Gates Reflects on Service as Wartime Defense Secretary
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2008 Less than three months before the next administration takes office, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he’ll leave his post satisfied he made a difference to ensure warfighters have what they need to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with confidence that their leaders are being held accountable for their actions.
Gates said today he feels “quite a bit of satisfaction” as the driving force behind causes he championed to protect troops in combat, bring them new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, capabilities and care for those wounded on the battlefield.
Speaking to reporters as he returned from Fort Bragg, N.C., Gates said he feels a deep commitment to the men and women in uniform and sense of personal responsibility when he sends them to war.
“It helps that they want to go,” he said. “They see the challenge. They want to go. They want to fight the fight. They want to win the fight.
“So one of the things that helps me deal with the fact that I am sending them into harm’s way is to do every damn thing I can to give them everything they need to win and to come home safely.”
Toward that end, Gates has become something of a maverick, bucking a bureaucracy he believes often stands in its own way. Too many people in the Defense Department, he said, want a “99 percent solution” to a problem, even if it will take years to achieve, rather than settling for a “75 or 80 percent solution” reachable in months.
And Gates has demonstrated repeatedly that he wants solutions that will save warfighters’ lives today.
He said he’s “very satisfied” with progress in fielding mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs. This was the result of an effort he spearheaded to provide deployed troops better protection against underbelly explosions.
The program represents the first major equipment procurement to go from concept to industrial production in less than a year, he said. Last month, it reached a major milestone as the number of MRAPs delivered to U.S. Central Command reached 10,000.
“They’re not impervious, but they are saving lives,” Gates said. He noted that just a few days ago, he saw a photograph of an MRAP that had been hit by an explosively formed penetrator – far deadlier than a standard improvised explosive device. “All the kids survived,” he said.
As the MRAP program moves forward, Gates said he’s “pretty much satisfied” that the Defense Department is beginning to make similar progress in providing ISR assets to support warfighters.
Gates announced in April that he had created a task force to give the ISR issue the same level emphasis as the MRAP program. “My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield,” the secretary said during an April speech to Air War College students. “While we have doubled this capability in recent months, it is still not good enough.”
“People are really bending into it now,” Gates said today, doubling ISR capability since he announced his initiative.
The fusion of intelligence and operations has created “an insatiable appetite” for the information these systems provide and proof of the need to institutionalize intelligence operations, he said. “I don’t want us to ever forget what we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
Gates demands monthly progress reports to ensure both programs stay on track. “I have them come back and report to me every month what they are doing,” Gates said. “It kind of holds their concentration.”
Another priority for Gates – one he frequently says comes directly after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is care for wounded troops. Gates said feels good about the turnaround since problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center surfaced in February 2007, just months after he took office, through a series of Washington Post news articles.
Gates bristles when he talks about the way leaders initially brushed off the problem as “just a couple of NCOs not doing their job.”
He responded in a tough manner that surprised many at the time, firing Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and Army Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the Walter Reed commander.
Gates imposed this tough sense of accountability again in June when he asked Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley to resign over problems in the Air Force nuclear weapons program.
“Too often, I have seen bureaucracy in Washington – and not just in the Department of Defense – that when something goes wrong, it is the men and woman at the bottom of the ladder who get punished, and never anybody high in the … hierarchy,” he said.
“And I just think that’s wrong. People in senior positions can’t know every problem out there,” he said. “But when a problem is brought to your attention and you don’t take it seriously enough, that’s a problem.”
Since the Walter Reed incident, Gates said he’s seen a dramatic improvement in care for wounded warriors. “These people deserve to be treated the best of the best, and I really feel that we let them down,” he said.
“I feel good about the fact that we are trying to do better,” he said. “The services, and especially the Army and Marine Corps, have really embraced all of this. The senior leadership is very focused on taking good care of wounded warriors and their families.”
Meanwhile, Gates said he’s seen improvements in how the department reaches out to families of the fallen and said he wants to do more.
He said he was struck earlier this week during the first Pentagon Wounded Warriors Family Summit, when the wife of a soldier killed in combat asked why the bureaucracy made it so difficult for her children to remain in their Department of Defense Dependents School.
Families whose loved one is killed in action face the trauma of the loss itself, the trauma of having to move out of their post housing, then the trauma of having to take their children out of the schools they attend, Gates said today.
“I think we ought to be able to do something about at least the third thing,” he said. “So this is an issue that for the next couple of months I am going to push very hard…That’s a small thing we can do.”
As he looked back over his 23 months as defense secretary, Gates most of the high points have been his experiences with the troops. He recalled an experience at Forward Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan, listening to a captain he walked with talk about dealing with mayors, negotiating with the local population, fighting the fighting, building roads and partnering with Iraqi security forces.
“I will never forget that as long as I live,” he said. “And I think, what an incredible array of responsibilities for – I hesitate to say this… some kid 30 years old.”
“At the end of the day, it always comes back to the kids,” Gates said.
He recalled his time as president of Texas A&M University, and the personal sense of responsibility he said he felt for each his 46,000 students. “They would walk around in shorts and T-shirts and flip flops and backpacks,” he said.
“And then I come to this job and I see kids the same age, 18 to 25, wearing full body armor [and] putting themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “And if I felt individual responsibility for each of those students at Texas A&M, I feel that responsibility doubly for the people here.
“Making sure that they have everything they need to do their mission and to come home safely is my personal responsibility. I regard them as my own sons and daughters.”