U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday awarded retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award came during a military tribute to Gates on his final day in office.
It was an elaborate farewell ceremony outside the Pentagon with President Barack Obama joining Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the end of his more than four years in office.
Gates is the only defense secretary in U.S. history to be asked to remain in office by a newly-elected president. He was first sworn in under Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, at a crucial point during the Iraq war.
Gates oversaw a surge of American troops in Iraq and later in Afghanistan that analysts say helped turn around both military campaigns.
At Thursday's ceremony, President Obama called Gates a "humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency," and one of the nation’s "finest public servants."
“Bob, today you are not only one of the longest serving secretaries of defense in American history, but it is also clear that you have been one of the best,” he said.
As defense secretary, Gates made numerous trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, always making a point to visit the American men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line.
President Obama said Gates made it his mission to ensure the Defense Department serves troops in the field as well as they serve the nation.
“And today, we see the lifesaving difference he made - in the mine resistant vehicles, in the unmanned aircraft, the shorter medevac [medical evacuation] times in Afghanistan, in our determination to give our wounded warriors the world class care they deserve,” Obama said.
Mr. Obama then awarded Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
In his address, Gates said he is proud of the cooperation the Pentagon has had with other federal agencies, especially those dealing with intelligence, development and diplomacy.
“The blows struck against al-Qaida, culminating in the bin Laden raid, exemplify the remarkable transformation of how we must fuse intelligence and military operations in the 21st century,” Gates said.
Gates said serving as defense secretary has been the greatest honor and privilege of his life. In a farewell message to the men and women of the military and their families, he thanked the service members, saying that their dedication and courage have kept America safe.
“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,” Gates said.
The 67-year-old Gates will be succeeded by another veteran of Washington public service, Leon Panetta, who has been leading the CIA.
Panetta says his first task at the Pentagon will be to ensure the United States prevails in the conflicts it is engaged in, including Iraq and Afghanistan.