Remarks by the President and Secretary Gates at Armed Services Farewell Tribute in Honor of Secretary Gates

June 30, 2011

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  Admiral Mullen, thank you for your eloquent words, but also for your extraordinary service.  As you near a well-deserved retirement, thank you for four decades of incredible service — to you and Deborah.

Members of Congress, Vice President Biden, Deputy Secretary Lynn, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, service secretaries and distinguished guests, men and women of the finest military in the world, and, most of all, Secretary Gates, Becky, Brad, and although she could not be here, I also want to acknowledge your daughter Eleanor.

When I took office, Bob Gates had already served under seven Presidents during an illustrious career that spanned four decades.  He would have been forgiven if he had opted for a private life of comfort and ease.  He had earned it.  And when asked by a reporter whether he might stay on to serve an eighth President, he offered the answer — “inconceivable.”  (Laughter.)
Why did he stay?  I know there are days when Bob asked that himself.  I’m sure Becky asked that also.  But I believe I know the answer, because I’ve seen this man in those moments of debate and decision when a person’s character is revealed — in the Oval Office, in the Situation Room, in the theaters of war.

You see, if you look past all of Bob’s flashiness and bravado — (laughter) — and his sharp attire, his love for the Washington limelight — (laughter) — then what you see is a man that I’ve come to know and respect — a humble American patriot; a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation’s finest public servants.

Bob, today you’re not only one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Defense in American history, but it is also clear that you’ve been one of the best.

Why did Bob Gates serve?  Our nation is at war, and to know Bob is to know his profound sense of duty — to country, to our security, and most of all, to our men and women who get up every day and put on America’s uniform and put their lives on the line to keep us safe and to keep us free.

When the outcome of the war in Iraq was in doubt, Bob Gates presided over the extraordinary efforts that helped restore order.  Over the past two and a half years, we’ve removed more than 100,000 troops from Iraq, ended our combat mission and are responsibly ending that war.

When the fight against al Qaeda and our efforts in Afghanistan needed new focus, Bob Gates helped us devise the strategy that has finally put al Qaeda on a path to defeat and ensures that Afghanistan never again becomes a source for attacks against our nation.

When institutional inertia kept funding systems our troops didn’t need, Bob Gates launched a war on waste — challenging conventional wisdom with courage and conviction, speaking hard truths and saving hundreds of billions of dollars that can be invested in a 21st century military.

Bob Gates made it his mission to make sure this department is serving our troops in the field as well as they serve us.  And today we see the lifesaving difference he made — in the mine-resistant vehicles and the unmanned aircraft, the shorter medevac times in Afghanistan, in our determination to give our wounded warriors the world-class care they deserve.

Bob, this may be your greatest legacy of all — the lives you saved and the confidence you gave our men and woman in battle who knew that there was a Secretary of Defense who had their backs and who loved them and who fought for them and who did everything in his power to bring them home safe.

Let me also thank Becky for her extraordinary support of our extraordinary military families.  She’s been there day in and day out.  And in may ways, I know both Bob and Becky consider our troops to be like their own sons and daughters.  And, Bob, your sense of responsibility to them is profound.

It’s a responsibility we’ve shared, as leaders who have served every day in a time of war.  We’re the ones who send them into harm’s way.  We visit them in the field, knowing that we are the reason they’re there.  We’ve stood in solemn respect at Dover when our fallen heroes have made their final journey home.  We’ve held their families in our arms as they grieve the loved ones they gave to America so that our loved ones can be secure.  We know the heavy wages of war, and we know America’s shared obligations to all who serve.

So today we not only pay tribute to a remarkable public servant; we celebrate the principles for which he served and for which our nation stands.  I believe the life of Bob Gates is a lesson, especially to young Americans, a lesson that public service is an honorable calling; that we can pass our country, better and stronger, to those who follow.

Our next Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has subscribed to this same life of service, and I’m confident that he, too, will lead this department with clear vision and a steady hand.

In his willingness to become the first Secretary of Defense to serve under Presidents of both parties, the integrity of Bob Gates is also a reminder, especially to folks here in Washington, that civility and respectful discourse, and citizenship over partisanship are not quaint relics of a bygone era; they are the timeless virtues that we need now more than ever.  For whatever differences of party or ideology we may have, we can only keep America strong if we remember what keeps America great — our ability to come together and work together, as Americans, for a common purpose.

Finally, as we face difficult challenges around the world and here at home, let today be a reminder that the United States will meet the tests of our time.  We remain at war, but today fewer Americans are in harm’s way, and we will bring the wars we’re in to a responsible end.  We will make hard fiscal choices, but we’ll do so responsibly.  And as Commander-in-Chief I am determined that our Armed Forces will always — always — remain the best-trained, the best-led, the best-equipped fighting force in history.  And in an uncertain world that demands our leadership, the United States of America, and our Armed Forces, will remain the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known.

This is the America — strong and confident — to which Bob Gates has devoted his life.  And this is the America to which we rededicate ourselves.

I can think of no better way to express my appreciation to someone who I have come to admire and who I consider a friend, I can think of no better way to express the gratitude of the nation for Bob Gates, than with a very special recognition.

Bob, this is not in the program, but I would ask you to please stand.

As President, the highest honor that I can bestow on a civilian is the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  It speaks to the values we cherish as a people and the ideals we strive for as a nation.  And today it is my great privilege to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to America’s 22nd Secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates.

Will the military aide please read the citation.

MILITARY AIDE:  The Presidential Medal of Freedom to Robert M. Gates.

Our nation’s 22nd Secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates, has selflessly dedicated his life to ensuring the security of the American people.  He has served eight Presidents of both parties with unwavering patriotism.  As a champion of our men and women in uniform and their families, he has led the Department of Defense with courage and confidence during our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ensured our Armed Forces are better prepared for the conflicts of today and tomorrow.  The United States honors Robert M. Gates for his extraordinary leadership and for a lifetime of service and devotion to our nation.

(The Presidential Medal of Freedom is presented.)  (Applause.)

SECRETARY GATES:  Thank you, Mr. President, for those kind words and for honoring me and this department by your presence here today.  I’m deeply honored and moved by your presentation of this award.  It is a big surprise.  But we should have known a couple of months ago; you’re getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff.  (Laughter.)

Mr. Vice President, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, thank you for being here this morning.

First, I’d like to congratulate Leon Panetta on his recent confirmation.  Right after the 2008 election, Leon wrote an op-ed suggesting President-elect Obama retain me as Secretary of Defense.  So when President Obama asked for my recommendation for a successor, I returned the favor.  (Laughter.)

Seriously, this department and this country is fortunate that a statesman of Leon Panetta’s caliber and experience has agreed to serve once again, and at such an important time.  My parting advice for Leon is to get his office just the way he likes it — he may be here longer than he thinks.

I’d like to thank the members of Congress with us today.  I appreciate the gracious and supportive treatment accorded to me by senators and representatives of both parties these past four and a half years.  Even when there were disagreements over policies and priorities, the Congress always came through for our men and women in uniform, especially for programs that protect and take care of troops and their families.

As you may have noticed over the past few weeks, I’ve had my say on some weighty topics.  So on this, the last stop of what has been dubbed “the long goodbye,” I’d like to spend just a few minutes talking about the men and women that I’ve been fortunate to work with in this job.

I’d like to start with the two Presidents whom I’ve been privileged to serve in this role.  Serving as Secretary of Defense has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life, and for that I will always be grateful.  First, to President Bush for giving me this historic opportunity and for the support he provided during those difficult early months and years on the job.  And then to President Obama for his confidence in taking the historic step of asking me, someone he did not know at all, to stay on, and for his continuing trust ever since.

The transition from the Bush to the Obama administration was the first of its kind from one political party to another during war in nearly 40 years.  The collegiality, thoroughness, and professionalism of the Bush-Obama transition were of great benefit to the country, and were a tribute to the character and judgment of both Presidents.

I’ve also been fortunate that both Presidents provided me an excellent team of senior civilian appointees.  When I took this post, the first and best decision I made was to retain every single senior official I inherited from Secretary Rumsfeld, including his personal front office staff, most of whom have been with me to this day.

Likewise, I’ve been fortunate to receive another first-class roster of senior civilian officials from President Obama.  They’ve provided me superb counsel and support on a range of difficult institutional issues and strategic initiatives.

These and other achievements, indeed anything of consequence achieved in this department, required respectful collaboration between the civilian and military leadership, which has been a source of strength to the country.  I’ve received wise, forthright, but loyal counsel from the service chiefs and from the leadership of the Joint Staff.  And I’ll always be grateful to them for their candor, cooperation, and friendship.

Above all, though, I want to recognize and thank first, General Pete Pace, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when I arrived, and whose counsel and friendship got me off to a strong start; and then, of course, my battle buddy of nearly four years, Admiral Mike Mullen.  Without Mike’s advice to me, his effective leadership of the uniform military and our close partnership, the record of the last several years would, I think, have been very different.

Mike was never shy about disagreeing with me but unfailingly steadfast and loyal to me and to the Presidents he served once a decision was made.  He is the epitome of a military leader and officer, a man of supreme integrity, a great partner, and a good friend.

A practice in spirit of cooperation is equally important for relationships with other elements of the government, especially those dealing with intelligence, development, and diplomacy.  The blows struck against al Qaeda, culminating in the bin Laden raid, exemplified a remarkable transformation of how we must fuse intelligence and military operations in the 21st century.

With respect to the State Department, my views have, as they say in this town, evolved over the years.  I started out my inter-agency experience in Washington, D.C. as a staffer on President Nixon’s National Security Council.  As you might expect, the Nixon White House was not exactly a hotbed of admiration for the foreign service — generally thought of as a bunch of guys with last names for first names who occasionally took time out of their busy day to implement the President’s foreign policy.  And for much of my professional life, the Secretaries of State and Defense were barely speaking to one another.

In the case of Secretaries Rice and Clinton, I’ve not only been on speaking terms with these two formidable women, we’ve also become cherished colleagues and good friends.  I suppose that giving a big speech calling for more money for the State Department didn’t exactly hurt.  (Laughter.)  But we should never forget the diplomats and development experts from State and AID are taking risks and making sacrifices in some of the planet’s least hospitable places.  And I speak for all our military in appreciating the contributions they are making every day to the success of our missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the globe.

In doing my utmost to support the troops downrange on these missions, I’ve spent a good deal of time venting frustration with the Pentagon bureaucracy.  However, I did so knowing that the people most often frustrated by the pace of things in this building are the career civilian professionals who strive every day to overcome the obstacles to getting things done.  As someone who worked his way up through the GS ladder, I understand and appreciate the challenges these public servants face and the sacrifices they make.  What they accomplish does not receive the attention and the thanks it deserves.  So know that I leave this post grateful for everything our defense civilians do for our military and our national security.

During a time of war, the top priority of everyone in this building ultimately must be to get those fighting at the front what they need to survive and succeed on the battlefield and to be properly taken care of when they come home.  I’ve spent much of the past two months visiting with these troops — first, in military facilities around the U.S., and then over several days at a number of forward-operating bases in Afghanistan.  Though I was only able to meet a small sample of those who deployed downrange, it was important to me to look them in the eye one last time and let them know how much I care about them and appreciate what they and their families do for our country.

Looking forward to this moment, I knew it would be very difficult for me to adequately express my feelings for these young men and women — at least in a way that would allow me to get through this speech.  So, yesterday, a personal message from me to all of our servicemen and women around the world was published and distributed through military channels.  I’ll just say here that I will think of these young warriors — the ones who fought, the ones who keep on fighting, the ones who never made it back — till the end of my days.

Finally, as I was contemplating this moment, I thought about something Becky told me in January 2005, when I was asked to be the first director of national intelligence.  I was really wrestling with the decision and finally told her she could make it a lot easier if she just said she didn’t want to go back to D.C.  She thought a moment, and replied, “We have to do what you have to do.”

That is something military spouses have said in one form or another a million times since 9/11 upon learning that their loved one received a deployment notice or is considering another tour of service.  Just under five years ago, when I was approached by the same President again to serve, Becky’s response was the same. As much as she loved Texas A&M and Aggie sports and our home in Washington State, and as much as she could do without another stint in this Washington, she made it easy for me to say yes to this job — to do what I had to do, to answer the call to serve when so much was at stake for America and her sons and daughters in two wars.

Well, Becky, we’re really going home this time.  Your love and support has sustained me and kept me grounded since the day we first met on a blind date in Bloomington, Indiana, 45 years ago.

Shortly I’ll walk out of my office in the E ring for the last time as Defense Secretary.  It’s empty of all my personal items and mementos, but will still have looming over my desk the portraits of two of my heroes and role models — Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall.

It is from Marshall that I take a closing thought, first delivered more than six decades ago in the opening years of the Cold War.  Addressing new university graduates, Marshall extolled what he considered the great “musts” of that generation.  They were, he said, “the development of a sense of responsibility for world order and security, the development of a sense of the overwhelming importance of the country’s acts and failures to act.”

Now, as when Marshall first uttered those words, a sense of America’s exceptional global responsibilities and the importance of what we do or do not do remain the great “musts” of this dangerous new century.  It is the sacred duty entrusted to all of us privileged to serve in positions of leadership and responsibility; a duty we should never forget or take lightly; a duty I have every confidence you will all continue to fulfill.

Thank you.  God bless our military and the country they so nobly serve.  (Applause.)