Panetta Praises Nation’s Unity on 9/11
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2011 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he, like millions of others, carries memories of Sept. 11, 2001 “seared into my insides, and my heart, and my mind.”
Panetta was on Capitol Hill that day briefing members of Congress in his capacity as chairman of an oceans commission, he told Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service reporters yesterday.
“A fellow member on the commission leaned over to me, and said ‘I’ve just gotten word from my New York office that the [World Trade Center] towers have been … attacked by terrorists,” the secretary said.
That news, Panetta said, was shared with the others in the room.
“I think there was just kind of a consensus of the moment that said we’d better all get out of there, and we did,” he said.
Panetta said he was driving away from the capitol when he heard the Pentagon had been attacked.
Like thousands of others, the secretary said, he was stranded in Washington when all flights were grounded. Finally, he rented a car to drive home to California, which he reached in two and a half days.
“That trip back home … you could see America coming together, unifying, as a result of that attack,” Panetta said.
Signs and flags on homes and businesses showed that unity, he added.
“For me, it was really encouraging that you could see the great strength of this country, the great spirit of this country, responding to the worst terrorist attack we’ve ever had in our history,” the secretary said.
Americans’ response to the 9/11 attacks recalled the nation’s reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Panetta said.
“[We] came together and said, ‘we’re not going to let that happen again,’” he said.
The Defense Department has focused strongly on counter-terrorism since 9/11, Panetta said, but the nation faces a number of other threats and challenges.
During the Cold War, he said, the primary threat was the world’s other superpower, the Soviet Union, which “threatened everything that we stood for.”
That single-enemy focus simplified defense and national security concerns, the secretary noted. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, a series of threats and crises has complicated America’s security strategy, he added.
“In my 40 years in Washington, I’ve never seen as many different challenges,” the secretary said.
Among those challenges Panetta listed counter-terrorism operations, including involvement in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas, as well as in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, the recent NATO mission in Libya, daily cyber attacks, and rising powers including China, Russia, Brazil and India, which “we’ve got to be able to work with, hopefully, but ultimately could have a huge impact in terms of the stability of the world.”
Iran and North Korea also are national security concerns, he said, as “rogue countries that are … trying to develop nuclear capability and threaten the world.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panetta said, continue to place the nation’s service members in harm’s way.
Every one of those areas is a major threat, the secretary said.
As a result, Panetta said, the U.S. military -- now and into the future -- has to be agile, flexible and quickly deployable.
The 9/11 attacks were a tragedy that left nearly 3,000 families mourning the death of someone close to them, the secretary said.
“There’s nothing that can replace a loved one, and that was tragic,” he said.
Yet, out of that tragedy the nation has drawn inspiration to come together, Panetta said.
And the men and women who have volunteered to serve in the U.S. military, he added, are the greatest reflection of that inspiration.
“We now have, I think, the strongest volunteer force in the history of this country,” Panetta said.
Active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and their National Guard and Reserve counterparts represent a “national mobilization of spirit and effort and commitment,” the secretary said.
“As secretary of defense … I know I have the very best military in the world,” Panetta said. “Why? Because of the men and women who have been willing to leave their homes, put their lives on the line, and fight on behalf of the safety of this country.”
The strength of the nation’s defense is not in its weapons, but in its uniformed ranks, he said. And those ranks, he added, have drawn closer over the last decade.
“I was an intelligence officer in the Army a long time ago,” Panetta said. “I … never talked to the Navy, never talked to the Marines, never talked to any other services. I basically operated in my own little stovepipe.”
By contrast, his youngest son deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, the secretary said.
“He’s suddenly sitting beside CIA, Special Forces -- every service is represented in that operation,” he noted.
That experience is typical of today’s joint force operations and represents a “real strength” for the United States, Panetta said.
“Our ability to … work together, to bring all of our strengths together, this is really unique,” he added.
That unity of forces is one result of operations since 9/11, and makes the nation much more capable in facing current and future threats, he said.
During the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Panetta said, he advises Americans to reflect on what happened.
“For those that have faith … to be able to go to a church and spend a little time,” he said. “Not only put the victims of what happened on that day in your prayers and in your thoughts, but also say a prayer for this country.”
America’s greatest strength is its men and women who are willing to serve and fight together, and if necessary, give their lives for the country’s safety, Panetta said.