Thank you, folks. (Applause continues.) Thank you very much.
Pete, thank you. It has really been a privilege to be able to work with this outstanding human being, the first Marine ever to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have valued your counsel. I have valued your candor and I've enjoyed your sense of humor. And the American people are well served by having this enormously talented individual willing to make a career in the military. So thank you very much, Pete. (Applause.)
I'm told that we not only have the folks in this room, but we have a bunch of folks out in different locations with monitors, plus we have the Pentagon Channel that is carrying this town hall, I suppose most -- way around the world. Is that about right, Allison?
I'm also told that this is my 42nd town hall since I began this second tour as Secretary of Defense about six years ago. Thirteen of them have been here in the Pentagon, and some 28 have been with troops stationed in countries all across the world.
These sessions, I suspect, are among the very few occasions when everybody -- civilian, military, contractor, folks from all branches of the services, from all levels -- can gather with the senior leadership of the department, with a microphone in your hand, and ask a question and speak your mind. I -- it is a chance for everyone to be heard, to ask questions.
And goodness knows there have been a great many questions asked over these 42 town halls. I certainly remember the fellow who used to sit in the back over here somewhere and ask about whether we're going to move the Metro entrance. (Laughter.) Are you here today? (Laughter.) Stand up and be recognized. (Laughter.) Well, Merry Christmas, wherever you are.
As we've seen, when you're willing to have an open exchange like this, every once in a while a question gets asked or an answer is given that generates a bit of a fuss, depending on how it's reported. That's happened. So be it. I think each of you -- and indeed all of the uniform and civilian folks in the Department of Defense deserve this opportunity. So I've done it an unprecedented 42 times. And I can tell you I have benefited from hearing your questions and hearing your views, and I thank you for engaging as you have.
I suspect this will be among my last public remarks as Secretary of Defense -- so I'd like to take a few minutes to talk a bit about our time together these past years.
Every day, in one way or another, I've seen the strength of men and women in uniform, and the dedication of the many thousands who serve here -- military and civilian -- who do their jobs knowing that theirs is the essential business of protecting a nation and protecting a people. You do so knowing that you contribute directly to the safety of millions of Americans -- people you'll never meet, whose names you'll never know.
And I leave office very proud to have served with you. Inspired by your dedication, by your patriotism, and by your sacrifice, and we recognize that sacrifice.
And I also leave office proud to have served with you, and of the accomplishments that this institution has been able to achieve. I can't think of a more challenging period -- I'm sure there must have been -- but in the 59-year history of this department than these past years.
I have a few words to say about the Pentagon Press Corps. (Laughter.) No, it's not what you think! (Laughter.) As a group, they may well be, year to year, the most professional press corps in the Washington, D.C., area. Now considering the competition -- (laughter) -- I'll leave it to you to determine exactly what kind of a compliment that is. (Laughter.)
But the Defense Department Press Corps is an important part of the fabric of this institution. Some braved the smoke and fire of September 11th. Some came back to work later that night and the next morning in a still-burning building. And a number have risked their lives to report from war zones, and to them I say thank you for that.
As hard as it may be to believe, I even miss our press conferences. I think I will. The stakeouts, the briefings. I'm told it was something like 613 over six years -- all across the globe. Now, you know, we've not always seen eye to eye, I haven't, with the press, but I still hold out hope that over time, they'll get it close to right. (Laughter.)
When I think about these past years, there are a number of moments that stand out.
· I think of those proud Afghan girls that were sitting in the front row at President Karzai's inauguration in Kabul when he became president, the first president elected by the people in the 5,000-year history of that country. They were standing there, and then they sang. And of course, under the Taliban rule it was against the law to sing. And the reports of the Afghan children flying kites that day, and of course, it had been against the law to fly kites.
· I think of the Iraqis, who, through it all, believe that their future is bright and who are working toward something that they've never had before -- a free country, a representative country.
· And I do, as Pete Pace suggested, I remember being stunned by the news of the abuse at Abu Ghraib, and then watching so many determined people spend so many months trying to figure out exactly how in the world something like that could have happened and how to make it right, and then seeing how the department eventually demonstrated to the world how our democracy deals openly and decisively with such egregious wrongdoing.
· And yes, I remember the irresponsible comments by some who tried to sully the image of the courageous and dedicated men and women in uniform who keep the American people safe.
· I remember the literally hundreds of military families I met in Alaska, and a gracious woman who, at the end of the meeting came over and asked me to take a bracelet. It's this green woven thing. And I told her I'd wear it until the 172nd Stryker Brigade came home. That was the group that we had to extend, I think, up to 120 days. After they had done a great job up north, they were heading to Kuwait, and they were diverted into Baghdad when General Casey determined that he needed additional assistance there.
· And I, of course, remember the American heroes -- the Medal of Honor recipients, Paul Ray Smith, and soon Jason Dunham -- and countless others whose names are now part of history.
If there's one thing I wish could be more widely known, it's the miracles that the men and women of this department really perform every day.
Supporting the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, while putting pressure on terrorists all across the globe is an enormous challenge.
But at the same time, quite beyond that challenge -- and it is an enormous challenge -- the folks in this department have stepped forward to
· Deliver aid to millions affected by the greatest national disasters in recent memory: the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, tragic earthquakes in Pakistan, here at home, Hurricane Katrina.
· We evacuated thousands of Americans from Lebanon, literally the size of a city, and doing it while a war was going on.
· Training counterterrorism forces in the Philippines and in the Horn of Africa.
· Put in place an initial missile defense system to protect the American people from rogue states.
· Establish the new Northern Command to better protect the homeland.
· Established a camp, and stood guard in Guantanamo over some of the world's most dangerous terrorists, while suffering grossly uninformed and irresponsible charges in the media from almost every quarter.
· Oversee the largest domestic base realignment and base closure in the history of this department.
· Implement the most significant changes, since World War II, in our nation's global posture, force posture across the globe, away from the static defensive orientation that was left over from the Cold War, and towards arrangements that are much more appropriate to this 21st century.
· Put in place a new civilian national security personnel system to provide the urgently needed flexibility in hiring and in assignments, and with a linking of pay to performance.
· Expand our very talented Special Operations Forces to meet the new demands in this global struggle against violent extremists.
· Transition from a division-based Army -- the approach that dated back to World War I -- to a considerably more agile, vastly more capable combat brigade force.
· And so much more.
Each of you here in this room and listening through the Pentagon Channel have played a part in one or more of these accomplishments, these endeavors, and you can look at what you've done here this past period with great pride.
I wish I could say that everything we've done here has gone perfectly, but that's not how life works, regrettably. When thousands of people make dozens of difficult decisions on hundreds of pressing issues, for the most part, matters that are new and unfamiliar, where there's no road map, no guidebook that says here's exactly how you should do something, the hope has to be not perfection but that most decisions, with the perspective of time, will turn out to be the right ones, and that the perspective of history will judge the overwhelming majority of those decisions favorably.
When we reflect back on these past years, each of you will likely have some different memories. Some memories will no doubt be of hard work in grueling times -- working long days, months, even years, on critical tasks that really are never noted in a headline or in a news story -- at least never favorably noted. (Soft laughter.) But let there be no doubt, each of you and the future generations of Americans and -- as well as future generations of Iraqis and Afghans -- will be able to look back on these past years as a time of enormous challenge, of historic consequence and of solid accomplishment.
Today is a time to look forward. The institution is important well beyond those who temporarily serve here. We come and go. Some of us come and go more than once. (Laughter.) But what remains is this great institution's mission and its cause -- the challenge of defending this nation and the ideals that this nation represents.
It's been three decades since I left the Pentagon at the end of my first tour. Our country was then engaged in a long struggle -- the Cold War -- a conflict that seemed costly, and it was. It seemed unlimited in duration, and it was, and seemed unclear in its course and its outcome, which was the case. In fact, many then believed and indeed acted as though it was the United States that was the cause of the world's troubles.
We even see a little bit of that today.
And yet despite the tumult of the times, I left this post in 1977 believing strongly that America was a force for good in the world, that the vast majority of the American people were wise and decent people, and that America would continue to be the principal leader in the free world. That has been proven right.
And I can say that as I leave at the end of my second -- and the good Lord willing my last -- (laughter) -- I do leave believing as I did 30 years ago that America is a truly great nation, that the American people are wise and decent, that America's leadership in the world is not just useful, but that it is urgently needed. And let there be no doubt -- despite the fact that we have been successful in preventing attacks since September 11th, years without an attack in this country -- ours is a troubled and very dangerous world, and we must not forget it.
I've been asked recently what I've taken away from public life over these, I guess, 50 plus years, and I suppose what I feel most is gratitude.
Gratitude to the folks here in this department, men and women in uniform, civilians, the contractors; gratitude to the American people who continue to serve as a guide for the dreams and the hopes and the aspirations of so many millions of people who live all across the globe, but who seek opportunity and a better life for themselves and see in what we've done in this country a model that they hope for and wish for.
Now, I'd be happy to respond to some questions, and as always, if they're too tough, Pete Pace is going to come up and join me. (Laughter.) Come on up here, Pete! (Laughs.) All right. The microphone's around, I'm told, and there's a hand. Oh, I still always worry about the first hand. (Laughter.)
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