Departing Gates vows he's 'really going home this time'

Amid the military pomp and circumstance of his farewell tribute outside the Pentagon Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised this will be his final Washington farewell.

President Obama noted during the ceremony that in final days of the George W. Bush administration, a reporter had asked Gates whether he would remain in office under the new administration.

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Gates replied then that the idea of putting in more time leading the Pentagon was, at the time, “inconceivable.”

So why did Gates stick around well into the second year of the Obama administration? 

Obama said he came to understand why during tense moments of “debate and decision” in the Oval Office and White House Situation Room. To the commander in chief, those were the moments that best displayed Gates’s sense of service. 

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Gates’s “integrity” and “dedication to truth-telling.” 

When Gates visited troops in combat zones, they were drawn to him, Mullen said. That was because Gates was in so many ways one of them, said the chairman. 

Gates “tells it straight” and uses “no bull” or “fancy terms,” Mullen said. And Gates is, like the troops, “a fighter,” he added. 

Mullen applauded Gates for making the uniformed military “think about things we hadn’t considered,” and said he “never stopped asking us uncomfortable questions.”

“To say we are grateful is to vastly understate our emotions on this day,” said Mullen, who Gates later said had been his “battle buddy” for nearly four years.

That relationship stretched beyond the halls of the Pentagon — Gates and Mullen were neighbors on a military installation in the Washington area. 

Mullen said he enjoyed returning home on a weekend afternoon to find Gates sitting on his front porch, something he will miss. But the chairman, who also will step aside this summer, told his now-former neighbor he will not miss Gates “blowing your dead leaves onto my lawn.”

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During his final public remarks as Defense secretary, Gates honored the U.S. military troops and civilian personnel. He also thanked lawmakers who “always came through” in assisting Gates get things like mine-resistant vehicles into theater.

Mullen and Obama touched on Gates’s connection to and admiration for the troops. So, too, did the departing secretary. 

“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,” an emotional Gates said.

Gates offered his replacement, Leon Panetta, some advice when he takes over Friday morning. Panetta should work hard to get his office to his liking because “he might be there longer than he thinks,” he said.

But the departing Defense secretary promised he has set up his last office in Washington after a career at the CIA and Pentagon that spanned parts of five decades. 

Before coming to the Pentagon in 2006, Gates and his wife, Becky, were happy with his role as president of Texas A&M University and spending time in Washington state.

“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,” Gates said. 

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Gates and his wife will fly to Washington this afternoon on a U.S. government aircraft with a full communications suite that will allow him to carry out the Defense secretary role if pressed into action, a Pentagon spokesman said. And Gates will remain the nation's 22nd Pentagon chief until early tomorrow morning — Panetta is slated to be sworn in during a private ceremony before 7 a.m. Pacific standard time.

And with that, the Robert Gates era — which Obama said has been one of the best Defense secretary stints in history — will officially come to an end.

“Becky," Gates said, "we’re really going home this time.”