Last week, I returned to Kosovo for the first time since I retired from military service.
For me, this trip was very personal. In 1999, I commanded the NATO forces that stopped the genocide against ethnic Albanians by Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian forces. Now Kosovo is on the road to independence, a nation that respects the rights of all its citizens. It was so moving to return to Kosovo and meet thousands of people who had been liberated from Serbian oppression, hearing their stories and learning about their experiences. You can see some of the photos from my recent trip here.
This was an example of how we CAN do it right: diplomacy first, strong leadership, working with others, and using force only as a last resort. We had a plan for what to do after the operation before we began air strikes.
During the Kosovo War, we were fortunate not to lose a single American soldier in combat -- but in most military operations we aren't so lucky. We owe the men and women of our armed forces our deepest gratitude for their willingness to serve in harm's way, whether it's protecting Americans during natural disasters here at home or defending our country and defending freedom abroad.
Today across America, we take time to remember those who have given their lives defending the cause of freedom throughout our nation's history. This year, as our soldiers are serving with honor in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, and around the world, I hope you will join me in observing Memorial Day, whether it's attending an event in your local community or simply taking a personal moment to remember the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and to honor their families.
As this Memorial Day passes, I urge our leaders and all Americans to fully honor our troops and respect their sacrifice. That means ensuring our men and women in uniform are properly equipped, trained, and organized.
That means providing our troops and veterans the medical care they deserve, and providing Reservists and National Guard members health insurance for themselves and their families through TRICARE, the military's health care system, just as the active force does.
That means eliminating the "widow's tax," which penalizes the survivors of those killed in combat by reducing the benefits to which they are entitled.
Finally, as we embark upon our fourth year in Iraq and as the Bush Administration continues its heated rhetoric toward Iran, we owe it to all of our brave service men and women, their families, and to all Americans, to recommit to the principle that military force should only be used as the very, very last resort. Only when all diplomatic, economic, and political options have been exhausted should we send our military forces into battle.
After all, the greatest way to honor our men and women in uniform is to require their sacrifice the least.
Gert and I send you our very best wishes for a safe and happy Memorial Day.