- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

Praising him as “one of our nation’s finest public servants,” President Obama honored retiring Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday with the Medal of Freedom for his service to eight presidents, most recently overseeing two wars for more than four years at the helm of the Pentagon.

“Our nation is at war, and to know Bob is to know his profound sense of duty - to country, to our security, and most of all, to our men and women who get up every day and put on America’s uniform and put their lives on the line to keep us safe and to keep us free,” Mr. Obama said at a Pentagon ceremony.

Ticking off a list of Mr. Gates‘ accomplishments, Mr. Obama credited him with overseeing the troop surges and subsequent drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as ensuring safer equipment for U.S. forces abroad. He also praised him for fighting “institutional inertia” to target wasteful defense spending.

Saying he knew it would be “very difficult” to adequately express his feelings to men and women in uniform, Mr. Gates said he distributed a personal message through military channels Wednesday.

“I’ll just say here that I will think of these young warriors - the ones who fought, the ones who keep on fighting, the ones who never made it back - till the end of my days,” he said.

Mr. Gates, 67, is a holdover from the George W. Bush administration, having served since December 2006.

After he took office, Mr. Obama asked him to stay on the job to ensure continuity. Thursday was his last day.

”In his willingness to become the first secretary of defense to serve under presidents of both parties, the integrity of Bob Gates is also a reminder, especially to folks here in Washington, that civility and respectful discourse, and citizenship over partisanship are not quaint relics of a bygone era; they are the timeless virtues that we need now more than ever,” Mr. Obama said.

“For whatever differences of party or ideology we may have, we can only keep America strong if we remember what keeps America great - our ability to come together and work together, as Americans, for a common purpose.”

Mr. Obama surprised Mr. Gates with the Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor a president can bestow on a civilian.

“You’re getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff,” Mr. Gates joked, later promising his wife, Becky, that the couple is “really going home this time.”

Leon E. Panetta, a former congressman from California who most recently served as director of the CIA, is succeeding Mr. Gates.