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Remarks at CENTCOM Change of Command

Good afternoon, everyone.  Just...before we get started, just take a moment to look at those men and women in front of us.  So magnificent and so proud.  And what they stand for, which is many, many, many more behind them.  You all look absolutely fabulous, we're so proud of you.

Many distinguished guests, elected officials, members of the CENTCOM team, friends, family, it's an honor to be with you as we honor two great Americans and their families.  Today, we pass the torch between two of our military's most distinguished officers, between two leaders whose selfless dedication and service are emblematic of this command and its people, between General Lloyd Austin and General Joe Votel.

But before I speak to the qualities and accomplishments of two extraordinary leaders, I want to speak directly to you, all the men and women of CENTCOM, for what you do today and every day to protect America's interests in a troubled region, to keep our country and people safe.  For that, thank you.

As you coordinate the operations of your brothers and sisters who serve eight, nine or 10 times zones away, many of you I know keep the same hours.  For some of you, it can be dark when you get to work and dark when you get home.  I know that serving here at CENTCOM demands a lot from you and your families, and I want you and them to know how grateful I am, how grateful this country is, for what you do on many fronts, and particularly in the campaign to defeat ISIL.

I outlined our counter-ISIL campaign when I spoke earlier this year at CENTCOM.  Alongside Chairman Dunford, General Austin and General Votel, I described then the three central objectives of that campaign:  first, to destroy the ISIL parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and collapse its two power centers in Raqqa and Mosul; second, to combat the metastases of ISIL worldwide; and third, to protect our homeland.

One of the leaders we celebrate today put a finer point on our mission.  General Austin said, at that time, quote, “We've got to keep our dukes up.”  In your work across the U.S. government and with partners across the world, you've helped us do just that by creating and exploiting in ever-expanding opportunities to attack ISIL.

With additional training and assistance for local forces to take and hold territory and with support from coalition partners, we're continuing to gather momentum and we will deliver ISIL a lasting defeat.

In recent months, Iraqis trained and supported by the U.S.-led coalition have consolidated their gains around Ramadi.  They're reclaiming further territory in Anbar Province.  In Syria, capable local forces supported by the U.S. and our global coalition have retaken the eastern Syrian town of Shadadi, helping to severe the last major northern artery between Raqqah and Mosul.

Meanwhile, 90 percent of our military coalition partners have committed to increasing contributions to also help defeat ISIL.  We've increased out strikes on ISIL's oil enterprise and cash depots.  We've removed top ISIL leaders from the battlefield and conducted targeted strikes in Libya as well.

Of course, your work at CENTCOM extends well beyond one threat or even one critical campaign.  From your continued support of our ongoing mission to support the Afghan people in their pursuit of a secure and prosperous future, to your constant effort to deny Al Qaida and other violent extremists to safe haven, to your support for efforts to counter Iran's malign influence in the region, CENTCOM continues to address some of our nation's most vital national security interests.

Now, over the past three years, the people of CENTCOM have met these challenges under the extraordinary leadership of a towering figure in the life of our military, General Lloyd Austin.  Now, it's one of the highest compliments in the Army to be called a soldier's soldier, and for more than four decades, Lloyd Austin has not only demonstrated what it means to be a soldier's soldier, he's come to define it.

Through gallantry on the battlefield which earned him a Silver Star, through the courage he has inspired among his troops and through his quiet, confident determination to see every mission, Lloyd will be remembered among this generation's most accomplished soldiers, statesmen and strategists.  And to think, when Lloyd arrived at West Point in the 1970's, he had a simple plan; he would finish his service obligation and then attend law school.  Think about that.  Lloyd is your lawyer.  I think it would depend on what the crime was, how that worked out.

But truth be told, Lloyd, you might be starting a little late.  There's still time.  But of course, in the years that followed West Point, Lloyd showed a remarkable knack for leadership in the Army.

As Lloyd rose through the ranks, he excelled as leader within some of the Army's most celebrated institutions, whether during his time with the 10th Mountain, the 82nd Airborne or the 18th Airborne Corps, Lloyd left and imprint and a legacy and all he served.

But not even a leader of Lloyd's foresight could have anticipated how much the country would ask of him and his family over these past 15 years.  Over a period of time when we've asked so much from our troops and their families, few military leaders have given more, seen more and accomplished more than Lloyd Austin.

His actions in 2003, leading the 3rd Infantry Division into Baghdad, helped to capture the indomitable spirit and inspiring leadership that has defined his entire career.  One of Lloyd's soldiers, then-Sergeant Demetrius Johnson, once described the situation to a journalist, and I quote,
“there were units running low on ammo, visibility was low, and the enemy was closing in.  You could hear a lot of uncertainty in the voices of commanders on the radio.  But amid the sound and fury of that day, amid one of the largest infantry maneuvers in recent history, there was a powerful voice of calm at the center, that of then-Brigadier General Lloyd Austin.”

Rather than leading operations from afar, he led from the front.  Lloyd insisted that his command be nimble enough and close enough to the center of the fight.  Rather than raising his voice or shouting commands from behind the line, Lloyd took command of a complex, fluid and dangerous environment with complete composure.

As Master Sergeant Johnson explained, and I quote, “when you heard him…you got a sense of calm and peace…You trusted him.  Everyone he comes in contact with trusts him,” end quote.

And it's because of his quiet confidence and above all, the confidence it inspires — and because of his complete candor that General Austin has earned the trust of so many, not within — only within our military or our government, but they're including with their deep appreciation this Secretary of Defense and the President, but also across the world.

His patient insights, his powerful intellect and his undeniable presence have developed deep bonds of trust, and it is upon this foundation that Lloyd has helped to build a formidable military coalition now taking the fight to ISIL.

While few military leaders have overseen operations of greater complexity than General Austin, he's described a measure for success that is both simple and profound.  General Austin's ultimate objective, and I quote him, “is to be loved by his family, respected by his peers, feared by his enemies.” Lloyd, on all three accounts, you've accomplished your mission.

Your four decades of selfless service are a tribute to your personal integrity, to the force you have served so nobly, and to the country you love so deeply.  Lloyd, on behalf of the Department of Defense and a grateful nation, we thank you.

And I also want to thank your partner and inspiration, your lovely wife Charlene, for the tremendous support for the tremendous support that she has provided not only to you but the people and families of CENTCOM and so many who have served under your command.

Charlene, you've sacrificed greatly over these many years and we owe you and your entire family a tremendous debt of gratitude.  I know that you're looking forward to spending some more time with your husband, and we in the DOD family, to include Stephanie and me, wish your family the very best of luck.

Earlier today, I spoke about the distinguished leader who will assume General Austin's command, General Joe Votel.  As different as their two careers have been, both General Austin and General Votel share a common foundation.  These are two men who know what it means to be servant leaders and soldier statesmen.

As I said earlier today, I recommended General Votel to President Obama to lead CENTCOM for three central reasons, reasons that are plainly evident when you look at his extraordinary leadership.  First, Joe has extensive experience with all elements of the Joint Force: air, sea, ground, of course, special operations, but also cyber and space.  This Joint experience, and importantly, transregional experience, has provided him the perspective and authority to lead the enormous and varied forces America brings to bear in CENTCOM.

With SOCOM itself, his clear and creative problem-solving, from personnel and leadership to acquisition, and of course, operations, is something that I have come to consult myself again and again as I approach broader challenges in DOD.

Now, second, General Votel has extensive experience and deep understanding of CENTCOM's area of responsibility, its history, its challenges.

And third, over these past 19 months, Joe has forged difficult consensus and cemented strong partnerships with many of his regional counterparts.  His political military scale and strength as a warrior diplomat make him the perfect fit to be the next CENTCOM commander, a command where our partners matter so much and our partnerships run so deep.

Joe Votel and Lloyd Austin are two accomplished generals, but at their core, they're two devoted Americans who have demonstrated unwavering dedication to our mission, to the military and to its people and to the security of this great country.  Across their careers, both men have demonstrated what could be described as inherent resolve.  It's fitting, then, that as we mark the change of command between these leaders, that we introduce today the Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal.

I'm pleased to announce today, by the president's order and upon the chairman's and my recommendation that our sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines serving in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve are eligible for this medal and distinction.

As we continue to accelerate our counter-ISIL campaign, we will continue to depend on the men and women of CENTCOM.  It is you who provide us the flexibility to respond to any threat across this critical region, it is you who provide our partners the fortitude to reclaim their lands, their lives and their future.  And in General Joe Votel, you have a rare a leader with the capabilities and experience to carry forward the mission General Austin has led so capably.

So today, as we mark this change of command at CENTCOM between two proven statesmen, Joint Force warriors, coalition builders, we also celebrate a remarkable continuity.  These two men have led on different battlefields, but they both understand the powerful responsibility of asking our young people to enter extreme danger to accomplish a vital mission.  These are two leaders who appreciate deeply the weight of all we ask our troops and their families to carry.

We cannot predict precisely how or when the men and women of CENTCOM will be called to carry forward their mission in the months and years to come, but we do know this.  We know General Votel will lead this team with certainty, clarity and with the total trust and confidence of me and the president.  We know that as our military protects our nation and people and as our country helps provide security for men and women across the world to live full lives, to dream their dreams, to raise their children, CENTCOM's efforts will remain essential.

And this we know with absolute certainty.  The force General Votel inherits is ready to execute its vital responsibilities thanks to General Austin's remarkable leadership.

To General Austin, to General Votel, to all the men and women who have served under their strong and steady leadership, thank you.