By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALTON, Afghanistan, June 5, 2011 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, paying his final visit to Afghanistan before his June 30 retirement, told troops on the front lines today that it’s tough for him to say goodbye.
Gates visited this base in Regional Command South and Camp Dwyer in Regional Command Southwest to speak to and thank the men and women who carry out the mission every day.
“I’ve come out here to thank you for the last time for your service and for your sacrifice,” he said. “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.”
About 200 soldiers waited here for the secretary under an awning, as the temperature already was over 100 degrees when he arrived. Gates answered questions on various topics -- such as the situation in Libya and how to get stateside training for service members who drive and work on mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles -- before presenting each with a commemorative coin.
Gates has held the position longer than all but four previous defense secretaries, and with the nation at war the entire time. President George W. Bush nominated him for the job, and he took office in December 2006. President Barack Obama asked the secretary to stay in the position when his administration took office. He told the deployed service members he took the responsibility for the young men and women who make up the armed forces to heart from his first day on the job.
“I considered myself personally responsible to make sure you had what you needed to complete your mission, to come home safely, and if you are hurt, to be medevaced as fast as possible and get the best possible care,” he said.
“I just want you to know I think about you every day. I think about your hardships and your sacrifices and your burdens, and those of your families, more than you can possibly know,” he continued. “You are, I believe, the best our country has to offer, and you will be in my thoughts and prayers every day for the rest of my life.”