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Farewell Parade

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Pentagon River Terrace Parade Field, Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thank you, Mr. President, for those kind words, and for honoring me and this Department by your presence here today.  I’m deeply honored and moved by your presentation of this award.  It is a big surprise, but we should have known a couple of months ago -- you're getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff.

Mr. Vice President, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, thank you for being here this morning.

First, I’d like to congratulate Leon Panetta on his recent confirmation.  Right after the 2008 election, Leon wrote an op-ed suggesting President-elect Obama retain me as Secretary of Defense.  So when President Obama asked for my recommendation for a successor, I returned the favor. 

 Seriously, this department and this country, is fortunate that a statesman of Leon Panetta’s caliber and experience has agreed to serve once again – and at such an important time.   My parting advice for Leon is to get his office just the way he likes it.  He may be here longer than he thinks.

I’d like to thank the members of Congress with us today.   I appreciate the gracious and supportive treatment accorded to me by Senators and representatives of both parties these past four and a half years.  Even when there were disagreements over policies and priorities, the Congress always came through for our men and women in uniform– especially for programs that protect and take care of troops and their families.    

As most you probably have noticed, over the past few weeks I’ve had my say on some weighty topics.  So on this, the last stop of what has been dubbed “the long goodbye,” I’d like to spend just a few minutes talking about the men and women that I’ve been fortunate to work with in this job.

I’d like to start with the two presidents whom I’ve been privileged to serve in this role.  Serving as Secretary of Defense has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life.  For that, I will always be grateful.  First, to President Bush, for giving me this historic opportunity, and for the support he provided during those difficult early months and years on the job.  Then, to President Obama, for his confidence in taking the historic step of asking me – someone he did not know at all – to stay on, and for his continuing trust ever since.

The transition from the Bush to the Obama administration was the first of its kind – from one political party to another – during war in nearly 40 years.  The collegiality, thoroughness, and professionalism of the Bush-Obama transition were of great benefit to the country, and were a tribute to the character and judgment of both Presidents.

I have also been fortunate that both presidents provided me an excellent team of senior civilian appointees.  When I took this post, the first – and best – decision I made was to retain every single senior official I inherited from Secretary Rumsfeld – including his personal front office staff, most of whom have been with me to this day.  Likewise, I have been fortunate to receive another first class roster of senior civilian officials from President Obama.  They have provided me superb counsel and support on a range of difficult institutional issues and strategic initiatives.

These and other achievements – indeed anything of consequence achieved in this department – required respectful collaboration between the civilian and military leadership, which has been a source of strength to the country.  I have received wise, forthright, but loyal counsel from the service chiefs and from the leadership of the Joint Staff.  And I will always be grateful to them for their candor, cooperation and friendship.

Above all, though, I want to recognize and thank first General Pete Pace who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when I arrived and whose counsel and friendship got me off to a strong start.  And then, of course, my battle buddy for nearly four years, Admiral Mike Mullen.  Without Mike’s advice to me, his effective leadership of the uniformed military, and our close partnership, the record of the last several years would, I think, have been very different.  Mike was never shy about disagreeing with me, but unfailingly steadfast and loyal – to me and to the Presidents he served – once a decision was made.  He is the epitome of a military leader and officer, a man of supreme integrity, a great partner and a good friend. 

A practice and spirit of cooperation is equally important for relationships with other elements of the government– especially those dealing with intelligence, development and diplomacy.  The blows struck against Al Qaeda – culminating in the Bin Laden raid – exemplify the remarkable transformation of how we must fuse intelligence and military operations in the 21st Century. 

With respect to the State Department– my views have, as they say in this town, “evolved” over the years.  I started out my interagency experience in Washington, D.C., as a staffer on President Nixon’s National Security Council.  As you might imagine, the Nixon White House was not exactly a hotbed of admiration for the foreign service – generally thought of as a bunch of guys with last names for first names who occasionally took time out of their busy day to implement the president’s foreign policy.  And, for much of my professional life the secretaries of state and defense were barely speaking to one another. 

In the case of Secretaries Rice and Clinton, I have not only been on speaking terms with these two formidable women, we have also become cherished colleagues and good friends.  I suppose that giving a big speech calling for more money for the State Department didn’t exactly hurt.  But, we should never forget that diplomats and development experts from State and AID are taking risks and making sacrifices in some of the planet’s least hospitable places, and I speak for all of our military in appreciating the contributions they are making every day to the success of our missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the globe.

In doing my upmost to support the troops downrange on these missions, I’ve spent a good deal of time venting frustrations with the Pentagon bureaucracy.  However, I did so knowing that the people most often frustrated by the pace of things in this building are the career civilian professionals who strive every day to overcome the obstacles to getting things done.  As someone who worked his way up through the GS-ladder, I understand and appreciate the challenges these public servants face and the sacrifices they make.  What they accomplish does not receive the attention and the thanks it deserves.  So know that I leave this post grateful for everything our Defense civilians do for our military and our national security.

During a time of war, the top priority of everyone in this building ultimately must be to get those fighting at the front what they need to survive and succeed on the battlefield, and to be properly taken care of once they get home.  I have spent much of the past two months visiting with these troops, first in military facilities around the U.S., and then over several days at a number of forward operating bases in Afghanistan.  Though I was only able to meet a small sample of those who deployed down range, it was important to me to look them in the eye one last time and let them know how much I care about them and appreciate what they and their families do for our country.  

Looking forward to this moment, I knew it would be very difficult for me to adequately express my feelings for these young men and women – at least in a way that would allow me to get through this speech.  So yesterday, a personal message from me to all our servicemen and women around the world was published and distributed through military channels.  I will just say here that I will think of these young warriors – the ones who fought, the ones who keep on fighting, the ones who never made it back – till the end of my days.

Finally, as I was contemplating this moment, I thought about something my wife Becky told me in January 2005, when I was asked to be the first Director of National Intelligence.  I was really wrestling with the decision and finally told her she could make it a lot easier if she just said she didn’t want to go back to D.C.  She thought a moment and replied, “we have to do what you have to do.”  That is something military spouses have said in one form or another a million times since 9/11, upon learning their loved one received a deployment notice or is considering another tour of service. 

Just under five years ago, when I was approached by the same president again to serve, Becky’s response was the same.  As much as she loved Texas A&M and Aggie sports, and our home in Washington state, and as much as she could do without another stint in this Washington, she made it easy for me to say “yes” to this job. To do what I had to do, to answer the call to serve when so much was at stake for America and her sons and daughters in two wars.  Well, Becky, we’re really going home this time.  Your love and support has sustained me and kept me grounded since the day we first met on a blind date in Bloomington, Indiana, 45 years ago. 

Shortly, I will walk out of my E-ring office for the very last time as defense secretary.  It is empty of all my personal items and mementos, but will still have, looming over my desk, the portraits of two of my heroes and role models, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall.  It is from Marshall that I take a closing thought first delivered more than six decades ago in the opening years of the Cold War.  Addressing new university graduates, Marshall extolled what he considered the great “musts” of that generation: They were, he said, “the development of a sense of responsibility for world order and security, the development of a sense of the overwhelming importance of the country’s acts, and failures to act.”  Now, as when Marshall first uttered those words, a sense of America’s exceptional global responsibilities and the importance of what we do or do not do remain the “great musts” of this dangerous new century.  It is the sacred duty entrusted to all of us privileged to serve in positions of leadership and responsibility.  A duty we should never forget or take lightly.  A duty I have every confidence you will all continue to fulfill.

Thank you.  God bless our military and the country they so nobly serve.

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