Camp Scholarship” has enabled hundreds of kids to learn about space exploration. For those who don’t know, it was created in memory of a sailor’s 11-year-old son who died aboard the aircraft flown into the Pentagon on September 11th; and
  • Your “Living the New Normal Program” has helped countless children wrestling with the unseen scars that result from the loss or injury of a parent.

Overall, organizations such as M.C.E.C. have embraced the nearly two million children whose parents serve in the armed forces. And for that, I thank you.

Today we are engaged in the longest war with an all-volunteer force since the American Revolution. A greater percentage of moms and dads are serving in this conflict than in any time in recent history. More specifically, 44 percent of the active duty force and 42 percent of the Guard and Reserves are parents. A generation of children has had a parent deployed for war at least once – if not multiple times. The empty seat at the dinner table night after night is a constant reminder of a child’s worry for the safety of his or her parents. And there is also the grief and the heartbreak when a loved one is injured or killed – the grim reality of war.

Even in peacetime, military kids also face special circumstances, such as moving every time mom or dad gets a new assignment. During their Kindergarten through 12th-grade years, they may attend anywhere from six to nine different schools, in addition to the “regular” transitions between grammar, middle, and high school. Most teenagers of military parents will attend at least two high schools before graduating.

Our military parents know that their service today will pay dividends for our children tomorrow. When the nation calls them to difficult and dangerous places, they do so freely knowing that they are protecting the loved ones they’ve left behind. Perhaps children understand this fact the best. Said one teenager: “My father doesn’t do an everyday job.” His dad is currently deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan.

Because of the unique way the husbands and wives, the sons and daughters of our all-volunteer force serve this nation, we have a sacred responsibility to care for them. To that end, the Department of Defense has on its own created new initiatives.

There is the Army Family Covenant that General Casey spoke about earlier this morning – which is already improving quality of life of Army families at more than 100 posts.

Last November, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and I launched the Military Spouse Career Advancement Initiative. More than $35 million has been invested in the project’s initial demonstration phase, which began in January, and includes 18 military installations in eight key states. This initiative will help military spouses obtain the professional training, licenses, and certificates they need to have high-growth, portable careers in fields such as technology and health care. The wife of an Army staff sergeant at Fort Carson, Colorado, aptly summed up the program, saying, “Your career can travel with you … [and] you won’t have to worry about what your next job will be.” So far, more than 2,000 military spouses have enrolled.

Last month, Defense and the Department of Education signed an agreement to ease the strain on families as overseas units moving back home in accordance with the Base Realignment and Closure Act. The agreement will help military students make smoother transitions between schools and will teach them coping skills to deal with the stress of deployed parents. This effort is the culmination of years of informal partnering between the two departments and represents, in the words of one military father, “one less worry” when moving across the country to a new post.

Likewise, I applaud the governors who have joined the “Interstate Compact on Education Opportunity for Military Children.” This compact, now signed into law in 10 states, eases school transitions for military kids by standardizing record transfers, course placement, and graduation requirements, among other things. Initiatives like this help ensure our military children receive the quality education that they deserve.

I’d also like to mention the new provisions of the Montgomery GI Bill. You’re aware of the increased benefits. But for the first time, these benefits may be passed on to a spouse or child if troops opt not to use them. I first heard of the idea of transferring GI Bill benefits during a meeting I had with military spouses at Fort Hood. One spouse asked about this possibility, and I passed along her idea and it next appeared as a proposal in President Bush’s State of the Union Address in January. And then last month, thanks to the support of Congress, the President signed it into law. Transferring educational benefits to a service member’s spouse or child underscores the monumental importance of “the power behind the power” – the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of our men and women in uniform. It also demonstrates our nation’s gratitude.

I have seen that gratitude in airports around the country, when Americans applaud those returning from Afghanistan or Iraq. There are warm thank you’s and rounds of drinks – at least we hope for the over 21s. Recently a woman from Jefferson, Oregon, wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune about such kindness. Her son had just finished Navy boot camp. To celebrate, he and some buddies went to Wrigley Field to attend a Cubs game, but they found that ticket prices, $75 each, were too steep. Seeing their disappointment, a stranger graciously bought tickets for the young sailors. Throughout the game, others picked up the tab for drinks, hot dogs, and even some famous Chicago-style pizza.

America’s children are also showing their own appreciation to military members in a thousand different ways. For instance:

  • A 13-year-old organized a “Freedom Walk” in his hometown of Paramus, New Jersey;
  • Three elementary school kids in Virginia, clearly future philanthropists, opened a lemonade stand to help raise money to help wounded Marines and sailors; and
  • Girl Scout troops in New York sold about 10,000 boxes of cookies earmarked for U.S. troops serving overseas. In case you’re wondering, I would note that Thin Mints and Somoas were the biggest sellers.

Then there was the story of a fourth-grade lacrosse team, “The Gray Sweeties,” who dedicated their 2006 season to U.S. airmen. They were led by one young girl who wanted to support her brother and his unit, the 43rd Logistics Readiness Squadron at Pope Air Force Base. The team’s hometown, Garden City, New York, lost nearly 30 people during the attack on the World Trade Center. So throughout the season, the girls proudly wore the squadron patch on their lacrosse uniforms as a way to thank our service members. And to this day, a picture of “The Gray Sweeties” hangs in the office of the 43rd LRS.

And that brings me to my final thought today: Our troops, volunteers all, are the heart and soul of this nation. They joined up to leave the world as a better place for all children. This really hit home with me two weeks ago when visiting wounded warriors at Madigan at Fort Lewis. I had the opportunity to greet and congratulate two new military mothers – their babies less than 24 hours old. Our men and women in uniform are giving something very special to future generations: a legacy of service before self. They are a force for good in the world.

The Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France once said, “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” I thank all of you not only for your acts on behalf of our military children, but for your dreams for them; not only for your plans for them but also for believing in them.

Thank you.