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United States Forces Iraq Change of Command

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Iraq, Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mr. Vice President, distinguished guests.  I am honored to be part of this occasion, where we transfer command responsibility from one outstanding leader to another, and reflect on what the men and women of U.S. Forces Iraq have achieved under General Odierno’s leadership.

Ray Odierno came to this post uniquely qualified to lead our military operations in Iraq.  In fact, he leaves as one of the few U.S. Army generals in history to command a division, corps and entire theater in the same conflict.  After commanding the 4th Infantry Division in the area around Saddam Hussein’s hometown during the first year of the campaign, General Odierno would later take charge of the Multi-National Corps during the darkest days of the war.  As the operational architect of the surge, with David Petraeus, he helped craft, then implemented, the strategy that led to the dramatic decreases in violence of the past three years.  As any student of military history knows, any strategy is only as effective as its execution, and without Ray and his troops’ ability to turn plans into results on the ground, we would be facing a far grimmer situation outside these walls today, and more broadly a strategic disaster for the United States.

As you might recall, General Odierno was on his way to the well-deserved post of Vice Chief of Staff, but duty called on him once more to return to Iraq in the fall of 2008 – after only seven months at home.  It fell to General Odierno and the men and women of this command to build on the hard-fought gains of the surge, keeping the proverbial boot on the neck of Al Qaeda in Iraq, while expanding the capacity and capabilities of Iraq’s army and police.  He did all this while overseeing a significant drawdown and re-positioning of U.S. forces – arguably one of the biggest and most complex logistical operations in the history of warfare.  The dedication of General Odierno, the sacrifices of the troops under his command, and the efforts of our interagency and Iraqi partners made it possible to be where we are today – with a dramatically reduced troop presence and a new mission, as the President and Vice President have described.

There is one more group of people to whom credit and honor must be given – and that is Linda and the rest of the Odierno family.  They’ve seen their husband and father deployed for more than three of the last four years, and for more than 55 months since the Iraq war began.  They have borne the burden and paid the price for this war in so many ways.  And have they have done so with real grace and resilience – the best embodiment of all that Army families do for our country.   

I know they will be happy to have Ray back in the U.S. for his next assignment leading U.S. Joint Forces Command.  There, as you all know, he faces a difficult and delicate task – and a dangerous one as well, at least in the political sense.  He is the right leader for that job, and our country will be needing, I am confident, Ray Odierno’s talents and experience in uniform for some time even beyond that.

As America was fortunate to have General Odierno in the wings two years ago, we are fortunate to have Lloyd Austin ready to take the baton from him one more time today.  Whether leading troops at every level of command, or most recently as Director of the Joint Staff, Lloyd Austin – like Ray Odierno – has always led by example, asking nothing of his troops that he would not do himself.   He has the unique distinction of being awarded the Silver Star for valour as a general officer, leading from the front during the 3rd Infantry Division’s march to Baghdad more than seven years ago.  I’d like to thank his wife Charlene, his son Shane, and the rest of the Austin family for their sacrifices and their support, then and now.  I know he will use his extraordinary talents and experience to build on the success that has been achieved in Iraq, success bought with the blood and sweat of all who have served here.

Which brings me to a final word to the men and women of U.S. Forces Iraq.  Even as the weight of our military efforts and public attention has shifted to Afghanistan, you should know your work here going forward is critical to the future of this part of the world, and to the national security of our country.  You have the gratitude and respect of all Americans for your service and sacrifice, and for the service and sacrifice of your families.

Thank you.

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