A week after I began my tenure as Secretary of Defense on July 1st, I travelled to visit our men and women serving in uniform in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having just returned to Washington, I wanted to share with you some personal reflections about this TDY, as I plan to do following future trips overseas.
The main purpose of this first visit was to meet with the men and women who are putting their lives on the line to defend America. In small troop lunches, operational briefings and larger group sessions, I had several opportunities to thank them for their service and hear from them directly. I could only touch a small fraction of the force on this visit, but I want everyone serving in uniform, along with this Department’s civilian employees, to know how much I respect what you do for our country and the very real difference you are making to this nation.
My first destination was Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There, we met with the outstanding Commander of ISAF, General David Petraeus (who has been confirmed by the Senate to succeed me as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency) and his extremely capable successor, Lieutenant General John Allen. After a brief stop at Camp Eggers, our delegation headed to the presidential palace to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Over dinner, we discussed our shared commitment to transition and the substantial progress being made in building up the Afghan National Security Forces, which is absolutely key in order for this upcoming transition to proceed. I was very taken by President Karzai’s clear admiration for the U.S. military. We talked about how the United States – going back to the days of George Washington – had maintained a military that was professional and apolitical. This is one of the major goals of the ANSF, and yet another example of how America’s military serves as a model to the world.
The following morning, we took a short hop on a C-17 to Camp Dwyer in Helmand province. Helmand is a former Taliban stronghold that today is much more secure thanks to the heroic efforts of the Marines, who make up the bulk of our fighting forces there. At Dwyer, where the temperature was in the triple digits and the dust was thick, I had lunch with a group of Marine junior officers, visited an Army MEDEVAC unit and combat hospital, and observed partnering work being done with the Afghan Army, including IED clearance training. I then had a chance to speak to troops from USMC Combat Logistics Battalion 7, who conduct route clearance operations and move supplies out to forward operating bases throughout the area. It was really extraordinary to meet these young men and women who are making such sacrifices to protect America. To look into their eyes is to look into the heart and soul of our country.
After a full day at Camp Dwyer, we boarded our C-17 and headed to Baghdad, where we were met by General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq and an extraordinary military leader. I first visited Iraq in 2006 as a member of the Iraq Study Group, when the country was in considerable turmoil. Thanks to the tremendous sacrifices American men and women in uniform have made, Iraq is on a much better path today. After spending a night at Camp Victory, I had lunch with junior enlisted troops at one of the camp’s dining facilities, and then spoke to a group of soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division, the 2/1 Advise and Assist Brigade, and the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team of the Idaho National Guard, about the importance of our work in Iraq. We are doing everything we can to help Iraq become a stable democracy that can defend, secure, and govern itself in a responsible way.
In support of that goal, my visit to Iraq concluded with a series of meetings with top Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Maliki, President Talabani, and Kurdistan Regional Government President Barzani, with whom I met with in Erbil – a 45 minute flight from Baghdad. I had previously met with all of these leaders before in my capacity as CIA Director, but this was a chance for us to develop a deeper relationship in my new capacity and to talk about a range of issues critical to the security partnership we have established. At the top of that list: the need to take action against Iranian-backed militant groups that are attacking our forces and the Iraqi people, and our future security relationship. I encouraged the Iraqi leaders to continue to do everything they are authorized to do to stop these attacks – and I reiterated that I will not hesitate to use all authorities at my disposal to do the same.
From Erbil, I boarded an Air Force E-4B – the National Airborne Operations Center also known as the “Doomsday Plane” – for the 12-hour flight back to Washington. We took time on the flight to acknowledge and celebrate some birthdays and a new grandchild in the Pentagon press family. This was my first trip as Secretary, and seeing and meeting with our troops inspires me to do everything I can to make sure we prevail in these conflicts and provide our service members and their families what they need to accomplish their mission.
Thank you for reading. May God bless you and the nation we serve.