AUGUSTA, Maine — In a funny and heartfelt speech Wednesday before a joint session of the Maine House and Senate, the outgoing head of the Maine National Guard, Maj. Gen. John W. Libby, praised military members as the true 1 percent.
He explained that the number of people who enlist in the armed services today represents a smaller percentage of the population than ever. He also said the U.S. has an all-volunteer war for the first time in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that everyone should remember.
“Seventy percent of people aged 18 to 24 are not eligible to serve; 97 percent of those eligible choose not to,” he said. “That means less than 1 percent wear the uniform.”
Libby, a Vietnam veteran, announced last month that he would step down as commissioner of the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management and head off the Maine National Guard, effectively ending his 44-year military career.
He had been formally invited by House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, to address the Legislature before he made his decision to retire, so Wednesday’s remarks amounted to a retirement speech.
The military address to the Legislature will now be an annual event.
Libby shared with lawmakers one of his earliest experiences from when he was a “plebe” at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Douglas MacArthur, the famous World War II Army general, returned to West Point in 1962 to speak to young cadets such as Libby, who was 18 at the time.
Among MacArthur’s remarks were these words, according to a transcript of the speech: “In the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country. Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps. I bid you farewell.”
Libby said MacArthur’s words have stayed with him for years, but he promised lawmakers that his final thoughts would not be of “the Legislature, the Legislature and the Legislature,” which elicited laughter.
The first-ever address by Maine’s adjutant general was the result of a bill submitted by Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, who also is a judge advocate general officer in the Maine Air National Guard.
“It is only fitting that we, the elected members of the Legislature, recognize those families that have lost loved ones while protecting our freedoms and liberties,” Fredette said. “Our Maine Army and Air National Guard citizen-soldiers and their families put duty to our nation and state ahead of their own interests. I am proud to play a small part in recognizing their unique and unselfish contributions.”
In the House chamber on Wednesday, there were many uniformed men and women who came to hear Libby speak. Lawmakers even put away their ubiquitous laptops out of respect to their guest.
In a solemn moment, Libby read the names of the eight Army National Guard members who have lost their lives in combat under his command. He also acknowledged that Maine has more than 150,000 veterans representing 16 percent of the population and that many of them are aging and will need services.
Libby then acknowledged that one of the reasons he is leaving his post early is the health of his wife of 44 years, who is recovering from surgery. He said she represents the “best of all military spouses” who support their loved ones during difficult times.
Libby is a native of Lewiston and has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Maine. He served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and joined the Maine Army National Guard in 1976. Libby has since held a variety of positions with the guard, including as deputy adjutant general from 1995 to 2002.
During a military career that spanned four decades, Libby has earned many service medals, including the Bronze Star, a Meritorious Service Medal and the Legion of Merit. He has overseen the mobilization of more than 4,000 Mainers in support of the global war on terror since 2003.