By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, June 23, 2011 - It's 110 degrees in the shade, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is answering questions from about 200 soldiers at a bleak U.S. installation near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in mid-June.
At the end of the session, he tells them he has one more thing to say: "I've come out here to thank you for the last time for your service and for your sacrifice. More than anybody except the president, I'm responsible for you being here. I'm the person that signed the deployment papers that got you here. And that weighs on me every day."
It's tough for the secretary to get through this statement. He steps away from the microphone, and there are tears in his eyes. The soldiers in the audience -- from the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade -- are moved, as well. Gates receives prolonged applause. As he hands out commemorative coins to the troops, they thank him for his service and all he has done for them.
"I've told friends that I would be more than happy if the only legacy I took away from this job is those kids out there in the field knew they had someone who was looking after them, all the time," Gates said in a recent interview with American Forces Press Service during his last trip to visit deployed troops.
Gates will retire as defense secretary June 30. The U.S. Senate has confirmed CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to take his place.
It has been a sacred trust for the secretary to ensure the troops fighting the nation's wars have what they need to succeed.
"If I had the knowledge that those [privates first class] and lance corporals, petty officers and airmen knew, that way up there in the chain of command there was somebody watching their back all the time, trying to figure out what they needed, that was most important to me," he said.
When Gates became defense secretary at the end of 2006, Iraq was gripped by a growing insurgency, and U.S. casualties were mounting. The Army and Marine Corps were being stretched almost to the point of breaking to maintain the level of forces in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, in Afghanistan.
Something had to be done -- quickly. The secretary said he had to make four decisions very soon after taking office that still have ramifications.
"The first was the decision, which I actually discussed in my interview with President [George W.] Bush, to increase the Army by 65,000 and the Marine Corps by 27,000 to bring relief," Gates said. The Army and Marine Corps, he added, simply weren't big enough at that time to handle all the missions assigned to them.
The second decision was part and parcel of the Iraq surge, and that was extending all Army deployments in U.S. Central Command to 15 months.
"That was a really difficult decision and the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] chairman, [Marine Corps Gen.] Pete Pace, the vice chairman, [Navy Adm.] Ed Giambastiani, the Army chief of staff, everybody was telling me that I had to do this to provide some stability for the troops," he said.
Gates was convinced that the only way he could give the troops a year at home, given the surge, was to extend the deployed tour to 15 months. "If we didn't do that," he explained, "we would be down to six or seven months at home and still have a year to 15-month tours."
Gates knew this decision would be hard on the troops and their families, and even today, he thinks officials underestimated how painful and difficult that was for everybody.
"That decision is a burden that I've never put down," he acknowledged.
The secretary's next decision was to "regularize" the use of the National Guard and to try to get it to the point where they were being deployed as units.
"I particularly personalized it with the [explosive ordnance disposal] guys," the secretary said. "You know, if I'm in that kind of a business, I'd sure as hell like to know the guy next to me, and have trained with him and have confidence and trust in him, instead of some guy from a different state I just met two weeks before we deployed."
Gates' final decision at that time involved the cessation of the so-called stop -loss policy which involuntarily extended service members' time in the military, the secretary recalled.
"I said, 'We have to get rid of stop-loss,' and I kind of tied it to the increase in the end strength of the Army," which had almost 25,000 soldiers stop-lossed, he said.
"I felt that stop-loss was a break in the contract, a breach of trust," Gates said. "As far as I'm concerned, once we announce a decision, it's a commitment to the troops. Then, for bureaucratic reasons, someone will come back later and try to make exceptions -- extending this or doing that. That's breaking our word to the troops. No wonder none of them trust any one of us up the chain of command, because we can't be counted on to keep our word once we've given it to them.
"So, I have felt very, very strongly about that the whole time I've been in this job," he added. "Once we've made a commitment to these men and women, we have a huge obligation to keep."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the first of a four-part series.)
Robert M. Gates