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Farewell to Congressman Ike Skelton

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Fort Myer, Monday, February 14, 2011

Good afternoon.  Senator Blunt, Chairman McKeon, other distinguished guests, Ike’s family, Patty, your sons – thank you for being here. 

I’m honored to be here as we pay public tribute to one of the great champions of our military, and the men and women who serve it, Congressman Ike Skelton.  Even though Ike did not end his career in Congress at the exact time of his choosing, he long ago earned his place in history beside the great legislators of the United States House of Representatives and Chairmen of the Armed Services Committee. 

Ike’s family is steeped in public service, and that Skelton tradition continues with his sons Ike, Jim and Page.  Ike is a Navy Captain, Jim is an Army Colonel, and Page – the entrepreneur in the family – is providing a very important public good with the award-winning spice sauce his company created.  Page I’ve heard great reviews, and as a barbeque connoisseur I’m eager to try it.

Apart from his family, Ike’s great passion throughout his career has been the great state of Missouri…I got a better idea of that passion, and his legendary love of military history, after my wife Becky was given the honor of sponsoring the new USS Missouri, a Virginia-class submarine commissioned last July.  In the course of not one, not two, but three ceremonies for the USS Missouri – this being the Navy, after all – we got to spend a lot of time with Ike.  And a highlight of these ceremonies was hearing him recount the storied history of the four ships previously named Missouri, including the one that Ike’s father served onboard during World War I.

The newest USS Missouri is not my only link to the Show-Me state – Becky and I spent a formative year of our lives in the fourth congressional district.  I moved to Missouri in the beginning of 1967 to serve as a freshly commissioned second lieutenant at Whiteman Air Force Base.  And forty years later, as Secretary of Defense, I had the pleasure of joining Chairman Skelton on a visit back to Whiteman – which under his watch, and in no small measure thanks to his influence, has grown into a premiere military installation.  The B-2 bombers now stationed there are certainly more impressive than the largest fixed-wing aircraft Whiteman had back when I reported for duty – which, by the way, was a Cessna.

And since we are in an Army facility, I would be remiss not to mention Ike’s determined advocacy for Fort Leonard Wood and its important training mission.    

Over the course of his nearly 35 years in Washington, Ike not only saw to it that his constituents concerns were addressed – he made sure that his approach to solving problems and governing always reflected the values of those who sent him here.  That meant putting a premium on common sense, and valuing hard work over posturing or bluster. 

Ike is one of the architects of our national security apparatus as it exists today.  As many of you know and General Cartwright mentioned, he participated in drafting and implementing the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 – the most sweeping reorganization of the Department of Defense since the administration of President Truman, or as he was known in the Skelton family, the man from Independence.  The hallmark of Ike’s career, however, was the attention he paid to our sacred duty as leaders in government to care of our troops and their families.  Whether it was fighting for better housing and facilities for service members and families or pushing for increased end strength to reduce the strain borne during two wars this decade, Ike made the well-being of our men and women in uniform his highest priority. 

For these reasons, Ike was more than ready to take the gavel of the House Armed Services Committee.  His tenure as Chairman and my time as Secretary of Defense are inextricably linked.  Following my Senate confirmation as the new Secretary of Defense, the first committee that called me to testify was the House Armed Services Committee – for the first hearing Ike presided over as Chairman.  It was January 2007, and the subject was “The Way Forward in Iraq” – not an easy pitch or an easy audience.  But I can assure you that in that and subsequent hearings Chairman Skelton’s questions were tough, they were pointed – but they were always fair.  And I will always be proud to call him friend.

In his farewell speech on the House floor, Ike challenged his fellow members of Congress to remember that good intentions to support our military must be translated into action.  Congress, he said, bears the constitutional responsibility to fulfill this sacred duty.  Because Ike fulfilled that duty, our military is now stronger, and our men and women in uniform have more of what they need to perform their missions and to come home safely. 

Ike, I want to express the gratitude of the Department of Defense, and, perhaps most importantly to you, the gratitude of the troops whose cause and concerns you made your own.  You will be missed, but your legacy will be felt for years and decades to come. 

Thank you.

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