Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel honored the legacy and memory of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Pentagon’s annual MLK Day observance.
Joining the secretary to give the event’s keynote speech was Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson, who lost both legs above the knee and suffered severe arm and hand injuries during his third deployment to Iraq. Gadson now serves as garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, Va.
King was an American pastor, activist, humanitarian and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement who was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. In 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.
“The rights that make America free, rights that this department protects and defends, come with heavy responsibilities like taking care of our people, looking out for one another, and lending a hand to those in need. Martin Luther King knew that,” Hagel told the audience.
King knew that no matter how one serves, the secretary added, service is ultimately about people, and hope for a better life and a better world, and “through all the struggles and sacrifices turning that hope into reality.”
King “was a man of vision, a man of passion, a man of commitment” who left a powerful legacy, the secretary said.
He dedicated his life to a cause larger than his own self-interest, a cause that would spread across our nation and around the globe,” Hagel said of the late civil rights leader.
Then Hagel addressed Gadson.
What ... your life has represented, what you continue to do for this country is pretty special. ... Your sacrifices, I think we all agree, define the power of the human spirit and we are especially honored to have you here today, on this day, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.”
Hagel said he was serving in Vietnam in 1968 with his brother Tom when he heard about King’s death.
“Everyone was silent,” the secretary recalled. The tragedy, he said, threatened to deepen a racial divide that was already hurting the morale and effectiveness of his unit and others in Vietnam.
“I recall the courage of our company commander in Vietnam, [Army] Lt. Jerome Johnson. He was a 23-year-old African American from Chicago who was drafted into the Army. He went to [Officer Candidate School]. Soon thereafter he was in Vietnam. His older brother had been killed in Vietnam the year before,” Hagel added.
Johnson was one of the most effective leaders Hagel had ever seen, the secretary said, and at a time when racial problems plagued the Army in
Vietnam, Johnson brought black and white soldiers together.
“He made clear to all of us that this was everybody’s fight, that we were going to fight together, that we were all Americans,” Hagel said. “Today, 45 years later, Lt. Johnson’s words still ring very true.”
Everyone in the Pentagon and the department knows that serving together means fighting together, he added, and that military members serve knowing that diversity is at the heart of each service’s strength.
“As Dr. King said, ‘Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve ... You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.’”
Hagel said Gadson is an example of that.
“Even after he sacrificed so much for his country, he refused to let adversity keep him down,” Hagel said of Gadson. “Instead, he continued to serve because, as he once said, ‘Our lives should not be about what’s in it for ourselves, but really what we have to offer to our society.’”
After Hagel and his brother returned from Vietnam, he said he lost touch with Lt. Johnson and tried unsuccessfully for years to find him.
“But I found that it’s easier to find people when you’re Secretary of Defense,” Hagel said to laughter from the audience, “and last week, after 45 years, Lt. Johnson and I finally reconnected. It was a humbling moment for me.”
Hagel said Johnson was one of the best military officers he’s ever known, but first he was a remarkable human being who believed all people should be treated equally and with respect, just as King and Gadson have lived that belief.
“Today as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday and as we serve our nation and each other, let us recommit ourselves to realizing Martin Luther King’s vision — the vision of Col. Gadson, of Lt. Johnson, and of all who believe in our country, and all who believe in each other,” the secretary said.