Obama surprises departing Gates with Medal of Freedom

President Obama on Thursday hailed departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates as “one of the best” Pentagon chiefs in history.

He also surprised Gates by awarding him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can bestow upon a civilian.

During a send-off ceremony featuring military bands outside the Pentagon, Obama praised the Pentagon chief for his major role in turning around the Iraq war, pressing the military to quickly buy and field mine-resistant vehicles and forcing the Pentagon to cut costs.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Obama went off the formal schedule and awarded Gates with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As the secretary took the medal — a white star with gold trim, set before a red and gold background and hanging from a blue ribbon featuring an eagle — he appeared to tear up and his voice cracked.

Gates appeared to have not been informed of the award, calling it a “big surprise.”

The secretary said he was “deeply moved” and “honored” to receive the medal, and gave a nod to Obama’s secret-keeping abilities.

“We should have known months ago that you’re getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff,” an emotional Gates quipped.

But it was his “dedication” to the men and women of the U.S. military that the commander in chief cast as the biggest part of Gates’s legacy.

In Gates, the troops — especially those who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan — knew their secretary “loved them” and “had their backs,” Obama said.

He also ordered the military to shorten the time it takes to move injured troops from the battlefield to medical facilities, Obama noted.

“Bob’s sense of responsibility” to the troops was “profound,” Obama said.

The president complimented Gates for helping correct the course in Iraq when “the outcome … was in doubt.” On Afghanistan, the outgoing secretary helped the Obama administration craft the current counterinsurgency strategy that has al Qaeda and Taliban forces on their heels, Obama said.

Gates also forced his so-called “efficiencies initiative” on the Pentagon bureaucracy, a cost-cutting effort that allowed Gates to free up more than $150 billion that he transferred to hardware programs.

Obama labeled the effort Gates’s “war on waste,” saying the secretary waged it with “courage and conviction” while “speaking hard truths.”

Gates was Defense secretary for nearly five years, and was the first to serve under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He served eight presidents during his career at both the CIA and Pentagon.

Obama said he was more than just one of the longest-serving Defense chiefs, saying Gates was “one of the best.”

Less than 24 hours after Obama slammed congressional Republicans over the ongoing debt-ceiling and budget impasse, he said members of both parties in Washington can learn a thing or two from Gates.

The outgoing secretary’s “integrity” should serve as a “reminder,” Obama said, that “civility and citizenship” are not attributes of the past.

Despite the two parties’ many differences, the president said, leaders can only “keep America strong if we remember what made America great: the ability to come together … for a common purpose.”

As Gates heads back to Washington state later today — he’ll remain Defense secretary until former CIA Director Leon Panetta is sworn in Friday morning — following a farewell lunch at the Pentagon, Defense budget cuts are coming.

The departing secretary left behind a soup-to-nuts national security review he asked Obama to approve that will be used to shape $400 billion in security spending cuts over the next 12 years. Obama wants those cuts to help repair America’s tattered finances. The review should be completed this summer, and will influence the first round of cuts in 2013 security and Defense agency budget plans.

Obama said those cuts will be made very carefully, to ensure America’s military continues to be the best trained and armed fighting force the world has ever seen.