President Obama paid a visit to the Naval Base in Jacksonville, Florida today to thank the servicemen and women for their hard work and sacrifice. But addressing a friendly crowd of 3,500 – the President took the opportunity to push back against critics, most recently former Vice President Dick Cheney who accused the President of "dithering" over the US military strategy in Afghanistan.
"I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," the President said. "I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done."
But he acknowledged that the job is complicated and dangerous, as illustrated today by the death of 14 Americans who died today in Afghanistan as a result of two separate helicopter crashes. The President directly referenced their sacrifice. "They were willing to risk their lives, in this case, to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and its extremist allies," said the President. "And today, they gave their lives to protect ours. Now, it is our duty, as a nation, to keep their memory alive in our hearts and to carry on their work."
President Obama praised specific missions undertaken by many of the Naval airmen and Marines in attendance, including the rescue mission and safe return of Captain Richard Phillips who was held hostage by Somali pirates earlier this year. "Your dedication to duty is humbling. Your love of country is inspiring. The American people thank you for your service. We honor you for your sacrifices. And just as you have fulfilled your responsibilities to your nation, your nation will fulfill its responsibilities to you." To that end, the President told the crowd that his administration has committed to providing for military men, women and their families.
In closing, the President recounted the story of Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher who disappeared in the Persian Gulf War. Speicher was missing for 18 years before his remains were found and returned to his family here in Jacksonville, Florida. The President praised the community here for the way they welcomed Speicher home.
"That's the spirit we see here today. You, men and women devoted to each other—and to your country. A proud country devoted to you. And the example you set for us all: that if you can come together—from every corner of America, every color and creed, every background and belief—to take care of each other, to serve together, to succeed together, then so can we. So can America."
President Obama met privately with Speicher's widow and children before the event, along with other "Gold Star" families who have made the "ultimate sacrifice."
Afterwards the President met with the 11 United States Navy and Marine Corps personnel, who were selected for "high achievement and excellence in performing their duties." Three sailors in the group recently volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq.