Widely praised for his work as secretary of the Department of Defense – where he served under both Republican and Democratic presidents – Robert Gates still has memories of his time leading the DoD from 2006-2011.
And in a poignant and often touching speech to The American Legion National Convention Aug. 23 in Reno, Nev., Gates shared those memories after being presented the Legion’s Patriot Award.
“The troops were the reason I took the job, and the troops were the reason I stayed,” Gates said. “Being called ‘the soldiers’ secretary’ because I cared so much about them is the highest compliment imagined.”
An Air Force officer during the Vietnam War and member of American Legion Post 110 in Lacey, Wash., Gates also serves on The American Legion 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee.
In addition to serving as DoD secretary, Gates also headed up the CIA, and served as president of the Boy Scouts of America and Texas A&M University, and as chancellor of the College of William & Mary.
American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt praised Gates for being “a man who epitomizes public service. In 2007, Time magazine listed him as one of that year’s most influential people. The following year, he was named as one of
America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report. A Washington Post book review said he is ‘widely considered the best defense secretary of the post- World War II era.’”
Gates said at the start of his DoD secretary tenure a woman approached him at his hotel restaurant table and asked if he was the new secretary.
“She congratulated me, and then with tears in her eyes, said ‘I have two sons serving in Iraq. For God’s sake, bring them home alive,’” Gates said. “Our wars suddenly became very real to me, along with the responsibility I was taking on for all those in the fight. It only took a few trips to the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan before I began to feel a deep and emotional attachment to them.”
Gates said he began feeling as those he was personally responsible for each servicemember in harm’s way. “I soon was telling the troops on the front lines that I had come to regard them as my own sons and daughters,” he said, “and that I would do everything in power to get them the equipment they needed to accomplish their mission and to come home safely – and if wounded, to ensure they got the best care in the world.
“What I didn’t expect was that I would have to fight the Pentagon bureaucracy itself to fulfill my pledge to those amazing young people whose selfless service and sacrifice contrasted so vividly with so many self-serving elected and non-elected officials.”
Gates said that when he did have to write a letter to a family who had lost a loved one while served, he asked for a picture of the deceased, as well as a hometown newspaper article to learn what the deceased’s family and friends were saying about him or her, and to learn more about the deceased servicemember.
“I wanted to know each of them when I handwrote the condolence letter,” Gates said. “I came to believe, as so many of you have long known from personal experience, that no one who had actually been in combat could walk away without a scar.
“My wars are over. But for all you, who have served and fought, for the wounded and their families, for the families of the fallen, our nation’s wars are continuing for the rest of their lives.”
Previous winners of the Patriot Award include Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Oak Ridge Boys and Samsung.