(Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst)
He never saw it coming.
President Obama surprised Defense Secretary Robert Gates by awarding him the prestigious Medal of Freedom at a retirement ceremony at the Pentagon Thursday. He described the 67-year-old Gates as “a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation’s finest public servants.”
“I’m deeply honored and moved by your presentation of this award,” Gates said to the president at the ceremony, with a crack in his voice. The Medal of Freedom is the highest honor a president can bestow on a civilian. “It is a big surprise, but we should have known [from what happened] a couple of months ago that you’re getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff.”
Presumably, Gates was referring to the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
Gates was well respected during his 30-plus years of service to the United States at the CIA and Department of Defense – spanning eight presidents.
He retired initially from the CIA in 1993, but came back to Washington, D.C., in 2006 when President Bush asked him to become the defense secretary after Donald Rumsfeld stepped down. Gates helped manage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After President Obama took office, he asked Gates to stay on.
Over the past two months, Gates has visited military posts in the U.S. and Afghanistan. During his speech on Thursday, he said it was important for him to do so.
“Though I was only able to meet a small sample of those who deployed down-range, 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,” Gates said.
Saying it would be difficult for him to adequately express his feelings for the military in his speech – he’s prone to getting emotional when visiting with them – he sent a message yesterday to all members of the military expressing his appreciation for them.
The Associated Press published a portion of that email:
“For four and a half years, I have signed the orders deploying you, all too often into harm’s way. This has weighed on me every day,” Gates wrote. “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.”
Gates will be succeeded by CIA Director Leon Panetta, 72, who will be sworn in Friday.