How does one adequately express his
feelings about a special friend, when that friend is also a world icon,
a national hero of unimaginable proportion, and a legend whose name will
live in history long after all here today have been forgotten? A friend
whose commitment and dedication to that in which he believed was
absolute? A man who, when he became your friend, was a friend for a
lifetime? I am not sure this is possible, but I will try.
Neil Armstrong grew up on a farm in Middle
America and as a young boy, like most kids, he had a paper route, he cut
lawns, he shoveled snow, and his fascination for model airplanes gave
birth to a dream, a dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer. Neil had
his first taste of flight when he was but six years old, and from that
day forward he never looked back.
Although he always wanted to design
and redesign airplanes to make them do what they weren't supposed to do,
once he had tasted flight, Neil's eyes turned skyward, and it was there
that he always longed to be. Little did Neil ever realize that his
dream, his longing to soar with the eagles, would someday give him the
opportunity to be the first human being to go where no human had gone
Neil Armstrong was a sincerely humble man,
of impeccable integrity, who reluctantly accepted his role as the first
human being to walk on another world. And when he did he became a
testament, a testament to all Americans of what can be achieved
through vision and dedication.
But in Neil's mind it was never about
Neil. It was about you -- your mothers and fathers, your grandparents; about those of a generation ago who gave Neil the opportunity to call
the Moon his home. But never, ever was it about Neil. Neil considered
that he was just the tip of the arrow, always giving way to some 400,000
equally committed and dedicated Americans -- Americans who were the
strength behind the bow -- and always giving credit to those who just
didn't know it couldn't be done.
And therein lies the strength and the
character of Neil Armstrong. He knew who he was and he understood the
immensity of what he had done, yet Neil was always willing to give of
himself. When Neil, Jim Lovell and I had the opportunity to visit the
troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, on three separate occasions, meeting
them in chow halls, control centers -- yes, even armored carriers and
helicopters -- those enthusiastic young men and women, yet to be born when
Neil walked on the Moon, were mesmerized by his presence.
In a typical
Neil fashion, he would always walk in, introduce himself -- as if they
didn't know who he was -- shake each and every hand, and he'd always
give them, “Hey, how are you guys doing?” Asked one overwhelmed,
inquisitive Marine, “Mr. Armstrong, why are you here?” Neil's thoughtful
and sincerely honest reply was, “Because you are here.” Neil was special
to these young kids -- and to a few old ones as well.
Although deeply proud to be a naval
aviator, as a civilian at the time he flew, Neil never received his
astronaut wings -- it was a tradition of those in the military. It was
on the USS Eisenhower, back in 2010, on our way to Afghanistan, that Neil finally
received -- did receive the tribute that he deserved. His visibly
-- visibly -- moved
response said it all (and I quote):
I've never been more proud than when
I earned my Navy wings of gold.1 And I've got to believe that there's a
few Golden Eagles in the audience who will second those words.
Trying to get into Neil's inner self was
always a challenge for almost anyone -- maybe everyone. Asked one day by
a stranger, “Mr. Armstrong, how did you feel when looking for a place to
land on the Moon with only 15
seconds of fuel remaining?” In only the
way Neil could -- and I know some of you have seen him this way -- he'd
put a thumb on an index finger, he'd tilt his head and sort of put his
hand down there and he'd say, “Well, when the gauge says empty, we all
know there's a gallon or two left in the tank.”2 Now there is a man who
has always been in control of his own destiny. And that, ladies and
gentlemen, is vintage Neil Armstrong.
Fate looked down kindly on us when she
chose Neil to be the first to venture to another world and to have the
opportunity to look back from space at the beauty of our own. It could
have been another, but it wasn't. And it wasn't for a reason: No one, no
one, but no one3 could have accepted the responsibility of his remarkable
accomplishment with more dignity and more grace than Neil Armstrong. He
embodied all that is good and all that is great about America.
Neil, wherever you are up there, almost a
half century later you have now shown once again the pathway to the
stars. It's now for you a new beginning, but for us, I will promise you
it is not the end. And as you soar through the heavens beyond where even
eagles dare to go, you can now finally put out your hand and "touch the
face of God."4
Farewell, my friend. You have left us far
too soon. But we want you to know we do cherish the time we have had and
God bless you, Neil.