Opinions and Speeches

I recently hosted Georgia’s annual U.S. Military Service Academy Day for the 20th year with the help of our Congressional delegation. More than 800 Georgia students and parents attended the event, which is the largest of its kind in the country and is designed to help students with the application and nomination process for the nation’s five military service academies.

Over the years, we’ve helped hundreds of Georgia’s most impressive young people achieve their goals of attending one of these prestigious service academies through this opportunity for students and their families to hear directly from each academy and learn about the application process.

The timing of this annual event coincided with my return from a trip to Iraq where I had the opportunity to visit with U.S. service members from Georgia and other states who are serving there.

I traveled with two Senate colleagues, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois and U.S. Senator Angus King from Maine. Senator Duckworth is a Democrat and Senator King is an Independent. You would have thought it was the beginning of a bad joke: “A Democrat, a Republican and an Independent walk into the room…” But it wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t a partisan trip.

You see, when our soldiers sign up to wear the uniform, they don’t sign up as Democrat soldiers or Republican soldiers, they sign up as American soldiers. And we are elected to represent all of our service men and women and to make sure they have the resources and support they need to ensure the success of their missions overseas.

I couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of this bipartisan delegation, which was led by Sen. Duckworth, a combat veteran who was wounded in Iraq 15 years ago while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was Sen. Duckworth’s first trip back to Iraq since she was shot down while flying a Black Hawk helicopter. This time, she returned as a U.S. senator.

I first met Tammy in 2005 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she was recovering from her combat injuries. In 2010, while she served as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I brought her to Augusta, Ga., to show her the positive collaboration in transitioning wounded warriors from the Department of Defense to the VA. Not only did we tour two facilities, but we enjoyed lunch with wounded service members, their families and staff members.

Our friendship grew last December during the Senate’s annual Secret Santa exchange when Sen. Duckworth randomly pulled my name out of the hat as her gift recipient. In coming up with a gift for me, she recruited the help of our Georgia National Guardsmen stationed in Iraq, who posed for a picture at a street sign on base renamed “Bulldog Bend” for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, my alma mater. The framed photo of those Georgia soldiers she gave me sits prominently on my office desk today.

A few weeks later, Sen. Duckworth invited me to participate in an upcoming trip to Iraq that she was planning, and I was eager to go.

While traveling in Iraq, we met with military commanders from Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve as well as with senior State Department officials to receive updates about counter-terrorism and stabilization operations in the region. As I visited with service members from Georgia and other states, I was constantly reminded how important it is for our all-volunteer force to have the best and the brightest sign up and pursue a career in the military. This was all brought back home for me, quite literally, when my 20th annual Service Academy Day was held in Georgia the day after I returned from Iraq.

On my first day in Iraq, completely by coincidence, the pilot of our C-17 military aircraft turned out to be one of my own U.S. Air Force Academy nominees from 2008, Air Force Captain David Zitelli from Fayette County, Ga. The very next day, while I was having lunch with soldiers from Georgia at the Baghdad embassy, I met another former academy appointee, Army Captain Donnie Byerly from Alpharetta, Ga., who had attended my annual academy day in 2007 and received a nomination for West Point from then-U.S. Representative Tom Price, R-Ga., in 2008. 

These brave men reminded me how important it is to help Georgia students who want to serve our country by attending one of the nation’s military service academies. Our military would not be the beacon of freedom that it is around the world today were not for these intelligent, dedicated students joining the ranks.

I’m honored to represent the great state of Georgia and to live in the greatest country on the face of this Earth, and I thank our service members, past, future and present, for their service and sacrifice to keep our country safe and free. God bless our soldiers, and God bless the United States of America.