Army Secretary John McHugh was honored during a farewell ceremony Friday as he prepares to step down after more than six years as the service's top civilian.
"As secretary, John offered the Army a steady hand through four secretaries of defense and four Army chiefs," said Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who hosted Friday's farewell tribute at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia.
McHugh managed the drawdown of the Army from "two all-in fights, where they performed magnificently," while maintaining the service's readiness and strength, Carter said.
"Everything he did, John has always been, above all else, motivated by the people of our total Army," Carter said, calling McHugh a "skilled leader, selfless public servant," and a "decent, gifted man."
McHugh was sworn in as the Army's 21st secretary in September 2009. He will complete his tenure on Oct. 31, having served more than six years on the job. He will be the second-longest serving Army secretary in history, leading an Army that fought two wars and is now in the midst of a massive drawdown and reorganization as it prepares to face new threats around the world.
Eric Fanning, who served as Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s chief of staff and is currently the acting undersecretary of the Army, has been nominated to succeed McHugh. Fanning’s nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.
"The last six years have been an incredible journey," McHugh said.
As he prepares to leave, "what will not change, what must not change, is that long line of courageous individuals that when the nation's call has sounded, they've answered," he said. "When freedom is imperiled, when liberty assailed, they've answered. Wherever and whenever tyrants have threatened, they've answered."
McHugh, speaking from a podium just feet away from Arlington National Cemetery, reminded the audience about the sacrifices made by the men and women who rest on those hallowed grounds.
"Those markers serve as a constant reminder that we owe them so much," he said. "I cannot, indeed I did not, improve or add the smallest measure to what they have done. Rather, what I did try to do, what I hope, despite my many failings, I did do to some degree, is ensure this nation stands by them as they have sacrificed for us."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called McHugh "a true pillar of strength who has kept the Army strong through almost seven years of challenging times."
"As his fourth chief of staff in a little over half a decade, I can tell you that it's John McHugh perhaps more than any other individual who's brought stability to our Army in so many ways in so many different times," Milley said. "Mr. Secretary, over the course of your tenure, I can assure you, from private to general, you've never failed us. You've fought hard for America's Army, you've fought hard for our great Army."
McHugh led the Army as it downsized, transitioned from two wars, reorganized its force structure and grappled with shrinking budgets, Milley said.
"Most movingly for all of us is your genuine and deep concern for our troops and their families," he said. "It was our guiding light as you visited our wounded and buried our dead. You've been a class act in every sense of that word."
In his remarks, McHugh championed the Army one more time as he looked back to a similar ceremony in September 2009 that marked the start of his tenure as Army secretary.
"Not everything today is as it was then," McHugh said. "In November 2009, our soldiers were confronting a very dangerous world. There were forces engaged in not one, but two, theaters of conflict. Despite the significant challenges, there was a certain sense of stability in those days. For better or worse, we knew the enemy, we had charted the battlefield time and time again."
Today, the Army faces an even more volatile world, McHugh said.
"Just over the past 20 months, that stability has largely evaporated, dispersed by new threats and adversaries," he said.
In addition, the Army's budget has been cut from $235 billion six years ago to a little over $150 billion today, a 36 percent reduction "for an Army still at war," McHugh said. The active-duty force has dropped from about 553,000 soldiers to about 491,000, "and further cuts in the offing," he said.
"That's a posture largely unknown in our nation's history, and one that, unless something somehow changes, places this Army in a very dark and dangerous place," McHugh said. "The Army and America were born together, forged through the fires of revolution. … Through those times, no matter what this nation has asked, this Army has answered. No matter how steep the climb, how deep the valley, your Army has made every effort, always reaching the top, always securing the objective."
But "even unbounded courage has its limits," McHugh said.
"This Army has proved time and time again it can, it will do the impossible," he said. "But even the greatest land force on the face of the Eearth needs some support. This is this nation’s responsibility. It’s all of our responsibility – Congress, the administration, those of us in the Pentagon, people of this nation writ large, we all must find a way to do better, because we know, should we do even half as well by them [the troops, their families] as they have done for us, America can, America will enjoy another 240 years of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.