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Army Chief of Staff Change of Responsibility

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, VA, Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Good morning.  It’s great to see so many familiar faces and distinguished guests in the audience today, including many leaders of our military – both past and present.  I too also want to acknowledge the presence of Senator Jack Reed, Chairman Buck McKeon, Adam Smith and other members of congress – thank you all for coming. 

I want to extend a very warm welcome to General Dempsey’s family, particularly his wife Deanie.  And also to General Odierno, his wife Linda, and their family as well.  These jobs at the Department of Defense are difficult and challenging jobs.  None of us, none of us, could do them without the love and support of our families.  So today we are proud to also honor the Dempsey and Odierno families for the sacrifice, the love, and the support you’ve provided these great leaders over so many years, of separation, and challenge and worry.  We also honor you for your dedication to this country.  It is truly inspiring to see the commitment to serve being passed down to new generations in these remarkable families.

As the new Secretary of Defense and as someone who shares the immigrant background of these distinguished officers that we pay tribute to today, it’s really a personal privilege for me to honor two of our military’s most talented leaders as they take on new responsibilities.  Today we also pay tribute to the strongest Army the world has ever seen, an Army that has shouldered much of the burden, the burden of war over the last ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And every mission they’ve been asked to do they have done.

Having worked closely with General Dempsey since becoming Secretary of Defense, I can say that the President has made a truly inspired choice in picking him to serve as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He will be the first Army general in ten years to occupy that post, and as a former intelligence officer in the Army, I am truly pleased to have General Dempsey as a partner in running the Department of Defense.

Marty is what I would call a real “muddy-boots” soldier, and a battle hardened commander, as befits his Irish-Catholic roots in Bayonne, New Jersey.  He worked his way up from the grass roots.  He understands people.  He understands that in life, if you’re going to learn, you’ve got to be willing to work.  And that’s what he’s done.  He’s the embodiment of the “soldier scholar,” having earned a master’s degree in English from Duke.  Marty has seen combat up close and led soldiers in some of the most complex and challenging environments our military has faced.  He served as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad right after the invasion of Iraq, he then led Multi-National Security and Transition Command in 2005, where he built Iraqi army and police forces.  He also took over Central Command as acting commander in 2008. 

He is a passionate student of history, of the military, and they also tell me of Frank Sinatra.  They tell me that there are videos floating around on the internet of Marty belting out his favorite Sinatra tunes know.  I assume he is trying to be an aspiring member of the rat pack.  Marty, I hate to tell you, as someone of Italian heritage, you better stick to your day job.

While Marty’s tenure as Army Chief of Staff was brief, it was consequential.  He put into action some of the forward looking ideas he formulated while leading the Training and Doctrine Command, including: developing a plan to move the Army to 9-month combat deployments with 18 months back home; focusing relentlessly on providing more resources to support Army families; and articulating a vision for where the Army needs to go over the next decade.

As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marty will have the opportunity to work with the service chiefs to craft a joint force that can defeat the wide range of complex security threats that we face today, and that we will face into the future.  Today’s American military is the finest fighting force in the world.  Together, we will work to ensure that it always remains the finest fighting force in the world.  As Marty says, we’ve made a compact with those who serve.  The compact says that if we send a soldier out to fight for our freedom, for our security, then the entire might of this country, the arsenal of democracy, will always be there to ensure that soldier gets all the support he needs. 

For Marty, the entire U.S. Army is his family, and in turn, his family is the Army.  Marty’s three children – Chris, Megan, and Caitlin – followed in their father’s footsteps and became soldiers, committing themselves to defend the values that their father instilled in all of them.

Over ten years of continuous war, the Army has taken on much of the burden of protecting our country.  Today, nearly 70,000 soldiers are serving in Afghanistan; more than 40,000 in Iraq.  Thousands more serve across the globe, doing the hard work that must be done to live up to the motto “this we’ll defend.” 

Marty’s successor, General Ray Odierno, is also a proven leader, and he is exceedingly well qualified to lead the Army as the 38th Chief of Staff.  Over more than three decades in uniform, Ray has commanded at every level from platoon to theater commander.  He is literally a towering figure in the Army, beginning with his days as a tight end on the West Point football team.  

He brings a wealth of combat experience from his three long deployments to Iraq that totaled over 50 months.  After leading the 4th Infantry Division in the early years of that war, he later returned as General Petraeus’s right hand man, and the operational architect of the troop surge that turned the tide in Iraq.  Ray would later become overall commander in Iraq, serving from 2008 to 2010, a very crucial time when our military was trying to make sure we locked in the gains that were made during the surge. 

Ray was recently tasked with closing Joint Forces Command, as the Secretary pointed out, and while it was brief, it was a difficult mission that he executed with characteristic skill.  He also has the very rare distinction of having shaved the head of comedian Stephen Colbert in front of hundreds of troops and millions across America who watched on television.  When you have as much hair as Ray has it must have been quite a thrill to do that.

Ray often speaks of the importance of service and selfless dedication to a cause greater than oneself.  It’s a lesson, I understand, that he drew from his family, who like mine immigrated to this country from Italy in pursuit of the American dream.  Ray’s father defended that dream by serving as a Sergeant in the Army during World War II.  He taught Ray the values of patriotism and loyalty to his country – and the necessity of fighting for those values.  That is what Ray has spent his life doing, and now he rises to the very pinnacle of Army leadership.  It’s also what his son Tony, a combat veteran wounded in Iraq, is doing as a passionate advocate for his fellow wounded comrades.

Our democracy depends on the willingness of its finest men and women to step forward and to serve, to dedicate themselves to a greater cause, the cause of protecting our democracy.  These are men who come from the people.  These are individuals whose roots are in the immigrant heritage of our nation.  Who understand the common soldier – their needs, their fears, their courage and their patriotism. 

With leaders like General Odierno and General Dempsey at the helm, I am confident that we can tackle any challenge and build an even stronger Army, a stronger military, and a stronger country for future generations of Americans.  I look forward to working with both of them to fulfill the dream of our parents.  To provide a secure and a better life for our children and a secure and a better life for our nation.  Thank you.

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