A tearful goodbye as Gates retires from Defense Dept.

By Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press / July 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON - A visibly moved Defense Secretary Robert Gates paused briefly at a Pentagon retirement ceremony rife with pomp and pageantry yesterday, collected himself, and told his president: “You’re getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff.’’

Barack Obama, the eighth president Gates has served in more than 30 years at the CIA and Department of Defense, had just presented him with the prestigious Medal of Freedom. And Gates was teasing his boss about keeping the award a surprise, in a reference to how Obama had kept the world in the dark about his plan to bring down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Proving that there are sometimes second acts in America, Gates, 67, had an encore retirement yesterday, with considerably more fanfare than accompanied his initial departure from Washington in 1993, when he left the intelligence agency. This goodbye came after Gates spent 4 1/2 years helping to manage protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the ceremony under brilliant blue skies outside the Pentagon, Gates bid an emotional farewell to the military. And Obama, who had kept him on as Pentagon chief after the end of the Bush administration, hailed him as “a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation’s finest public servants.’’

It was Gates, he said, who pressed to get more heavily armored vehicles and hunter-killer drones to the war front and made it his mission to ensure that the department served the troops in the field “as well as they serve us.’’

In a surprise break from the printed program, Obama presented Gates with the medal - the highest civilian honor he can bestow.

“I can think of no better way to express the gratitude of the nation to Bob Gates than with a very special recognition,’’ Obama said as he asked Gates to step forward to receive the award.

“I’m deeply honored and moved by your presentation of this award,’’ Gates responded.

Gates is being succeeded by CIA Director Leon Panetta. Later yesterday, the Senate voted 94-0 to confirm General David Petraeus to take Panetta’s place.

Gates’s retirement has been a long time coming. When he took the job in December 2006, he carried a clock with him that counted down his days in D.C.

But when asked by Obama to stay on in Jan. 2009, he agreed, knowing that there was still much work to be done as troops began pulling out of Iraq and pouring into Afghanistan.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Gates’s well-known penchant for blunt talk and no-nonsense style. During his four-plus years, Gates fired or forced out more than half-dozen high-ranking civilian and military leaders, including the Air Force secretary and chief of staff and the Army secretary, whom he believed failed to act on critical issues.

“He made us think about things we hadn’t considered. He made us try a little harder. He made us lead a little better,’’ said Mullen. “He tells it straight, no bull, no fancy words.’’

Gates is known to tear up when he talks to troops, particularly during visits to the war front. He acknowledged that in his comments yesterday, saying he knew it would be difficult to get through his remarks if he tried to include a tribute to the armed forces.

So he sent an e-mail message to all members of the military on Wednesday, lauding the troops for their courage and commitment.

“For 4 1/2 years, I have signed the orders deploying you, all too often into harm’s way. This has weighed on me every day,’’ he said in the note. “I have tried to do all I could to provide whatever was needed so you could complete your missions successfully and come home safely - and, if hurt, get the fastest and best care in the world.’’

His personal staff - from top military aides to the cooks in his dining room - lined the hallways and stairs just after 1 p.m. And as Gates made his final exit out the doors and toward the waiting black SUV, he paused for a few final hugs and handshakes as they applauded.

His mixed feelings were evident.

Speaking to the crowd of dignitaries, friends, and staff, Gates said his time as defense chief “has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life.’’

And, as he wrapped up his speech - the last stop in what he acknowledged has been a “long goodbye,’’ he looked toward his wife and smiled.

“Well, Becky, we’re really going home this time.’’