This year's celebration proved particularly special. Twenty-five years ago the reactivation of the 25th Mountain Division reinvigorated this region. John McHugh is both a benefactor and beneficiary of the massive growth. When he first took the position of Secretary of the Army, McHugh recognized the people who made Fort Drum in the first place. And McHugh expressed his gratitude that his work here at Fort Drum put him in the position to be tapped by President Obama.
"I truly believe with all my heart that if I'd never had the chance to work in support this great division and this base, if I'd never had the chance to work in consort with the citizens and governments of northern and central New York to do the right thing by these amazing, incredible Americans, I would have never had the opportunity to serve as secretary of the army," McHugh said to much applause.
John McHugh grew up in Pierrepont Manor, just south of Watertown, and still has a home there. "I'm actually gonna sleep at my house tonight so I can't tell you how excited I am about that--it is home. Flyin' over, comin' in, I saw the Black River and saw Lake Ontario and the green summer here in the North Country, it feels good--it makes me realize how much I miss everybody," he said.
McHugh's 9 months in Washington have been a whirlwind. He took command of the army in the middle of two violent wars. "I sign a letter to every family survivor of every soldier who dies for whatever reason and whatever place. I usually do that on the weekend and frankly it's a very sad occasion," McHugh said. "But it as well underscores to you the willingness of incredible people whose names probably won't appear in many history books, their willingness to make a sacrifice."
The military is struggling to deal with the aftershocks for soldiers who return home. Thousands suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Suicide, divorce and domestic violence rates are high. McHugh said his goal by next year is to give soldiers 2 years' rest time for every year they deploy. Today, it's only 1, sometimes less.
"We think that's a start and we think it makes an immeasurable differences in terms of the stressors we see," he said.
Secretary McHugh faces tough decisions ahead--helping to revise the don't-ask-don't-tell policy, rectifying hundreds of mismarked graves at Arlington Cemetery. But for this day, McHugh got to celebrate where he came from with the people who helped get him where he is now. And he got sleep at home.