Remarks by the President and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
Fort Myer, Virginia
4:18 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: In the years between the world wars, a young married couple in Italy packed up what few belongings that they had and boarded a boat for a new world. They passed under the Statue of Liberty and went through the lines of Ellis Island.
Carmelo and Carmelina Panetta had no money and spoke little English. But they had a dream of a better life. They worked hard. They went West, to California. They started a family and taught their sons that if they studied and worked, if they gave back to this country, that they, too, could share in America’s promise.
Today we pay tribute to their son -- Leon Panetta -- a man who hasn’t simply lived up to the American Dream but has helped to protect it for all of us.
Leon, our presence here today -- members of Congress, Deputy Secretary Carter, General Dempsey and the members of the Joint Chiefs, service secretaries, and the men and women of the greatest military that the world has ever known -- all this is a reflection of our personal appreciation to you and the gratitude of a nation that you have helped to keep strong and to keep free.
By the time I came to office, Leon Panetta was already regarded as one of our nation’s finest public servants, with an extraordinary career across more than four decades. He and Sylvia had settled into the good life -- their beautiful Monterey; their beloved walnut farm. Now, Leon will deny it, but I hear he was growing restless; he wanted less time on the tractor and enjoying good weather and more time in the office; less time in California, more time in Washington, interacting with the West Wing and members of Congress. Who wouldn’t? (Laughter.) And so we gave him his wish.
Leon, I’ll always be grateful that you agreed to return to public service. And, Sylvia, I am so grateful that you put up with him. Your leadership of the CIA will forever be remembered for the blows that we struck against al Qaeda and perhaps the greatest intelligence success in American history -- delivering justice to Osama bin Laden. (Applause.)
By then, Leon had every right to expect that he could return home. And I’ll admit that when we first asked him to stay on and lead the Pentagon, his answer was simple: No. (Laughter.) But I kept asking. I am persistent -- that's how Michelle married me. I just kept at it. And it is a testament to Leon’s patriotism, to his sense of duty that he agreed to serve on this one last tour.
And perhaps it was the memory, during World War II, of his parents opening up their homes to GIs headed for the Pacific. Perhaps it was because Leon served himself, as a young lieutenant in the Army. Perhaps it was the experience of watching his youngest son deploy to Afghanistan. What we do know is this: As our nation’s 23rd Secretary of Defense, every action Leon Panetta has taken, every decision that he has made, has been with one goal in mind: Taking care of our sons and our daughters in uniform, and keeping America safe.
And just think of the progress under his watch. Because we ended the war in Iraq, and are winding down the war in Afghanistan, our troops are coming home, and next year our war in Afghanistan will come to an end. We’ve put the core of al Qaeda on the path to defeat, and we've been relentless against its affiliates. Because we have a sacred obligation to our troops -- to take care of them like they’ve taken care of us -- we’re improving treatment for our wounded warriors, stepping up support for our military families, and doing more than ever to help our newest veterans transition to civilian life -- and that includes the jobs our veterans need as we do some nation-building here at home.
Because we believe in opportunity for all Americans, the tenure of Secretary Leon Panetta, this son of immigrants, this first-generation American, will be remembered for historic progress in welcoming more of our fellow citizens to military service; for the formal and final repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"; for opening combat roles to our incredible women in uniform. In short, for making our military -- and our nation --that much stronger.
Because we forged a new defense strategy, we’ll be better prepared for the future, better prepared to meet the threats that we face without larger military footprints; better prepared against cyber-attacks; better prepared to advance our interests in the Asia Pacific region; and after more than a decade of war, better prepared for the broadest range of contingencies.
Keeping us prepared will be the mission of my nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense -- a combat veteran with the experience, judgment and vision that our troops deserve, Chuck Hagel.
And since we are now just weeks away from deep, automatic cuts to federal spending, including defense, let me say this. There is no reason -- no reason -- for that to happen. Putting our fiscal house in order calls for a balanced approach, not massive, indiscriminate cuts that could have a severe impact on our military preparedness.
So here today, for the sake of our prosperity, for the sake of all these men and women in uniform, and all their brothers and sisters in uniform that they represent, now is the time to act -- for Democrats and Republicans to come together in the same spirit that Leon Panetta always brought to public service -- solving problems, not trying to score points. Doing right for the country, not for any particular political agenda. Sustaining our economic recovery, balancing budgets -- Leon knows something about it -- but also maintaining the finest military in history.
Leon, this, too, will be part of your legacy, for no one has raised their voice as firmly or as forcefully on behalf of our troops as you have. You've served with integrity and decency and grace. You're a reminder of what public service ought to be. You’ve led with heart and you've led with humor. Indeed, they say that you’ve never seen our Wounded Warriors smile as wide or heard them laugh as loud as when they get a visit from their Secretary of Defense. And whatever the challenge, Leon, you always give it to us straight -- sometimes in words that can’t be repeated here in public. (Laughter.)
Today we want to make sure to thank Sylvia and the entire Panetta family for sharing their husband, their father, and their grandfather with the rest of us; for sharing Bravo, the First Dog of the Pentagon. Sylvia, Leon’s service has also been your sacrifice. And we promise, this time he really is coming home.
Leon, from your first day in uniform until today, your dedicated service to America has spanned nearly 50 remarkable years. And as you review these fine troops one last time, as you return home and walk your farm, know that the grand arc of your life speaks to our larger American story. For you can say with confidence and with pride that you’ve fulfilled the hopes that brought Carmelo and Carmelina Panetta to these shores all those years ago. You've made them proud. You’ve helped to keep alive the American Dream for not only your children and grandchildren, but for all of our children and grandchildren. And for that, we will be eternally grateful.
So, Leon, as your parents would say, grazie. God bless you, and God bless these United States of America.
Ladies and gentlemen, our Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. (Applause.)
SECRETARY PANETTA: Thank you very much. Mr. President, I’m deeply touched by your moving words about me, about my family, more importantly, about the men and women who serve in the Department of Defense. All of us are truly honored by your presence, and I thank you.
Let me also take this moment to thank Michelle and Jill Biden for the work -- outstanding work that they’ve done in leading the Joining Forces initiative, which has provided great support for military families who have done so much for us.
Marty Dempsey, I appreciate your kind remarks. Marty and I have testified before Congress -- this is the 11th time yesterday that we’ve done that -- and we’ve also done 10 press conferences together. We are developing a very convincing case for collecting hazard pay in these jobs. (Laughter.)
As we used to say when I was in the Army, there isn’t anyone I’d rather be in the foxhole with than Marty Dempsey. I cannot tell you what a privilege it has been to work with you and to work with all of the service chiefs. We’ve dealt with some very tough issues, and there is no way -- no way -- that I could have done this job without your support, without your loyalty and without your dedication.
Members of Congress, leaders of the administration, leaders of the Department of Defense, distinguished guests, many dear friends who we’ve known over the years, Sylvia and I are very thankful to all of you for coming here today. This is without question the fanciest send-off I’ve ever gotten in Washington. (Laughter.)
Let me remember the words of President Harry Truman who once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” And that's just what I did. (Laughter.) And I am grateful that Bravo is here today. Bravo was in all of the meetings when we planned the bin Laden operation, and he also sat in on many of the sensitive meetings and discussions that I had at the Pentagon. And I want you to know that he has never told a soul what he heard. (Laughter.) He is definitely not a leaker. (Laughter.) At least according to that definition of the word. (Laughter.)
You’ve heard of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty. The producer is seriously considering a new movie about Bravo, entitled, Zero Bark Thirty. (Laughter.)
It’s been 50 years of public service, and I have always, and will always, cherish the deep and lasting friendships that I’ve made here in Washington. And I’m extremely grateful that so many of those friends could be here this afternoon.
I have spent a long time in this town. As the son of immigrants, as the President pointed out, I have truly lived the American Dream. Being an Italian American in Congress, at senior levels in the executive branch has been, for me, a very unique experience. I have never lost my awe by the sight of the Capitol and the White House at night. It still is a very special experience.
I can also remember when I was first elected to the House of Representatives, there was a member that I think the President may recall by the name of Frank Annunzio, from Chicago, who came up to me and said, “Panetta -- that’s Italian.” I said, “Yes, it is.” He said, “Good. I want you to join the Italian caucus.” Of course, I was not going to say no to an Italian from Chicago. (Laughter.) He said, great. He said, “We don’t do much on issues, but we eat good.” (Laughter.) And that was true.
Many years later, when I came to Langley as President Obama’s Director of Central Intelligence, I got a mug from my family with a big “C-I-A,” standing for California Italian American. (Laughter.)
In all seriousness, Mr. President, I want to express my deepest thanks to you for the opportunity to serve this country again as a member of your administration. It had been a tremendous honor and a tremendous privilege these past four years, and especially now as the 23rd Secretary of Defense. I hope that in some small way I have helped to fulfill the dream of my parents -- the dream that they wanted, and the dream that all of us want, of giving our children a better life.
It’s been for me a hell of a ride. I will never forget the pride and exhilaration when I walked out of the White House after the President announced the success of the bin Laden operation and I could hear the chants of those people who were gathered around the White House and in Lafayette Park yelling, “U.S.A! U.S.A!”
Thank you, Mr. President, for your strong support in what was a very tough decision. The memory of that operation and the team that helped put it together -- both the intelligence team and the military team -- will be with me forever.
I’ll remember traveling to combat theaters and bases around the world, looking into the eyes of brave men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day for this country. I’ll remember the moments when we’ve honored veterans of past wars, and when we’ve been inspired by servicemembers and wounded warriors returning from today’s wars.
And I’ll always remember the moments of grief, when this nation has rendered final honors to our fallen heroes, and when we’ve had to comfort their families. Writing notes of condolences to those families who have lost loved ones has been, for me, one of my toughest jobs.
These moments of selflessness, these moments of sacrifice, of courage, of heroism, give me a renewed sense of pride in our country, and it gives me an optimism for the future. I’ve witnessed a new generation of Americans ask themselves what they could do for their country. And I have seen the profound difference that talented men and women with a sense of duty and sacrifice can make in the life of this nation and in the life of our world.
For more than a decade of war, our democracy has depended on the men and women of the United States military to bear the awesome burden and to preserve our freedom. They have done everything the nation asked them to do, and more. And I will have no greater honor in my life than to have been able to lead them as Secretary of Defense.
I learned a long time ago that there’s not much you can accomplish in Washington on your own. You need a team behind you. And at the Department of Defense I’ve been blessed with an exceptional team -- from senior civilian and military leaders all the way the chain of command. And together, I’m proud of the important achievements that we’ve been able to accomplish for the nation.
We developed and we have begun implementing a new defense strategy for the 21st century that protects the strongest military power in the world and meets our responsibility to fiscal discipline. We're bringing, as the President said, more than a decade of war to a responsible end -- ending the war in Iraq, giving the Iraqi people a chance to secure and govern themselves. And in Afghanistan, our campaign is well on track to completing that mission. We're committed to an enduring relationship with the Afghan people so that they, too, can govern and secure themselves in the future.
We've kept pressure on al Qaeda, and we're going after extremists wherever you may hide. And we have shown the world -- we have shown the world -- that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it. (Applause.)
We are keeping faith -- keeping faith with and caring for our returning veterans and wounded warriors. I am particularly proud that we've expanded opportunities for everyone to serve in our military in a democracy. In a democracy, everybody should be given a chance to meet the qualifications needed to serve this country. This is a basic value that we fight to protect.
Despite the progress we've made together, there’s no question that there remains some very significant challenges -- the dangers and instability abroad, budget constraints, political gridlock here at home. But one thing I have learned is that you cannot -- you cannot -- be involved in public service and not be optimistic about the future.
I am confident that under the leadership of the President and the leaders in the Congress that we can, and we must, stay on the right path to build the military force we need for the 21st century.
Winston Churchill once wrote, "The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope." This is a time of uncertainty. But my career in public service gives me hope that the leaders of this nation will come together to resolve the challenges facing this country, and to seize the opportunities of the 21st century.
We've overcome wars. We've overcome disasters. We've overcome economic depressions and recessions. We've overcome crises of every kind throughout the history of our country. And throughout our history, the fighting spirit of our fellow Americans has made clear that we never, never, never give up. Our forefathers, pioneers, the immigrant families that came here all fought together to give our children that better life. We cannot fail to do the same.
None of us in public service -- none of us in public service -- could carry on that fight without the love and support of our families. Everything I've been able to accomplish in my wife -- in my life -- wife and life together -- has been because of the support of my family. My immigrant parents, my family, my sons, their families -- but most of all, Sylvia.
We've been married 50 years. She has endured extended absences and long hours and the demands that come with public service. But she has always been there. And I will never be able to thank her enough for her constant love and support. Her Valentine gift is both of us going home together. (Applause.)
It has been the honor of my life to have served in the position as Secretary of Defense. And wherever I go and whatever I do, I will thank God every day for the men and women in this country who are willing to put their lives on the line for all of us. They have responded to the call of the bugle with courage and with selfless dedication to country. My prayer as I leave is that we all have the same courage and dedication to protecting our nation -- the United States of America, the home of the free and the brave.
God bless America. God bless you. And God bless the men and women in the Department of Defense. (Applause.)
4:45 P.M. EST