Armed Forces Farewell to the President of the United States (Arlington, VA)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Arlington, VA, Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Thank you, Admiral Mullen.
Some of you of a certain generation might remember a line from the John Wayne movie “Red River,” an epic story of a thousand-mile cattle drive across Texas. At one point, one of the characters says: “There’s three times in a man’s life when he has the [a] right to yell at the moon: when he marries, when his children come, and when he finishes a job he had to be crazy to start.” Well, before President Bush finishes this job, I’m pleased to have this chance – on behalf of the United States military – to pay tribute to our Commander in Chief and give him proper thanks.
The legacy of George W. Bush in matters of war and peace began taking form more than a year before he first took the oath of office. In the fall of 1999, then-Governor Bush gave a speech at the Citadel titled “A Period of Consequences.” He observed that nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military was still organized more for Cold War threats than for the challenges of a new century – what he called “an era of car bombers and plutonium merchants and cyber terrorists and drug cartels and unbalanced dictators – all the unconventional and invisible threats of new technologies and old hatreds.”
On a bright Tuesday morning in September, eight months into President Bush’s first term, we learned how dangerous and unpredictable this new era could be, and saw in the starkest terms how necessary was the task of transforming the American defense establishment to meet these challenges.
It was a task inspired by the vision of President Bush, propelled by the energetic advocacy of Secretary Rumsfeld, informed by the experience of our senior military leaders, and accelerated by the urgent demands of two unconventional ground wars. The result is an American military that has become more agile, lethal, and prepared to deal with the full spectrum of 21st century conflict – and, on a personal note, a force that is dramatically more deployable and expeditionary than when I last served in government 15 years ago.
Consider just a few of the historic changes:
• The Army has undergone its most significant restructuring in more than two generations, moving from a division-based to a modular brigade-based force;
• The Navy’s Fleet Response Plan has nearly doubled the number of strike carrier groups that can be surged in the first weeks of a crisis;
• America’s Special Forces have seen vast increases in budget, personnel, authorities – and most importantly, in capabilities – in the campaign against terrorism worldwide;
• The number of unmanned aerial vehicles has grown some 40-fold to more than 6,000, and we have seen a genuine revolution in the military’s ability to fuse intelligence and operations;
• Cold War basing arrangements in Germany, Korea, and Japan have been modernized and sized to better reflect the security requirements of this century;
• New authorities and programs enable the military to build the capacity of allies and partners in cooperation with civilian agencies and organizations;
• And much, much more.
As this historic institutional shift was underway, President Bush led our military through two major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and a broader struggle against terrorist networks worldwide. He has not flinched when faced with difficult war-time decisions, including the momentous decision two years ago to send more troops into Iraq and revamp our strategy there.
Nor has the President ever hidden from the human consequences of his decisions. We have seen this in countless visits with the wounded at Walter Reed, Bethesda, and other military hospitals. And there are the meetings that he and the First Lady have held with thousands of family members of wounded and fallen troops.
The President’s deep regard and affection for our service members and their families has played out in ways big and small: surprise visits to Iraq and Afghanistan to shake hands and high-five, and personal phone calls to those deployed over Thanksgiving. And even the occasional chest bump to unwary cadets.
Some might remember the story of Staff Sergeant Michael McNaughton of the Louisiana National Guard. In January 2003, he stepped on a land mine 30 miles north of Kabul and lost his right leg. President Bush visited Michael at Walter Reed and suggested they go for a run when he received his prosthetic. Months later Michael and the president jogged around the South Lawn of the White House together.
A single promise to a single soldier. A small act that reflects President Bush’s commitment to care for and honor every member of the armed forces. Mr. President, every day these volunteers execute your orders with courage and determination – facing down danger for the greater good of America. On behalf of more than two million men and women in uniform, we are deeply grateful for your leadership and service to America in a time of war.
Finally and personally, I would like to thank you for granting me the opportunity to serve as Secretary of Defense. It is true that I have been known to grouse from time to time about coming back to Washington, D.C. Yet working every day with our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines has been the greatest honor of my life and I will always owe you a debt of gratitude for that. I have appreciated your steadfast confidence and support over these past two years. I wish you and Laura the very best as you begin the next phase in your lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.