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Celebrating the Fundamental Spirit of America -- and Honoring Those Who Defend It

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I wrote a book several years ago documenting the true story about the extraordinary bravery of so called ordinary Americans serving together aboard an aircraft carrier. Pilots of two small planes struck the carrier in the most devastating suicide attack before September 11th. Four-hundred ninety-three Americans died that day aboard the USS Bunker Hill. For many analysts the attack became a symbol of America's vulnerability to asymmetrical warfare. For me though, the great lesson of that fight is America's Secret Weapon.

I slept last night aboard perhaps the finest aircraft carrier in the United States' Navy -- the USS John C. Stennis. I say finest not because she is the fastest (she isn't) nor the newest (she isn't) nor that she carries the most aircraft, employs the strongest planes, the best engines, or any of the things that most analysts might use to determine the power and capability of a ship.

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She does however have the finest crew that I have ever encountered. In the final analysis, it is the people who make up the U.S. Navy which makes this force the most powerful that has existed in the history of the world. Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi had initially opposed civil rights legislation. Later in his life though he supported the extension of the voting rights act and campaigned for Mike Espy, the first African American congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction. It was particularly moving to see the completely integrated crew -- black and white, men and women, gays and straights, all working together -- a sign that America is not perfect but it is always trying to fix its mistakes and do better.

Aircraft carriers are the backbone of the Navy. The entire defensive strategy for the United States is centered around the power and authority of these great ships.

A Navy ship is sovereign territory of the United States wherever it travels. When you step aboard a Navy ship in any harbor in any port in the world, you are immediately returned to America.

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This means of course that carriers give us a way of having air bases all over the world -- anywhere we want -- without having to ask permission from the Europeans, or anyone else. We don't have to follow any rules beyond our own moral values when a carrier is sent to the Middle East.

There is no question that America's future depends on freedom of the seas -- every resource from oil to consumer goods must be assured of safe travel between nations. Carriers are best able to assure that freedom because their Air Group can sink any vessel long before it comes within range to damage the carrier. No American carrier has been fired on in more than sixty years. It is good to have a big stick.

The carrier force is flexible, fast, nimble yet still the most powerful that has ever existed. A few years ago the Stennis was dispatched to Japan where her aircrews delivered massive amounts of food and medicine, and helped to find hundreds of Japanese citizens lost in the Tsunami. Less than a week later the same carrier steamed to the Arabian Sea and those same airmen killed one of the most dangerous terrorists in Afghanistan. That single ship shines as all that is good and all that is strong about America.

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But the real strength of the Stennis is rarely seen. I wish that every American could spend a day aboard an aircraft carrier. If we could, the debate about Naval spending would end. The Navy today is so different from the Navy that I grew up with 25 years ago. Then, the separation between Officers and sailors jarred any visitor. Many seaman then joined the Navy as a last chance at redemption.

Today's Navy is filled with young men and women who have joined to serve their country and to better their chances at a fully lived life. A great many have graduated college and a remarkable number have earned advanced degrees. I will never forget the young sailor I saw briefly in a mess hall. She sat alone at a table, after finishing an eleven hour shift, coffee to her right staring into a two inch deep textbook of organic chemistry.

The Navy is still a place where young people are given a second chance. But discipline is no longer a serious issue aboard the carriers. A spirit of service and excellence abounds. The Stennis is cleaner than any ship I have ever stepped foot aboard. And officers told me, universally, that peer pressure more than any other factor guides the crew. They come aboard with whatever problems, challenges, issues and questions that young people across America face. But these sailors are enveloped by a group of supportive peers, guided by leaders who care, and dedicated to making their ship and their country better than it ever has been. Their spirit is infectious. Foreign visitors come away invigorated, and young people from every background, once they experience the spirit of life on a carrier, want to become part of it.

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Five thousand young men and women work aboard the carrier -- cooking meals, delivering mail, organizing prayer, moving bombs, cleaning toilets, managing supplies, working together in a complex ballet that culminates on the flight deck when the ship, for hours each day, lands and launches more aircraft than Logan airport.

Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette symbolizes the spirit of the new Navy. He leads the carrier battle group and is responsible with Captain Ronald Reiss, the Commanding Officer of the Stennis and Captain Jeffrey C. Graf, her Executive Officer, and Command Master Chief Stanley L. Jewett for the remarkable spirit aboard that ship.

I spoke at some length with Admiral Gaouette about the remarkable crew of the Stennis. Gauette summed up all of the hope that I have for this country when he stated, "Imagine if we could set free a similar desire to belong to something greater than one's self across the country. To create this same bubbling pot drawing our youth to exert themselves toward something that is meaningful... this thought comes to me every time I watch that "ballet" on the flight deck... of what might be."

This is our Secret Weapon. When we can develop a program which will harness the love of country and dedication to excellence that the new Navy has fostered, no terrorist will threaten us. If we can bring the spirit of youth in America, which I saw aboard that ship, across the seas to nations that do not understand what it means to be American, the anger, hatred, rage and misplaced resentment will fade away.

I know this is possible because I have seen it. I interviewed more than one hundred Japanese pilots who had planned and intended to crash their aircraft against American ships. My hope is summed in one episode. A Japanese suicide pilot shot down by an American carrier was taken to the ship's hospital. Ashamed of his capture, he tried to kill himself by biting down on his tongue to choke on his own blood. The ship's surgeon began examining him, and the POW vomited on the doctor's chest. Without reacting, the doctor continued listening through the stethoscope, while an orderly wiped off his chest.

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If he had vomited on a Japanese doctor at that time, the prisoner would likely have been severely beaten. In that one moment of kindness, he realized that everything he had been told about America had been a lie. This man became a life-long supporter of the United States. Every single one of the former kamikaze pilots whom I interviewed are now overwhelming supporters of America. Universally they realized, through direct experience with Americans, that we are a good people fundamentally interested in bettering the lives of our children and, where possible of helping others.

On this July 4th, the anniversary of our independence, let us all remember that we remain dependent on the spirit of young Americans, determined to serve. And let us dedicate ourselves to ensuring that these brave men and women will have every resource necessary to remain safe as they protect us.

I know that we are citizens of the greatest country in the world. It is not our resources nor our achievements, but the fundamental spirit of America; the imagination, discipline, dedication to excellence and generosity, particularly of our young people that continues to make this country great.

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