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U.S. SOUTHCOM Change of Command
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Miami, FL, Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good morning, and thank you.  We are especially honored to have so many representatives here today from the nations of this hemisphere – a tribute to the bonds of trust and partnership cultivated by the man we are honoring and seeing off today.

Over the course of his three-plus decades in uniform, Admiral James Stavridis has proven himself to be one of the military’s most incisive thinkers and innovating leaders – qualities that he applied in full to the work of Southern Command.

From the start of his tenure at SOUTHCOM, Admiral Stavridis has fostered a spirit of interagency and international cooperation that reflects the post-Cold War realities of the 21st century.  He has made SOUTHCOM the embodiment of what now is called “smart power,” drawing on the full strength of our nation and our partners to enhance the security, freedom, and prosperity of this part in the world.

Jim has certainly had an eventful tenure here.  During his time at SOUTHCOM:

·   Three American hostages were located and rescued in Colombia after more than five years of captivity, an effort that entailed more than 17,000 flight hours and 3,600 sorties;

·   The annual Panamax multilateral exercises grew to 20 nations, compared to three when this exercise began six years ago;

·   Nearly 700 metric tons of cocaine were interdicted;

·   Numerous military-to-military exercises were conducted, including 21 in 2008;

·    Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief were delivered and institutionalized; and

·   Jim did all this while also dealing with the thorny legal and political issues associated with Guantanamo.

When he first took this post nearly three years ago, Jim understood that the mix of security challenges facing this region – narcotics, corruption, gangs, kidnapping, and more – does not lend itself to military solutions as traditionally understood or practiced.  Toward this end, Jim has not just redrawn this command’s organisation charts, he has also fundamentally reformed its institutional culture and ways of doing business. 

It was Jim’s insight that building bonds of trust and friendship – especially in this hemisphere – would take more than the usual pronouncements.  Consider that arguably one of the most successful acts of American public diplomacy so far in this new century was the tour of the USNS Comfort in 2007.  This remarkable ship carrying a diverse and dedicated medical team visited 12 countries; had nearly 400,000 patient encounters; performed some 1,700 surgeries and more than 32,000 immunizations; and trained 28,000 medical students and technicians.  The success of that first tour spurred the subsequent Continuing Promise missions that carry on to this day.

Admiral Stavridis understood the importance of strategic communications and employing the latest tools and technology to reach out to worldwide audiences in a credible and compelling way – from his In the Americas blog to the Southcomwatch twitter.  And if you want to see what a basset hound looks like in sunglasses, I would urge you to visit Jim’s popular Facebook page.

As we can see, Jim’s initiatives went beyond the usual bureaucratic routine.  There were  movie showings, where staff were treated to films about everything from Che Guevara to the slums of Rio.  All for the very serious, and very necessary purpose of seeing that the men and women of SOUTHCOM understand the people of the Americas – their history and culture, their grievances, as well as their aspirations.

It was Admiral Stavridis’ unique combination of strategic vision and diplomatic skill that led me to recommend him to lead European Command and be Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.  Not only is he the first Navy officer to hold this post, he is also the first Greek American – something that I know is a source of great pride for Jim and his family.

Admiral Stavridis is no doubt looking forward to his new NATO duties with great enthusiasm.  For all I know Jim has been studying Flemish and Walloon to add to the list of languages he has mastered over the years.  Of course, Jim must also learn to speak NATO – where an OMLT is not breakfast dish you make with eggs, and a CJSOR is not a painful symptom of some unmentionable disease.   I certainly look forward to an update on Jim’s bright-eyed enthusiasm at the next ministerial, especially after all 28 defense ministers of the North Atlantic Council have taken a turn at speaking.  Just between us, my secret is crossword puzzles.  

A few minutes ago in the awards ceremony, I had a chance to pay tribute to Laura Stavridis, and all the extraordinary work she has done in this command and in this community.   I know that I speak for the men and women of SOUTHCOM and their families in saying that you will be sorely missed, and will leave behind a legacy of generosity and service that will long outlast the three years that you made this corner of the Americas.

Today, we are also privileged to welcome a new leader, General Douglas Fraser, and his wife Rena, to this important post.  General Fraser’s long and distinguished career has seen staff and command assignments at every level of the Air Force and joint community, culminating with his tenure as deputy at Pacific Command – an organization whose area of responsibility encompasses about half the earth’s surface and more than half the world’s population.

Over the course of his life and career, General Fraser has shown himself able to adapt easily to vastly different environments.  Not only did he spend a good part of his childhood in South America, but his last PCS was from Alaska to Hawaii.  Doug, I bet they really had to twist your arm to take that one.

As with Admiral Stavridis going to Europe, General Fraser’s appointment to this post also marks another first, as no Air Force officer has ever before led Southern Command.  The trajectory of these officers’ careers, and the billets they are now taking, is but one more indication of how joint our military leadership has become, and how much America’s global-security arrangements have evolved since the end of the Cold War. 

I would like to close by recognizing and extending my appreciation to the men and women of Southern Command.  The important work you do here every day is making a difference to the prosperity, security, and freedom of your countrymen and to the people of the region.  You have the enduring gratitude and respect of the American people.

Thank you.