Those gathered in Leesburg on Friday for Loudoun’s largest Veterans Day ceremony heard from a key architect of the modern military.
Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan retired in 1995 after serving 36 years on active duty, including as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and acting Secretary of the Army. He then served as the president and chief executive of the Association of the United States Army for 18 years.
“The only thing you have to say about me is that I am an American soldier,” Sullivan told the crowd of veterans, elected officials, students and others gathered under a large tent in the yard of the former home of George C. Marshall.
Sullivan served during the conversion of the nation’s military to an all-volunteer force after the draft ended following Vietnam and he was charged with sharply reducing the Army’s roster following the end of the Cold War.
In that work, Sullivan said recalled the importance that Marshall put on military readiness, telling Congress after Hitler invaded Poland: “When there was time we had no money. Now, there’s plenty of money and I have no time to prepare ourselves for the war in which we will fight.”
That was top of his mind when Sullivan worked to deliver the “peace dividend.” Over four years, the army roster was cut by 40 percent and Sullivan said the goal of the effort was to ensure stability and maintain readiness with the scaled-down force.
“When I became chief, I wasn’t trying to make the army bigger—a million is probably enough or it was, I’m not sure it is today, but it was then—I was just trying to keep the thing pulled so we could fight and win if necessary. And I think we succeeded with that,” he said.
Sullivan said the most important element in building an all-volunteer force is to attract high-quality young Americans.
“That is still the key,” he said. “The strength of the United States of America is found in the men and women [veterans] who stood up in this room. High-quality people willing to say ‘hey, look at me, look at us’—not in a boastful way but in a real professional way,” Sullivan said. “And that’s what you have in your Armed Forces today.”
He said that the Cold War was relatively stable period even though “the threat was huge.” Also, there was bipartisan support for the national defense during that era.
Now 25 years after the Cold War, Sullivan said there are new concerns about nuclear threats and about the readiness of America’s forces.
“You ought to pay attention to what is going on in the world. We have people now talking in other parts of the world about using nuclear weapons again as if it was ‘whatever.’ It’s not ‘like whatever;’ it’s real,” he said.
“Our political leaders must remain aware of the enormous difficulties our nation faces and, frankly, we’re asking too much of too few. There are only 2 million people in uniform—that active, guard and reserve; Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—and that’s not enough,” he said.
Sullivan said that few in history have been called upon as much as today’s military men and women.
He pointed to a line from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 speech at the Democratic National Commission: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
“What he is doing is predicting what would happen to the young men and women of the ’30s who would become the greatest generation,” Sullivan said. “The generation of soldiers who have joined any service since the early ’90s have been at war or conflict ever since. The Balkans, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan—and it goes on and on and on—Korea, China, Russia and terrorism, religious-based ideological terror.
“These soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have faced a rendezvous with destiny and you are surrounded by heroes. Surrounded by heroes who are serving each and every day.”
But seven decades after World War II, Sullivan said it was still Gen. Marshall’s policies about military readiness that guide military leaders. He commended the work being done at the George C. Marshall International Center.
“George Marshall sets the tone, sets the pace to this day,” he said. “What are doing here in this house is more important than you realize. It transcends Leesburg. It’s America and its an American soldier who later went on to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. We don’t always fight; don’t want to fight. We would prefer to deter war. George Marshall led the way. Thanks to each and every one of you for what you have done here with this facility.”
The event was attended by newly re-elected Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall, and Leesburg Mayor Dave Butler, among other elected officials.