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SOCOM Change of Command

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL, Monday, August 08, 2011

Thank you very much Admiral Olson.  I want to express my thanks also to Admiral Olson’s family.  And also to Admiral McRaven, his wife Georgeann, and their family as well.  These jobs are tough and they demand a lot of sacrifice.  But none of us, none of us, could do these jobs without the love and support of our families.  And so in many ways, this ceremony honors you and your families for the great sacrifice and support you’ve provided these great leaders. 

I want to also acknowledge the command here and the staff.  And in particular I’d like to acknowledge the presence of two dear friends from the Congress, former colleagues of mine, Bill Young from Florida and Norm Dicks from Washington.   Norm Dicks and I have known each other for over forty years.  We were both legislative assistants on the Senate floor.  Norm worked for Senator Magnuson from Washington, and I worked for Senator Kuchel from California.  We’ve known each other a hell of a long time.  Which means that, at the present time in his role on the appropriations committee, he’s going to see an awful lot of me with the budget issues. 

It’s a privilege for me to be here today to recognize and honor Admiral Olson for nearly four decades of service to this country.  And it’s also my privilege to welcome Admiral Bill McRaven, a great warrior who will lead Special Operations Command into the future.  

As we gather here today, as Eric mentioned, the thoughts and prayers of the entire nation are with the families and with the loved ones of those we lost in Afghanistan over the weekend.  They were far from home, but we know that they were also where they wanted to be, doing what they wanted to do, alongside men who were perhaps closer to them than their own brothers.  We owe them our deepest gratitude for their willingness to put their lives on the line, for their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation.  But we also must pledge to them and to their families that we will never cease fighting for the cause for which they gave their lives – the cause of a secure and safer America. 

We will honor the fallen by showing the world our unyielding determination to press ahead, to move forward with the hard work that must be done to protect our country.  As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail this country from our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan.  Instead, we will send a strong message of American resolve.  From this tragedy, we draw even greater inspiration to carry on the fight.  To continue to hunt down those who would do us harm, we will never stop, we will fight on, until we have achieved the final goal of victory over terrorism.

This is a reminder to the American people that we remain a nation still at war – one that has seen its share of triumph and tragedy.  Special operators have been at the heart of many of those triumphs.  The entire world saw the precision and skill of our military in the operation that brought down Bin Laden.  But we know that these successes are driven by the willingness of these brave warriors to shoulder heavy burdens, to take on great risks, and as we all know, that comes, often times, at a very high cost.  

Few in our military are more aware of these costs, these sacrifices, and few have done more to help this resilient community, than the leader we are honoring today, Admiral Eric Olson.  He has led special operators in combat overseas and, together with his wife Marilyn, he has worked tirelessly here at home to improve the care for our wounded warriors and help support our military families.

Eric is a true legend in the special operations community.  He was the first four star Navy SEAL.  One of the more impressive chapters of Eric’s story – at least from the section that can be spoken about in an unclassified setting – unfolded during the 1993 Black Hawk down battle in Mogadishu.  It was then-Commander Olson who led a ground convoy to rescue his comrades fighting for their lives against hundreds of enemy fighters who had them surrounded.  That mission showed Eric’s extraordinary courage, his warrior spirit, his inspired leadership and the overwhelming care and concern he has for his comrades-in-arms.  All traits that he has demonstrated again and again throughout his storied career.

Eric is beloved by those under his command.  As he says, humans are more important than hardware, and quality is more important than quantity.  And that’s exactly where his focus has been here at SOCOM – finding, caring for and keeping the highest quality people.  As a result of his hard work, we now have the best-trained, the best-equipped and the most experienced special operations force in the history of the United States.

I can’t think of anyone better suited to help succeed Admiral Olson in this tough job and manage the continued growth of SOCOM than another Navy SEAL, Admiral Bill McRaven.  Over his impressive – and again mostly classified – career, Bill has commanded at every level in the special operations community – of course most recently as commander of Joint Special Operations Command.  He is one of the military’s outstanding strategic thinkers and leaders, who has always kept faith with those serving downrange.  As the three-star head of JSOC he often led them from the front, inspiring fierce loyalty and admiration among those under his command.  I know that he and his wife Georgeann are committed to carrying forward the Olsons’ work providing care and support to the families of the special operations community. 

I’d like to close by again thanking Eric and Marilyn, and their family, on behalf of the American people for your many decades of service to this nation and to the men and women who defend it.  We conduct this change of command at a time of great loss, and here today we affirm our even greater resolve and commitment to complete the mission at hand.  With Admiral McRaven at the helm, we will honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by showing even more determination to do everything we can to ensure that our fellow citizens and future generations have a safer and a better life.  Those who we have lost in combat in Afghanistan would have it no other way.

May God bless our great nation.  May God bless the men and women who have given their lives in the defense of this nation.  And may God bless those who serve in harm’s way each and every day.  They fight for the American dream.  The dream that brought my parents to this country.  The dream that drove our forefathers and drove the pioneers.  The dream of giving our children a better life.  That is what we fight for.  That is what we die for. 

We now pass this responsibility from Admiral Olson to Admiral McRaven.  May the torch that is being passed today always burn brightly, for freedom, for that American dream, and most of all for the United States of America.  Thank you. 

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