SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you, Michele, very, very much. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Michele, thank you very, very much. Today is also an education for me. You have no idea how many times I drive by here. I had no idea - (laughter) - we had this brilliantly beautiful office over here in this building, so it's - you're broadening my horizons even today.

I got a couple of words I want to say about Michele in a few minutes if I can, but first let me just give you all a profound word of gratitude on behalf of not just the State Department but of your country. What you do here is absolutely critical.

I'll tell you, when I served on the Foreign Relations Committee for many years - I guess 28 years, 28 - almost 29 years, I used to hear sometimes senators - and it got repeated a couple of times, interesting - would say - they would ask the secretary of state, and I witnessed many of them testifying, amid all of the China, India, Guatemala, whatever national desks that exist in State, it was a well-known question to say, hey, do you guys have an America desk? Some of you are nodding. You've heard that. And it was meant as a not-so-gentle reminder that the State Department obviously has a number-one responsibility, which is to serve the best interests of our citizens.

I know that no secretary of state ever needed that reminder, but the message was sent all the same. And today, let me just make this crystal clear to everybody: There's no question in my mind - and I see it everywhere I go, and I've visited a number of passport offices in various countries - that the State Department's top priority is today and always has been to provide the best service we possibly can every day to the American people. And that is true whether or not our citizens are here in America or they are traveling overseas.

And one of the major ways we do that - one of the single strongest arms of our many efforts and tools that we have at our disposal - is Consular Affairs.

Our passport offices - and I often remind folks when I get a chance to visit abroad with the embassies and folks - the first line of contact in many cases is Consular Affairs. You walk up to that window, and for many people in many countries, it's the first American official they ever met and ever talked to. And how they are talked to, what kind of response they get, how long it takes to get their business done is their first impression of our country. It's important for people to remember that, that in some cases it may be the only person they ever have a contact with.

Now, when I say contact, we are talking about 128 million Americans who have passports today. That is two out of every five. It's gone up continually. More than 17 million passports will be issued this year alone, and I think it is anticipated it'll be something like 21 million next year, just to give people a sense of growth. Now, applications are at record levels now, and they're still going up. And yet, waiting times are going down. And a decade ago, I think the average wait for a new passport was three months; today it's half that - in many cases much faster than half of that.

So every one of you knows that this trend did not occur by accident. And I might add it hasn't occurred because we've gone out and been able to hire massive numbers of new people and do things in an inefficient way. It has happened because we have taken the same numbers of people in many places and drilled down on how we can do things better, how do we do it faster. And, of course, we've been able to apply new work methods, but we've also been able to apply new technology. And technology helps enormously.

But our - I hope every single one of you takes the full measure of pride in what you're doing that we take in you and in what you're doing.

To highlight how important this is, I am today announcing the State Department's MissionOne Initiative. And this initiative is expanding and modernizing the services that we offer to U.S. citizens both in our own country and overseas so that we help ourselves do this job better, faster, and safer.

Now, let me give you an example of this. By the end of next year, we hope to have in place a secure online passport renewal system with a redesigned passport with enhanced safety features.

And I want to emphasize the mere issue of the passport is not going to be the end of what MissionOne attempts to achieve.

Our new American Liaison Network is reaching out to volunteers in particular countries to identify the needs of local American communities, to disseminate information among families within those communities, and to coordinate measures that will safeguard the health and safety of our people.

At the same time, our Local Resources Initiative is assisting citizens abroad gain access to essential services, such as police, medical care, crisis and counseling. Actually, I've been abroad when I've seen some of these crises cross the desk of an ambassador or of the embassy, and I've watched teams jump into action in order to respond to some of these emergencies. And I've gotten on the phone on occasion and called people and said we've got to help this, that, or the other in one country or another to respond. So I understand this.

These networks that we're creating will help us to stay in close touch with Americans overseas. It'll help us give advice about best practices in a particular country. It will help us to furnish help in time to meet individual emergencies, and that is in the case of either a natural or a human-caused crisis.

So I really can't emphasize the importance of these services enough, and you can't overstate them. It is especially true when these services count the most. In the last year, our folks here at the department were able to respond to the needs of citizens wounded in the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels; people seeking safe haven from the violence in Yemen; people grieving the loss of loved ones in Syria, in Mali, Burkina Faso, just to mention a few.

It matters that our personnel are working around the clock even now to aid U.S. citizens during the outbreak of fighting in South Sudan.

It matters that we are there when personal tragedies strike. This is a figure that stunned me, but last year, we helped the families of more than 10,000 American civilians who died while overseas.

And it matters that we're quick to respond to family requests to just check on relatives who are traveling but who are temporarily out of touch, or who may have run out of money, or who have encountered problems with local authorities.

Last year, through the American Liaison Network, consular officials in South Asia rescued three citizens who had been the victims of forced marriages; all three have since returned home to our country to rebuild their lives. We also worked with a church in Africa to shelter a woman and her children from threats of imminent violence until they could leave the country safely. And, in the South Pacific, one of our American Liaison volunteers used her own boat to go out and check on the well-being of other Americans in the aftermath of a cyclone.

The bottom line is very simple: There always has been an America desk, and our job now is personified by MissionOne. In our era - I've said this before, I'll say it again and again - there is nothing foreign about foreign policy. And Americans have a huge stake in what we do in this globalized, connected, remarkable, large marketplace that the world has become, where people are joined together because of instant communication and because of shared values and interests. So we are frankly - I think every one of you here in this department would agree - never happier than we are able to really make somebody else - an American citizen happy because we are able to respond to their needs or to be able to respond to a guest, a visitor from another country coming to the United States to get to share in what we can call home.

Now, if I can just take a moment, I want to celebrate something special, which is the fact that this fabulous woman to my left, our assistant secretary, who began serving I think in 1974, believe it or not - came to work in the summer of '74 - was immediately put to work on the task force that was responding to the Cyprus invasion. That's the one thing she hasn't finished work on - (laughter) - that one thing.

But she joined the Foreign Service shortly after that, and for four decades she's been an extraordinary asset to the department and the country. She's a public servant to her core, as all of you know; sets a terrific example for every single person in the consular service here and abroad. And so I am pleased to present Michele with an award marking 40 years of dedicated service to the United States of America, and I am so grateful to you for all that you have done. Thank you and God bless. (Applause.)

Source: U.S. State Department

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