Remarks at a Farewell Ceremony for General John W. Vessey, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
September 30, 1985
Jack, I hope you weren't embarrassed by that uniform with the World War I helmet. The way I look at it, you're almost old enough now to run for President. [Laughter] But, as I say, Jack, don't let the uniform upset you, because, you know, we enlisted in the reserves at about the same time, and believe me, you should have seen my uniform -- I was in the horse cavalry, which brings up an important point. You know, ladies and gentlemen, I recently disclosed that the real reason I ran for President was to bring back the horse cavalry. And when I took office some people told me I was now the most powerful man in the world. So, now that you're retiring, Jack, maybe you can tell me why every time I've brought up the horse cavalry in the Oval Office, you and Cap [Secretary of Defense Weinberger] would just smile and nod and say, ``Yes, Mr. President,'' and nothing would happen. [Laughter]
Ladies and gentlemen, we're here today to honor and thank Jack Vessey for his years of service and devotion to America. As you've heard, Jack Vessey's military career has taken him right to the top: four-star general, Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army, and ultimately Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- and all of this after receiving a battlefield commission. I know Jack was proud of every rank and command he held; in each he performed with skill, competence, and devotion to duty. And yet for Jack Vessey, I suspect the title of which he was proudest was the first one he every held during his 46 -- count them -- 46 years of military service, the one he earned the day he joined the Minnesota National Guard, the title that said, ``Jack Vessey, soldier.''
General Vessey will be remembered for many things: as a battlefield hero -- you've heard today about North Africa, Monte Cassino, Anzio, and that grim night with the 2d Battalion in Vietnam; he'll be remembered as a man of patriotism and deep religious belief, an officer who brought character and credit to every billet he ever held; as a military leader who always spoke his mind to civilian authority, respectfully but candidly; as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who presided over the restoration of America's military strength and power at a moment critical to the fate of freedom and his country's security. In all these things, he bore the marks of greatness.
But there's one accomplishment that is not there in Jack Vessey's personnel file, yet it's an accomplishment that made the difference in the lives of so many GI's over so many years in so many places around the globe. Jack Vessey always remembered the soldiers in the ranks; he understood those soldiers are the backbone of any army. He noticed them, spoke to them, looked out for them. Jack Vessey never forgot what it was like to be an enlisted man, to be just a GI.
Mark J. Neal, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, remembers. In January of 1975, he was a private at Fort Carson, a member of the drill team there. He said recently that after one drill team event, he was in his residence doing dishes -- before the volunteer army, way back when Jack and I enlisted, it seems to me they had another name for doing dishes. Anyway, Mark Neal was told the commanding general wanted to see him. He was scared, of course, but he found his meeting and friendly chat with the general something he would always remember. After that, Mark Neal followed General Vessey's career. Hearing about his retirement, he wrote to him recently: ``This short meeting made a lasting impression on me. It was amazing to me that you even knew I was on the premises . . . even more amazing that you would want to meet me. That moment of thoughtfulness for a lonely enlisted man back at Fort Carson proved the truth of your reputation as a real soldier's general.'' There were many Mark Neals in Jack Vessey's career, and Jack Vessey made their lives a little easier, a little less lonely. And he made them a little prouder to wear their country's uniform and defend freedom.
Jack, in the 5 years or so that I've been doing events like this, I've learned something about people like you. A career like yours, combining as it does heroism, patriotism, competence, wisdom, and kindness, doesn't need elaboration from commanders in chief or President; it speaks enough all by itself. And today I'll let history be your valedictorian, not me.
But what I can do today is thank you. On behalf of your friends here today who've had the honor of working with you and on behalf of some others who couldn't be here -- all your fellow Americans, if they had the chance to be here, they would express their gratitude to you for making their lives and the lives of their children safer and more secure. And then, there's that other group I'm standing in for today. I know all of them would want to be remembered to you. I'm talking, of course, about those young people who wore the uniform for Jack Vessey, had the privilege of having their own GI general. So, from all of us, Jack -- your friends, your fellow Americans, but especially the soldiers who stood a little taller because of you -- thanks, thanks from a great and grateful nation. May God bless you and give you and Avis many more rich, fruitful, and happy years together.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to present to you a great soldier, a great general, a great GI -- Jack Vessey.
Note: The President spoke at 11:57 a.m. in Hangar No. 2 at Andrews Air Force Base, MD.