FORT BLISS, Texas, May 1, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates honored military service yesterday at two very different ceremonies: one as 105 soldiers enlisted, re-enlisted and retired here, and another earlier in the day in Mexico City commemorating Mexican World War II veterans who served in the Philippines.
“Today’s ceremony captures the spirit of America’s all-volunteer Army, as some individuals leave our military family while others step forward to fill the ranks,” Gates told the soldiers and soon-to-be-soldiers and their families gathered at the Fort Bliss Museum and Study Center.
“All of you heard the call to serve this nation, and like thousands of your fellow citizens, I am grateful for your service,” he said.
Gates recognized the 28 retiring soldiers, noting their collective 499 years of service. “Today, we say farewell to a group of loyal and devoted soldiers,” he said.
“Each of you is familiar with the hardships and sacrifices of wearing the uniform,” he said, citing long deployments away from loved ones and difficult and dangerous missions many have faced. “Despite these challenges, you served with honor and distinction,” he said, earning the “sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with defending this great country.”
“You did your part well, and you have much to be proud of,” he said.
Gates extended his thanks to the family members, recognizing them as key to their soldier’s success. “Whether moving the family to a new post or acclimating children to a new school, you serve in a thousand special ways that often go unrecognized,” Gates said. “We all appreciate your quiet and faithful service.”
The secretary then turned his attention to the 32 re-enlisting soldiers and 45 new recruits, thanking them for choosing to serve when their nation needs them. The decision reflects “true strength of character and love of country,” he said.
He cited one of the enlisting soldiers, Ammar S. Jebur Almeshab, a former soldier in the Iraqi army who served as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Baghdad. Almeshab interpreted for Army Maj. Robert McCormick, a Fort Bliss soldier who helped him get a visa to come to the United States, and ultimately to join the Army.
“Thank you for helping so many American soldiers in Baghdad,” Gates told him at the ceremony. “I am pleased to welcome you to our ranks.”
Before administering the oath of enlistment, Gates told the soldiers they were joining “the finest enlisted corps in the world,” and encouraged them to follow the lead of their noncommissioned officers. Gates said it was clear to him 40 years ago as a second lieutenant at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., and even more so now that “NCOs make things happen.”
Soldiers at today’s ceremony called the secretary’s presence a special tribute as they begin new milestones in their lives.
Among them was Staff Sgt. Monique Kennedy of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery Garrison, who waited nervously in her chair in the minutes leading up to the ceremony. After 22 years of service, she admitted to being a bit nervous about taking the next step in her life, but also excited about the possibilities as she returns to school to study nursing.
Kennedy called getting the opportunity to meet the secretary at her retirement ceremony “unbelievable.”
“You never get to meet certain people in your career, and here I am, finally getting to do that,” she said. “He’s done a lot for the military. It’s wonderful that he’s here for us.”
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Seimers of 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, said he was delighted that his wife and six children could see Gates honor him as he retired after 21 years of service. “It’s pretty neat to have him actually come to a ceremony you’re part of,” he said.
The re-enlisting soldiers, all with combat deployments under their belts, and new recruits who say they joined the Army recognizing they’re likely to deploy, said they were honored to have the secretary of defense administer their oath of enlistment.
Sgt. Johnny Ibarra said he had no misgivings about re-enlisting for four years, despite the near certainty that he’ll deploy again into a combat zone. “I don’t mind. I’ve been there before, and I’ll do it again,” he said. Ibarra said his family is “100 percent behind” him, and that his wife is considering joining the Army, too.
With “hash marks” on his Class A dress uniform denoting 18 years of service, Staff Sgt. Mark Espindola of Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 6th Brigade Air Defense Artillery, re-enlisted today for the final time. Like his fellow soldiers, Espindola said he knows he’ll deploy again – “without a doubt.”
He called Gates’ presence at his re-enlistment ceremony “a real honor,” but said he’s especially happy for the recognition the secretary gave the retiring soldiers. “They paved the way for the rest of us,” he said. “Hopefully someday, it will be us who have paved the way for those who come behind us.”
Seventeen-year-old Amber Mejia and 18-year-old Joseph Montoia, both high school seniors, were among the 45 new enlistees who will follow in Espindola’s and his fellow soldiers’ footsteps.
Both say they followed family tradition by joining the Army, and both are headed off to basic training soon after their upcoming high school graduations. Mejia leaves for basic training June 17, after which she will serve out her five-year-enlistment as a human intelligence collector. Montoia signed up for six years of duty as a chemical operations specialist, and will go off to basic training May 29.
Both Mejia and Montoia said they recognize that they’ll deploy to a combat zone, but said it’s something they accepted when he enlisted. “It comes with the job,” Montoia said.
While tradition got them to consider the Army, both said a sense of duty drove them to actually commit themselves to serve. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself,” Montoia said. “I’m excited about it,” agreed Mejia. “Anything for my country.”
As they sat waiting for the ceremony to begin, both shared the same blend of excitement and jitters, particularly knowing that Gates was about to swear them into the Army.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking,” Montoia admitted. Mejia took a different view. “I’m very excited and honored,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Earlier, Gates honored Mexican World War II veterans who served with the Allies in the Philippines during a wreath-laying ceremony at the 201st Fighter Squadron Memorial in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park.
Thirty-one squadron pilots served in the Philippines during the closing days of the war. Seven died, five in the Philippines and two in training. They flew Thunderbolt aircraft, which Mexican Air Force Col. Carlos Garduno, president of the 201st Fighter Squadron Association, described as the “biggest, heaviest fighter in the war in those days.” Garduno said its sheer bulk kept the aircraft in the air even after they were hit by anti-aircraft weapons. “We still flew when others couldn’t,” he said proudly.
Garduno is among just five living squadron veterans of the conflict, and one of three who attended this morning’s ceremony. He expressed thanks that Gates took time to recognize the squadron’s service and those killed, particularly so long after the war’s end. “Our contribution was very small, but very significant,” he said. “We don’t want that to be forgotten.”
Gates told reporters after the ceremony he was honored to meet the living pilots. “I appreciate their service and sacrifice,” he said. “It was a wonderful ceremony.”