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Change of Responsibility for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Friday, September 30, 2011

Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:  It is indeed a privilege for me to be able to honor two very special persons and two very special human beings.  Thank you all for being here to help pay tribute to Admiral Mike Mullen for his more than four decades of service to our nation and to help recognize General Marty Dempsey for once again answering the country's call as he takes on the new leadership role as chairman. 

But first of all, none of us in public service could do these jobs without the love and support of our families.  I want to extend my deepest thanks to Admiral Mullen's family -- his wife, Deborah, his two sons, jack and Michael, who both followed in their father's footsteps, attending the Naval Academy and now serve with the fleet. 

And I also want to recognize General Dempsey's family -- his wife, Deanie, Marty's three children, Chris, Megan, Caitlin.  They also followed in their father's footsteps and became soldiers  It is truly inspiring to see the same commitment to serve this nation passing to a new generation of leaders who will follow in the footsteps of their fathers. 

Throughout my long career in public service, I've had the distinct honor to serve with a vast array of immensely talented people and impressive leaders.  But for me, Admiral Mullen will always stand apart in a special place.  His leadership, his influence, his honest candor, his straight talk, his compassion and his outspoken concern for our troops and for their families have set him apart, and he has set an exceptionally high standard for the role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs. 

He's defined the role of the 21st-century chairman of the Joint Chiefs:  part warrior, part diplomat, part mediator, spokesman, fighter, leader. 

Mike's career is an example of dogged persistence and hard work.  As Mike tells it, few of his Naval Academy classmates, the now-famous class of 1968, I think most of them are here, but most of them would not have predicted that Mike would last five years in the Navy.  Let alone, rise to the pinnacle of his military profession. 

And yet after serving in the fleet, seeing combat in Vietnam, Mike was taken by the Navy, and the Navy was taken by Mike.  And thanks in part to great mentors who saw his deep inner strength, his leadership qualities, he flourished, rising to command a carrier strike group, U.S. naval forces in Europe and serving as the 28th chief of naval operations. 

Mike came into the job of chairman in the fall of 2007, which was not an easy time.  It was a critical time for our military and for our country.  We faced hard fighting, heavy casualties in Iraq as the surge troops battled a determined insurgency.  Afghanistan was slipping away as the Taliban expanded its presence throughout the country.  And our military forces, particularly the ground troops, were under tremendous strain, deployment after deployment after deployment. 

He was determined to preserve the health of our all-volunteer force even in the face of the unrelenting demand from these wars.  He saw what the repeated deployments were doing to America's finest:  our young men and women exhausted, wounded warriors returning home bearing the scars of war and those bearing unseen scars, forever changed by the horrors they witnessed. 

Mike saw before many others that the war in Afghanistan needed more attention, more resources and a new approach.  And we owe a great deal to Mike's vision, his determination, his dedication and his tireless work as a military diplomat throughout the region.  And I am personally honored by the fact that the operation that took down bin Laden could not have been done without Mike's support and without his cooperation.  

He also made extraordinary progress on Asian-Pacific matters.  He worked to prevent a dangerous escalation in the conflict on the Korean peninsula, and helped our allies, Japan and South Korea, forge closer ties.  

And perhaps the single issue where Mike's influence was most decisive was the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."  At a moment in time when few thought it was possible, his courageous testimony and leadership on this issue were major factors in bringing about this important change.  His courage and his honesty achieved what we -- what will be forever known as a milestone in the history of equal rights for all. 

Mike tells it like it is and, frankly, that's a rare quality in this town.  At a dinner this week I was reminded by Mike that his father was a Hollywood publicist.  And as I thought about it, I stated that Mike, in many ways, represented in my mind the culmination of all of the qualities from "The Wizard of Oz": a great brain, a great heart and great courage, and sometimes a little wizardry behind the curtain to get things done. 

So it's time to say a few words as well about his Dorothy, the remarkable woman who has been by his side since his first date in 1967 at an Army-Navy game, his wife, Deborah. 

Actually, both of them came from showbiz families.  Her mother was a dancer from Australia, and I know their love of the theater continues today, and hopefully they'll now have some time to enjoy that.  Deborah, as we all know, has been a steadfast and tireless advocate for more and better resources to care for our wounded warriors and their families. 

She's been at the forefront of issues confronting military families: spousal employment, homelessness, survivor benefits, education, post-traumatic stress.  And no one has done more to bring to light the special challenges being faced by military children whom, she would have often noted, labor under a special kind of fear. 

As only a military spouse and a military mom could do, she was a powerful voice for our families.  Deborah, you are a national treasure, and the country owes you a profound debt of gratitude. 

The good thing -- the good thing is that today we will move from one extraordinarily decent human being to another in the role of chairman.  Up from the roots of an Irish family from Bayonne, New Jersey, Marty truly came up from the grass roots.  He knows about people; he knows about hard work; he knows about sacrifice.  Having worked with Marty over these past few months, I can say that the president made a truly inspired choice in picking him to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He brings a keen intellect, proven leadership, strategic vision, and most of all, humanity to that critical post.  And, oh, yes, he tells it like it is as well, only with an Irish smile. 

Marty's strategic vision is the right one for this time of transition as we craft the joint force that can defeat the wide range of security threats that we face in the world today and in the future.  At this time of budget constraints, he will be a great partner in maintaining the best defense force in the world. 

Marty, I know that both the president and I will greatly benefit from your advice and counsel.  I'm also delighted that your wife, Deanie, is joining our team.  She too is a real friend to military families, an advocate of wounded warriors, and I know that she'll continue to champion the cause of military families.               

As the new secretary of defense, I am supremely confident of the future because we have the strongest military force in our history and in the history of the world.  And it is strong exactly because we can replace one great warrior with another.  The men and women in uniform are the greatest asset we have.  They are our greatest strength.  And we celebrate that strength today by honoring these two great leaders. 

It is now my privilege to introduce another great leader who cares deeply about our men and women in uniform.  Ladies and gentlemen, our commander in chief, the President of the United States, Barack Obama. 

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