By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
April 14, 2010 - A military adage says the reason servicemembers take up arms in combat is on behalf of fellow troops to their right and their left. But before an audience comprised of surviving families of fallen troops last night, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, suggested an additional factor motivating troops.
"The reason our troopers don body armor and a Kevlar helmet and go outside the wire day after day is because of their fierce determination not to let down their comrades on their left and right," he said, "and because of their fierce determination not to let down those who, like you and your loved ones, have given so much in the course of serving our country."
Petraeus delivered the keynote address at an annual gala sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which provides support to surviving spouses and families of fallen troops. Founded in 1994, TAPS has raised $1 million from private donors so far in 2010, which will help to fund grief counseling and other seminars that have benefited more than 25,000 families to date, officials said.
"There is arguably no organization more deserving of our thanks than TAPS, which does so much, of course, to help the families of our fallen comrades," Petraeus said. "From counseling resources to peer networks, from grief camps for kids to survivor seminars for adults, TAPS provides an impressive array of vital support for our families. So ... thanks for all that TAPS Nation does for our military families when they most need assistance."
Speaking to the audience gathered at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium here, the general said servicemembers derive courage from those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country, and those survivors who maintain the memory of those who passed.
"Our troopers find strength and inspiration in the memory of those with whom they have served, in the heroism of our fallen," he said, "and in you, the military families who have borne terrible losses with such courage and grace."
Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq whose area of operation now includes Afghanistan as well, said he is deeply touched by notes and letters he receives from surviving families in response to letters of condolence he has sent.
Less than three weeks after Army Pfc. Peter Kyle Cross died after his vehicle rolled over in Afghanistan last summer, Petraeus received a letter from Cross' mother, which the general read last night.
"Though I suffer indescribable grief over his death," Cross' mother wrote, "I am consoled by the fact that Peter loved the Army and loved serving our country. As with so many of his comrades (actually, ALL of them), he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, pushing fear aside."
Petraeus said the letter embodied the mother's courage and grace – a reminder of the fallen soldier and the strength of his survivors that the general keeps near.
"Her response to her loss -- and its strong reminder of the commitment and selflessness of her son and all our troopers -- was, needless to say, very powerful," he said. "I've kept her note underneath the glass top on my desk at the Central Command headquarters ever since, along with other notes from families of our fallen.
"These letters -- like names etched on battle gear and photos stored in uniform pockets -- are ever-present reminders," he said, "and ever-present sources of inspiration."
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a promise to the surviving families in the audience last night on behalf of himself and his wife.
"From Deborah and myself, we promise those who are surviving family members: we will never forget your loss, your sacrifice," he said, "and we will never forget you. You are the face of these wars and it is important for us to be reminded of the most difficult part of what we take on as a challenge."
"You inspire us and you should know that we are dedicated passionately to your well being to meeting your needs," he said, "and to making sure that those sacrifices are both understood and recognized and that you are cared for the rest of your lives."