I really love West Virginia.
One of my favorite books is Rocket Boys, by Vietnam Veteran and NASA engineer Homer Hickam Jr. He’s from Coalwood, just a couple of mountain ranges south of here. Some of you may have read it.
At the end of the book, Homer says, “A rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse.”
If you’re going to get something done, you need leaders willing to light a few fuses. There are some folks here tonight who’ve lit a few fuses in their day.
Joe Manchin is one. Thanks, Joe, for inviting me to join you and your friends this evening. Thank you for your deep devotion to Veterans and their families here in West Virginia and across the Nation.
Veterans have no better friend than Senator Joe Manchin. As co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Veterans Job Caucus and the Post 9/11 Veterans Caucus, Joe’s gotten pledges from businesses to hire tens of thousands of Veterans and military spouses. He’s cosponsored legislation that’s been key to nationwide efforts to help homeless Veterans.
Thanks to him and over 2,000 partners at the local and state level across the country, we’ve seen a 33 percent reduction in Veteran homelessness and a 40 percent reduction in chronic homelessness among Veterans.
Thanks to the work of people like Joe, communities have housed more than 200,000 homeless Veterans—many with family members—and provided services to more than 260,000 homeless or at-risk Veterans.
Thanks to innovative solutions like Transition in Place grants, over 72,500 Veterans were either placed in permanent housing or prevented from becoming homeless—that’s more than 100,000 people when we include Veterans’ families.
So, Joe, thank you for your work for Veterans.
And, everyone, thank you for your warm welcome to West Virginia.
Let me recognize Medal of Honor Recipient Chief Warrant Officer “Woody” Williams. Thank you, Chief, for your incredible feats of courage that inspired fellow Marines and won the day on Iwo Jima over seventy years ago.
Your story is inspirational. It will continue to inspire generations of young men and women defending the freedom and liberty your Greatest Generation preserved. And, thanks, as well, for your compassion and your immense devotion to and advocacy for Veterans, their families, and Gold Star Families.
Finally, thanks to Barry Hogue and all the 82d Airborne Division paratroopers for presenting me their coin. It’s no secret—I’m immensely proud to be an All American paratrooper. And to another member of the Greatest Generation of All Americans, Don Jennings, thanks for being here. I know you drove a long, long way.
I’m honored to join all of you in recognizing Sergeant Willie James Lewis.
Sergeant Lewis, God bless you. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice and, as well, your own inspiring example. Let me thank, as well, members of Sergeant Lewis’ family. We will not forget the tremendous sacrifices military families make on behalf of the Nation.
The privilege, opportunity, and freedom Americans cherish is won for us, defended for us, and preserved for us and future generations only by heroes like Sergeant Lewis.
This evening, there’s instability in many regions around the globe. There are imposing national and international security challenges that our country may face in the future.
Taking inventory of the state of world affairs, a great American leader concluded, “. . . forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history.”
But in spite of the great challenges we may face—and even as we stand guard of the liberty we enjoy—we can very justifiably nurture an abiding sense of hope.
There are men and women of tremendous courage and unwavering conviction who will do their duty when called. They will honorably emulate Sergeant Lewis’ example and, if called, share in his sacrifices.
We’re blessed to be surrounded by Veterans like him tonight. I’m honored to meet them, to thank them, to work for them every day.
In serving our Nation’s Veterans, I’ve got the best job in the world: working to fulfill the most noble mission.
It’s our mission—yours, mine, and all Americans: to care for those who have “borne the battle,” and their families and survivors.
It was President Eisenhower in his 1953 first inaugural address a few months before Sergeant Lewis was captured who described that “the forces of good and evil are massed.”
In that same address, President Eisenhower reminded that “a soldier’s pack is not so heavy a burden as a prisoner’s chains.”
Well, Sergeant Lewis and his fellow Veterans know the great weight of the soldier’s pack. They know the weight of responsibility that they carried in defending the Nation—sometimes in not just one conflict, but in two.
Thankfully, fewer have had to endure what Ike described as the “heavy . . . burden . . . [of] a prisoner’s chains.” And, because of Sergeant Lewis and other Veterans like him, none of us ever will.
Sergeant Willie Lewis, thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. And thank you for your inspiration.
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We hope you enjoy these images from the 2023 Alumni Parade and Distinguished Graduate Award Ceremony at West Point.