Gates: Downed helicopter in bin Laden raid was reminder of failed Iran mission

For Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the image of a U.S. military helicopter sitting crippled inside Osama bin Laden’s compound conjured up chilling memories of the failed 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran.

Gates was executive assistant to then-CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner 31 years ago and was at the White House as the mission to rescue the hostages unfolded.

“I had been in on the planning from the beginning and, while the operation was clearly risky, I honestly believed it would work,” Gates recalled Friday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., during his final commencement speech as defense secretary.

“It did not,” Gates said. “Soon, images of burnt helicopters and the charred remains of U.S. servicemen splashed around the world.”

He told the midshipmen that event was “a low ebb for our nation and for a military that was still recovering from Vietnam.”

But he noted the military’s special operations community worked hard in the wake of the failed mission to overcome a number of organizational, training and service parochialism ailments.

Fast-forward to this month, and Gates was back at the White House for another “nerve-racking afternoon” as another “risky special operations mission was underway.”

As U.S. special operations forces approached the compound about 30 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden had been hiding for years, something went wrong. One of the helicopters landed inside the compound, which was a deviation from the mission plan.

“When word of a downed helicopter came back my heart sank, remembering that awful night over 30 years ago,” Gates told the academy’s 2011 graduating class.

“But this time, of course, there was a very different result,” the outgoing defense secretary said. “A mass murderer” had been “brought to a fitting end,” and the world was “in awe of America’s military prowess.”

Gates urged the future U.S. military officers to use the response to the Iran mission and the downed chopper in the Pakistan mission as lessons of how to handle adversity.

Gates will retire next month after what President Obama has called perhaps the finest tenure ever as Pentagon chief. The White House has nominated current CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace him.