FORT DRUM — Vice President Michael R. Pence chose Fort Drum for his final public appearance before leaving office Wednesday, his wife told a socially distanced crowd assembled at the Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield late Sunday afternoon.
The second lady got emotional as she noted this would be her and her husband’s last official public event in office.
“It is such an honor to be here with you,” she said, choking back tears.
The vice president and second lady both spoke to members of the 10th Mountain Division, assembled in a hangar, to express their gratitude and the thanks of the Trump administration for the service of Fort Drum’s troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“America is proud of the 10th Mountain,” Vice President Pence said. “Thank you for your service. To the 1st Brigade Combat team, welcome home.”
Fort Drum soldiers have been returning home as the drawdown of troop continues. Most recently, on Christmas Eve, about 200 soldiers were reunited with their families.
Vice President Pence spoke of his son and son-in-law’s service and of his father’s time in Army combat in Korea, adding that by not serving in the military himself, it gave him a different perspective. He called himself a “grateful citizen.”
“The American people are more grateful for your service than you will ever hear,” Vice President Pence said. “You are the best of us. We are grateful not only to those who wear the uniform, but we are grateful for those of you who serve alongside.”
He called on all in attendance to stand and thank their families.
Despite a winter storm warning for the area, conditions were clear as Air Force Two arrived at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at about 4:20 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
Inside the airfield hangar, about 250 soldiers, some with their families, representing all the units of the 10th Mountain Division, sat socially distanced on folding white chairs.
Along with Brig. Gen. Brett T. Funck, Second Lady Karen Pence and Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, the vice president thanked the members of the 10th Mountain Division for their service as the most deployed division in the Army during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Vice President Pence said that since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there have been a combined 46 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan from Fort Drum. The 10th Mountain Division has lost more than 325 soldiers in combat.
Since the war in Afghanistan began shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, then-Vice President Richard B. “Dick” Cheney, who served under President George W. Bush, and then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who served under President Barack Obama, have traveled to Fort Drum to honor troops. Vice President Pence has previously visited troops here, joining President Donald J. Trump in August 2018.
The vice president spoke about his memories of 9-11, the terrorist attack that launched the conflict in Iraq that so many 10th Mountain soldiers have been deployed to. He recalled how, as he left his home the day after it was announced that American soldiers would be sent to Iraq, his daughter asked him if he would have to deploy as well.
“A generation later, you all have stepped forward and took the fight to our enemies,” he said.
Now, in the 20th year after the terrorist attack, Vice President Pence said the efforts of the 10th Mountain Division have led to a more peaceful Middle East. He said there has not been a single American combat casualty in Afghanistan since February of last year.
“Our troops have been coming home,” he said. “Many people wonder all their lives if they have made a difference, but you will never have that problem.”
Vice President Pence said the Trump administration has rebuilt America’s defenses, while working with members of Congress in both parties to repair a withering force.
The vice president detailed how, when he and President Trump took office, the military hadn’t seen a significant raise in more than 10 years, equipment and investment in infrastructure was incredibly low, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization members were devoting relatively little to the security of the treaty group.
Now, he said, with the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, soldiers are seeing the highest pay increase in a decade, military readiness is seeing necessary investment and NATO allies have increased spending on the organization by $130 billion.
“I’m proud to report with just a few days left in our administration, our administration is the first administration in decades that did not get America involved in a new war,” he said. “That is peace through strength.”
Giving credit to Rep. Stefanik, who is on the House Armed Services Committee, he said she advocated at every turn for Fort Drum.
“We have rebuilt our military,” he said. “We have restored our arsenal.”
The vice president said serving as vice president has been the greatest honor of his life.
He offered prayers from millions of Americans and the strength and pride of the nation as soldiers carry out their duties.
“You do not bear that burden alone,” he said.
The vice president and his wife both stressed how they understand the burden military families bear when their loved ones go away to war.
Speaking before the vice president, the second lady remarked how over the last four years she chose to champion and advocate for military spouses while in office. Since 2018, Mrs. Pence has led an awareness campaign to recognize the unique employment and career challenges that military spouses face. She also started TEAMS, a workforce education program focused on military spouses.
Mrs. Pence said, as the mother of an Army pilot, and the mother-in-law of another pilot, she understands the emotional toll military families face.
“We’re learning a lot more, now that our kids are in the military, what a huge sacrifice it is,” she said. It’s a huge sacrifice for our service members, but it’s also a huge sacrifice for your spouses and your children. We know that they serve too.”
As each service member left the hangar, they were given a small blue box, with a bracelet to give to the soldiers’ spouse, with the second lady’s signature, a star and a flag.
Chief Warrant Officer Colin E. Rawlings said he was honored the vice president chose Fort Drum as the venue where he would deliver his final official speech from.
“I think it speaks volumes about him as the vice president,” he said. “I hate to say, but he could have easily ‘forgotten’ about it and just said his schedule doesn’t permit him to come, and yet he still took time out of his schedule and came out.”
After his speech, the vice president beckoned for the soldiers in attendance to come up and speak with him over the barrier that divided his podium from the seating area. For nearly 15 minutes, the vice president spoke with 10th Mountain Division soldiers and their families, smiling and laughing as he moved down the line.
The vice president left the hangar at about 5:45 p.m., and boarded Air Force Two en route home to Washington, D.C., for his final two days in office.
President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris will be inaugurated Wednesday.
CORRECTION: Members of the military received raises in the decade before President Donald Trump took office. A pervious version of this story misquoted former Vice President Michael R. Pence, speaking at Fort Drum, as saying the military had not received a raise in 10 years when the Trump Administration began. Mr. Pence said, "our troops hadn’t seen a significant pay raise in nearly a decade.