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Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at U.S. Special Operations Command's Change of Command Ceremony (As Delivered)

Good afternoon, everyone. 

Thank you General Milley for that introduction and for all that you do for our military. 

And I join the Chairman in honoring the Wounded Warriors and the Gold Star families who are here with us today. Your loved ones’ extraordinary bravery, service, and sacrifice is something that we can never repay and we will never forget. 

I’m also pleased to welcome members of Congress and so many current and former military and civilian leaders. 

You know, it’s great to be back in Tampa. When I served in uniform, I spent lots of time at MacDill and in this community. So being here always feels like coming home.

Now, today we’re celebrating General Clarke for his leadership of this Command and his lifetime of service. And we’re welcoming General Fenton, who I know will do an exceptional job. So this is a special day at Special Operations Command. 

But it’s also a day for reflection. 

Today, we mark one year since the end of the war in Afghanistan. 

And I remain enormously proud of the U.S. military’s professionalism and bravery over 20 years of war, proud of the work of our NATO allies and partners who supported our hope for a better future for the Afghan people, and proud of this Command’s relentless fight, doing only what special operators can do. 

You know, it was the “quiet professionals” of SOCOM who were among the first on the ground in Afghanistan in 2001. 

When I led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and served as CENTCOM Commander, I relied on special operators and support teams for your skill, for your precision, for your bold determination to confront any threat, any time.

And you remain vigilant every day. 

For SOCOM, the mission ahead will also require your expertise as we focus on today’s security environment. One where China’s aggression is our number one pacing challenge. And where Russia remains an acute threat, especially after President Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine. 

At the same time, Special Operations Forces will maintain the watch to protect our country from terrorist threats.  

Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, this Command has been instrumental in developing over-the-horizon counter-terrorism approaches. 

And no one—no one—should doubt the fierce resolve of the United States to protect our homeland. 

The world saw that back in February, in the successful mission that took out the global leader of ISIS and again, just a few weeks ago, in an airstrike that killed the emir of al Qaeda.

And SOCOM, we’ll also rely on your contributions to integrated deterrence. 

Integrated deterrence means working seamlessly across all domains, and across the full spectrum of conflict, and working closely with the interagency and with our strong network of allies and partners across the globe. 

Every day, you’re helping us realize that vision for our security.

So SOCOM is hard at work here in Tampa, at Theater Special Operations Commands, and in more than 80 countries around the world. They’re working hard to set the conditions that prevent conflicts before they start and to create multiple dilemmas for our adversaries and to deliver the right effect, at the right place, at the right time. 

And for decades, SOCOM, you have supported interoperability with our SOF allies and partners around the globe. 

At SOCOM, you also know that how you do what you do matters. So you’ve embraced civilian oversight with your counterparts at SOLIC. And when military and civilian leaders share a true partnership, that’s a powerful combination. And that’s how we’ll make sure that Special Operations Forces have the broadest range of resources and technologies and the best people to succeed in today’s security environment.  

So we are enormously proud of the men and women of SOCOM. So ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for the men and women of SOCOM. 

[Applause]

It is clear that SOCOM has done vital work these past three years. And that’s a testament to the principled and dedicated leader you’ve had in General Rich Clarke.

Military service runs deep in the Clarke family. So I want to add my appreciation to all of them for their dedication to our country. 

I also want to thank Suzanne for all the work that she has done with military families over the years. And a special thanks to the Clarke children, who as the Chairman pointed out, are not really children. They are full adults and doing well. Will and Madeleine, we are grateful for your sacrifices. You have been by your dad’s side for every move and supported him during every deployment over the last 38 years. So thanks for your sacrifices and again, Suzanne, thanks for all that you have done on behalf of our families and in support of the nation.

[Applause]

You know, Rich is also the product of the West Point Class of 1984. And I’m told that some of his fellow classmates are here today.

[Cheers]

Rich is also the product of the West Point Class of 1984.

[Louder cheers]

Okay Rich, I think some of your classmates are in fact here today.

[Laughter]

Welcome classmates.

Now, according to those classmates, at the Academy, Rich was considered the least likely to stay in the military for more than five years. 

[Laughter]

And at the time, staying in for five years was in fact Rich and Suzanne’s plan. 

But then, a Ranger Regimental Commander invited Rich to try out for the Rangers. And that changed everything. 

In the Rangers, Rich found a team living by their creed to move further, faster, and fight harder. And not for personal glory but because, as Rich has said, when you push yourself to the next level, every Ranger to your left and right will meet you there. 

Now that focus on character and on excellence has formed General Clarke’s leadership style ever since. 

It’s what has defined his two decades of command. Two decades of command.

And it’s what made him such a successful Commandant at West Point. Those are significant accomplishments, especially when you consider that he was a guy that was only planning to stay in five years. And, I would note, instead of the least likely to stay in the military, today, General Clarke retires as the last member of the Class of 1984 in continuous, active duty service. 

Now, I actually saw General Clarke’s relentless pursuit of excellence for myself when I was CENTCOM Commander. 

At the time, General Clarke was leading our effort to train and equip Iraqi soldiers as a Commander of the famed 82nd Airborne Division. As they were preparing for the battles of Ramadi and Mosul, I pushed him and the 82nd Airborne Division to speed up their timeline. And true to form, Rich and his team worked hard and moved further and faster, and they fought harder. And they absolutely got the job done.

Here at SOCOM, General Clarke has made this Command more resilient. He’s improved the quality of special operators. And he’s strengthened SOCOM’s force and families.

Rich, I want to personally thank you for all you’ve done to keep America safe and to serve all those under your command. You have done a magnificent job.

I wish you and Suzanne all the best in a well-deserved retirement. 

[Applause]

As we say farewell to one outstanding leader at SOCOM, we are welcoming another in General Bryan Fenton. 

Now, if you had to pick a few words to sum up Bryan, they would be: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”

[Applause]

Couple of Notre Dame guys in the crowd, too. Notre Dame!

[Cheers]

Yup, they’re there.

Bryan’s love for the University of Notre Dame began at a young age. And he’s said that wanting to go to college there was what prompted him to fill out an ROTC application. 

That application set him on a path to spend the next 35 years in uniform.

And General Fenton has served in, and commanded at, every level of Special Operations Forces.

He’s been a part of operations in nearly every region around the world.

And General Fenton has built up extensive expertise in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, he managed to get four consecutive assignments in Hawaii. 

[Laughter]

Four assignments in Hawaii. And it culminated in General Fenton becoming the first special operations officer to serve as the deputy commander at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. 

Bryan, following your time in Hawaii, it must have felt like your luck had run out when you had to leave surfing behind, and you took your next assignment at the Pentagon as the Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. 

But when I walked into the office on my first day, I have to say Bryan, I was really glad to have you there as one of the first people I met. 

I will be forever grateful for your steady leadership through historic challenges, for the spirit of teamwork that you instilled, and for your sound judgment and wise counsel. 

I also want to echo the Chairman’s recognition of your wife, Dawn, who has served right alongside you for the past three decades, and your two daughters, who have done amazing work in their lifetime as well. 

Your daughter Nora graduated from Notre Dame in 2021, and she is in the Army Reserves.

Your daughter Cecelia is a junior at Notre Dame and also enrolled in Army ROTC.

Now Bryan, I won’t hazard a guess on whether it’s the Army or the Notre Dame part of their resumes that makes you the most proud.  

Now, what makes General Fenton ideal for this Command is his focus on people. 

Everywhere he’s worked, he’s created the kind of environment where people want to perform. 

He’s invested in his teammates and trusted them to get the job done. 

And he’s embodied the SOF Truths that guide everything you do here. 

So General Fenton, congratulations. And I know you will take this Command bravely forward.

Now, I know that your SOF Truths are unique to this Command. But they also drive at something that’s fundamental to our entire military.   

And it’s this:    

The United States has the strongest fighting force in the world. 

And it’s not because we have superior weapons, although we do.

It’s not because we have better tactics, though we have those, too. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we are the world’s strongest fighting force, because our people and the values that our people stand for are far and beyond what everybody else brings to the table. 

Our strength is our people. And at SOCOM, I’m proud of the way you prove that every single day. 

Thank you for all that you do in the service of our great nation.  

May God bless you and keep you safe. 

And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Thank you very much.