COL SONES: How’s everybody doing this evening? (Applause.) For those that aren’t assigned to the transit center, let me introduce myself real quick – Colonel Dwight Sones, Commander here. I have the distinct honor and privilege of introducing a very special guest.
For those of you that may not know, our special guest has spent more than 40 years of her time in service to the public, whether it be as an attorney, as an advocate, as an author, as a first lady, both for the state of Arkansas and also for the United States and a two-time senator from the great state of New York – (applause) – but more importantly, as our Secretary of State. I’d like to introduce Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it is great to see all of you here and thanks for letting me come by and say thank you. Colonel, thanks for those kind words and it’s a great opportunity – I can see some Christmas decorations already going up back there – to express to you our appreciation for what you do every single day on behalf of our country. I just had some good visits with the president and other officials of the government here, and then I just had the opportunity to meet with a large group of students and take a lot of questions about the United States, about our policies, about this air base, and to tell the people of Kyrgyzstan that we are going to support them as they try to establish a democratic state.
This has been a challenging year for them, and the United States has been with them, providing humanitarian assistance and other support, and we will continue to do so. They live in a region where there is not very much democracy, as you know. And part of our strong belief is that the United States has demonstrated conclusively that a democratic system that establishes the rule of law, that respects diversity, that gives people a chance to live their dreams, is by far the better system for anybody. It doesn’t matter where your country is or who you are or what your background might be.
And that’s part of the reason why you’re here. I want to thank the men and women of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing. I want to thank all of our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who are in transit to or from Afghanistan. We greatly appreciate what you’re doing. We think it is of critical benefit to advance the interests and the security of the United States, but also of countries like Kyrgyzstan and this region as well.
In my discussions with the president today, certainly her understanding of the challenges posed by extremists and terrorists brought home for me how what we are doing here has not only benefits for our own people and eventually the people of Afghanistan, but for this region and far beyond. We are committed to helping the people of Afghanistan realize a stable and secure environment in which they themselves can build a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Now, that’s why you’re here. And as President Obama has outlined, you’re not going to be here indefinitely. I made that clear to both the government and the people with whom I met. This is a commitment, but it is not an open-ended commitment. I was in Lisbon, Portugal with the President for the meeting of NATO and ISAF, and he set forth very clearly a transition plan, starting next year in 2011, to transition to Afghan security in those parts of Afghanistan that they can take primary lead control. In fact, it’s fair to say that Afghanistan is providing lead security right now for Kabul, backed up by ISAF forces, but pretty much in the lead. And there are other parts of the country where that will happen during 2011 and that we fully intend to transfer lead security to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
We now have 49 countries participating in this effort. In fact, I came from Kazakhstan, where they just committed to add advisors and engineers and others to the international forces. And this air base, Manas, is the gateway to our operations. The sheer volume of people and supplies that go through here that all of you handle is remarkable. I got the numbers: up to 3,500 troops every day, over 13 million pounds of cargo each month, 117 million gallons of fuel each year. This is one well-oiled machine that you are operating here. And you are the point of entry and exit for so many of those who are serving in Afghanistan.
We know that you are extraordinary warriors, but you are also extraordinary ambassadors. I got a briefing about some of what you’ve done to help the people of Kyrgyzstan: winter coats handed out in a school in Koi-Tosh; 10 tons of coal delivered to a kindergarten in Grodz so that they can stay open and heated during the winter; more than $4 million in humanitarian assistance that has been provided over the last two years. Whether you helped with one of those projects or in some other way – raising money for children’s heart surgeries or visiting cancer centers, renovating local schools and community centers – you are representing the best that our country has to offer. And it gives me a great deal of pride to be able to say this. Team Manas is absolutely essential. And we thank our locally employed staff who support and serve the transit center operations. They too are making a contribution.
Now, I know that you didn’t get home for Thanksgiving, and I know that for many of you, you will not be with your families during the upcoming holidays and for Christmas and New Year’s. But I want you to know at dinner tables across America on Thanksgiving, including my own, we have a tradition where everybody has to go around and express what they are grateful for from the previous year. And we had about 22 people sitting around the table, pretty crowded. People thanked you, not by name, but because of who you are and your service to our country.
This has been a tough time. As the colonel said, I was representing New York in the United States Senate on 9/11. I understand why we’re going in and out of Afghanistan. I understand the mission. And I fully support it. But I know that you all are at the point of the spear. You’re doing what is necessary to keep this mission going.
But I thank you. I thank you for being part of the greatest military in the history of the world. I thank you for making the sacrifice that your service demands, being far from home and loved ones. I thank you for your bravery, your daily efforts on behalf of all the rest of us so that I can sit around my dinner table on Thanksgiving in freedom and comfort while you stood watch. You will be in our thoughts and prayers this holiday season and so will your families. And I wish each of you Godspeed. Keep each other and yourselves safe as you continue both representing and defending the United States. And I hope that you all get home safely. Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)
COL SONES: Madam Secretary, on behalf of the men and women of the transit center and also all the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen that are here in attendance today, we’d like to thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to visit us. And we’d like to thank you for your support, your patriotism, and your dedication over the years both for the troops, but also for our nation. And on behalf of everybody here, I’d like to present you with a little memento, a coin that will remind you of the transit center anytime that you look at that.