By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
May 22, 2009 - In accepting the 2009 Intrepid Freedom Award here last night, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said it really belongs to the nation's servicemembers and wounded warriors. "These wounded warriors, and all of the men and women who step forward to wear America's uniform, are tonight's real honorees and heroes," Gates said after accepting the award from retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft. "Consider that nearly 800 have received Silver Stars or service crosses, along with five Medals of Honor – all of these posthumous – for valor in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Our men and women in uniform are part of what is being called a new 'Greatest Generation,'" he added.
Gates related the stories of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brady Gustafson and Army Spc. Zachary Boyd.
He said the HBO film "Taking Chance," based on the return of Phelps' remains to his hometown for burial profoundly influenced his decision to empower families to decide whether the dignified transfers of fallen servicemembers' remains at Dover Air Force Base, Del., should be open to the news media.
"The entire nation has thus been given the opportunity to pay respect and homage to our fallen heroes – if their families so wish," Gates said.
Phelps, 19, was a private first class conducting convoy escort as a member of the 1st Marine Division's 2nd Platoon, Battery L, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, when he was injured April 9, 2004, outside Ramadi, Iraq. He refused to be evacuated and manned his gun to cover the evacuation of the rest of his convoy. He suffered a fatal head wound as he withdrew from the engagement. He was promoted to lance corporal posthumously.
Gustafson outlasted an estimated 100 Taliban fighters despite his badly wounded right leg, Gates said.
"With his right leg in shreds, Corporal Gustafson kept firing, and as a result, in his words, 'We didn't lose a single Marine,'" the secretary said. "He received the Navy Cross and a deserved place – along with the celebrities, politicians and CEOs – among Time magazine's 100 most influential people."
Adding a bit of humor, Gates turned the spotlight on Boyd's dedication and bravery under somewhat exposed conditions.
Boyd was sleeping at his post in eastern Afghanistan when it came under fire. He grabbed his rifle and, clad in his helmet, body armor and pink boxer shorts that said "I Love New York," took up a defensive position.
"Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip flops has a special kind of courage," Gates said. "Just imagine seeing that – a guy in pink boxers and flip-flops has you in his crosshairs. What an incredible innovation in psychological warfare."
The appreciation for these heroes and the thousands more like them is evident across the country, but not always as evident as in the nation's airports, the secretary noted. In Dallas-Fort Worth, a man alerted waiting passengers that a planeload of troops was arriving after their tour in Afghanistan. Virtually everyone there "stampeded down the stairs to applaud" them, Gates said.
"This is the kind of thing one sees in cities and towns across the country," he added. "The appreciation is real. It is sincere, and it bridges any political divide.
"Our men and women in uniform – our heroes – deserve no less," he said.
Gates is in good company as the recipient of the Intrepid Defense of Freedom Award. It's also been presented to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and four U.S. presidents. The award was presented during the Intrepid's 18th Annual Salute to Freedom, held each year during New York's Fleet Week. The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum's board of trustees oversees a family of foundations that support servicemembers and their families, including Fisher House Foundation, the Intrepid Relief Fund and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.