Navy Adm. Mike Mullen drew quite the laughs at the expense of political elites here last night at the annual Alfred E. Smith Foundation dinner, but still managed acclaim for the 2.2 million military members in his charge.
"I accept this kind of invitation for, and only, on behalf of the 2.2 million men and women serving in uniform today," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in his keynote address. "As we dine here tonight in comfort and fine company, more than 250,000 of them are deployed around the world, keeping peace and keeping watch over our freedom and our national interests.
"They are the finest military this or any nation has yet produced, and they are, after eight long years of war, still defending us magnificently."
Mullen, the services' senior officer and military advisor to the president and defense secretary, is in the forefront of the Afghanistan strategy debate. Despite increased violence there and waning American support for the war, he urged the gathering of business people, celebrity journalists and politicians to stand by their soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.
"Please continue standing up for them," the admiral said. "It is right that we do so. War is an ugly, messy, bloody business, and no one in uniform, no matter high or low in the chain of command, welcomes the task of waging it."
The chairman, who has spent 41 years in uniform, reflected on his early years of service as a Vietnam War veteran. He said he never wants another servicemember to experience humility and disgrace when wearing their uniform.
"As a Vietnam vet, I have lived and served in a time when America walked away from her military, when wearing the uniform was the last thing you wanted to do in public," he said. "No returning warrior should ever feel that scorn again.
"The men and women of your armed forces are the best we have ever had, and they believe in what they are doing for you," he continued. "All I ask is that you continue to believe in them."
While Mullen expressed much appreciation and gratitude for servicemembers, he also offered a bit of good-natured humor -- a trademark of the annual dinner.
He poked fun at the similarities in his haircut and that of CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, and at the confusion most people have when he tries to explain his role at the Pentagon.
"To be fair, the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is often misunderstood and more than a little confusing," Mullen said. "I am the nation's most senior military officer, but I do not command any troops ... and I am not responsible for any particular region of the world."
Mullen went on to say that his job is simply to give advice to the nation's leaders. "I make suggestions. I prod, and I poke. I advocate. I'm like a Fox News analyst," he joked.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan hosted the 64th annual dinner at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It honors Smith, the former four-term New York governor and the first Catholic presidential candidate selected by a major party.
Smith was the Democratic candidate who lost the 1928 election to Herbert Hoover. Smith died in 1944, and the foundation was established the next year. The dinner has raised millions of dollars for children's health care in New York.
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service