Gates to Naval Academy grads: War effort at turning point

Contrasts bin Laden operation with failed Iran hostage action in 1980

May 27, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

In his final commencement address as the secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates told the graduating class of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy on Friday that they will join the nation's war effort at a critical turning point in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During a 20-minute address that avoided politics and instead focused largely on leadership and recent military successes, Gates noted that the 2011 class joined the academy at a time when the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were entering an especially dangerous phase.

"You reported here when casualties were at their highest and prospects for success were uncertain, at best," Gates told the midshipmen and more than 27,000 family members and faculty at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "I'm proud to say that we face a different set of circumstances today."

Gates, who is retiring at the end of June, received his loudest applause when recounting the May 2 special forces operation that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He avoided discussing budget cuts at the Department of Defense, despite raising that issue at a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., earlier this month.

In that speech, Gates argued that Congress and the White House should take a judicious approach to defense spending cuts rather than imposing across-the-board trims. President Barack Obama, who spoke at the academy commencement in 2009, has nominated CIA director Leon Panetta to take over the Defense Department when Gates leaves.

As the sun beat down on a field full of white and blue dress uniforms Friday, Gates said that one characteristic of leadership is the ability to accept failure and learn from it. He recalled his bitter disappointment as he watched the failed 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission unfold.

"I had been in on the planning from the beginning and, while the operation was clearly risky, I honestly believed it would work. It did not," Gates said. "Soon, images of burnt helicopters and the charred remains of U.S. servicemen splashed around the world."

But Gates, who was an executive assistant to the CIA director at the time, said reforms that followed that operation helped to shape the special operations forces of today — the same service members who were successful in killing bin Laden.

"Just under a month ago I once again spent a nerve-racking afternoon in the White House as a risky special operations mission was under way," he said of the Pakistan raid. "But this time, of course, there was a very different result: A mass murderer was brought to a fitting end."

Gates choked up as he described the sense of personal responsibility he felt in sending troops into conflict.

"My only prayer is that you serve with honor," he said, "and come home safely."

A total of 1,006 midshipmen — 800 men and 206 women — graduated and received commissions in a ceremony filled not just with pageantry, but also tradition. Though a planned flyover by the Blue Angels was canceled, a squadron of F/A-18E Hornets from Virginia Beach, Va., thundered overhead as the graduation began.

Gates, who has served under eight presidents, started by offering "amnesty to all midshipmen whose antics led to minor conduct offenses," drawing laughter from the crowd.

After Gates finished, the midshipmen stood to be formally sworn into one of the branches of the military, mainly the Navy and Marine Corps. By tradition, the graduating class offered three cheers for the midshipmen they were leaving behind and then flung their caps into the air.

Each is required to serve a minimum of four years on active duty.

For Anthony Rush, a 22-year-old from New York who graduated with distinction, the day was bittersweet. The political science major said the hardest thing about the academy was getting used to the competition among so many qualified students.

"I remember looking back … and thinking, 'Man, I can't wait to get out of this place,'" he said. "Now that it's here, I want to turn back time."

John Miller of Kinsman, Ohio, who is also 22 and graduated with distinction, said he spent the day reflecting "on all the people who got me to this place."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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