Gen. David H. Petraeus' retirement ceremony remarks
August 31, 2011
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, thank you very much, Secretary [William J.] Lynn, Admiral [Mike] Mullen. Ambassadors, members of Congress and the Cabinet, service secretaries, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders, fellow alumni of the great U.S. military [academy] class of 1974, "Pride of the Corps" -- wait, steady, not yet, not yet, not yet -- enthusiastic bunch -- other distinguished guests, fellow members of the U.S. military, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for being here this morning and for helping to make a very special occasion even more special by your presence.
Secretary Lynn and Admiral Mullen, thank you for your very kind and very generous words and for the honors you've bestowed on Holly and me. Needless to say, I can only accept the medal presented this morning inasmuch as I do so on behalf of those with whom I was privileged to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. This medal is by rights their medal, and I will wear it for them.
More importantly, thank you for your unyielding commitment to our troopers and their families. And thanks as well to Presidents Bush and Obama, and Secretaries Gates and Panetta, for their steadfast support of our men and women in uniform during the time that I had the honor of leading them in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Central Command area of responsibility.
I cannot imagine a more meaningful ceremony than that which the Joint Service Honor Guards are conducting here today. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen on parade before us represent all the members of all our services -- men and women who on a daily basis nobly serve around the world. It has been the greatest of privileges to command joint forces in combat for much of the past decade. And I appreciate Secretary Panetta authorizing a joint services ceremony today so that I could recognize our military services' individual and collective contributions. Indeed, I'd ask that you join me in thanking those on the field today and all those they represent for their characteristically outstanding performance. Thanks.
When I asked Holly for her thoughts on my remarks today, she responded with two words: Be brief. Of course, asking a four-star general for brevity during his final moment in uniform before a microphone is probably asking more than a bit much. But I will do my best to follow my wife's wise counsel.
An occasion like this is a time for thanks and a time for reflection -- thanks to the countless individuals who made the last 37 years so wonderful, so rewarding and so memorable for my family and me, and reflection on the extraordinary privilege of serving during a time of enormous consequence for our country and our partners around the world
President Teddy Roosevelt was fond of observing that life's greatest gift is hard work worth doing. I have enjoyed that gift many times over since raising my right hand on the first of July, 1970 and as a brand-new West Point cadet reciting the oath of office for the first time.
I can remember that day as if it were yesterday, waking early that morning, packing the one bag we got to bring with us, getting into the car with my mother and father and driving the seven curvy miles around Storm King Mountain. I had, as was noted earlier, grown up in the shadow of West Point and spent countless hours of my childhood on the Hudson River sailing with my dad. Even so, we all felt anxious as we entered Thayer Gate as my wonderful parents, both now deceased, entrusted their only son to the U.S. Military Academy. And so I joined the long great line that is one of our country's greatest institutions.
There I commenced the study of our profession of arms, internalized the values, traditions and standards that have acted as guideposts throughout my career and began forging the friendships that have sustained me ever since. In fact, as I noted, there is a wonderful group of my classmates here today, and I would ask that they stand and be recognized: the "Pride of the Corps," '74. Hoo-ah.
Don't accuse me of differentiating between those who get shade and those who don't. That -- I'm sure someone else did that.
While at West Point, I not only received an education and earned a commission, I also met the woman who would become my wife. Indeed, the best decision I ever made was replying, "Sure, happy to do it," when asked if I would escort a visiting coed to a weekend football game. What I didn't know at the time was that the coed was a superintendent's daughter, back from college from -- for a rare visit, and that she was supposed to be fixed up with one of my classmates. After some initial trepidation -- on both sides, I might add -- we hit it off.
We were married 10 months later, and Holly has been the bedrock of our family ever since. She is, as has been noted, an Army daughter, an Army wife, and now an Army mother. But she is also much more: She's been "Mrs. Dad" for the bulk of the past decade, while I was deployed. She served as the first lady of one of our Army's largest posts while virtually all of its 25,000 soldiers were downrange in Iraq. And since our kids headed off to college, she has supported military men and women and their families by establishing and leading programs at the Better Business Bureau and now at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Holly was recently described in an NPR [National Public Radio] profile as small, attractive, smart and a pit bull. I'm sure glad she's been on my side for 37 wonderful years. Needless to say, I'll never be able to adequately express my love and appreciation for all that she has done, but I can at least say here this morning: Thanks, Hol. I love you.
As has been noted, Holly and I have been blessed with two terrific kids: Anne and Steve. And while it's been great -- it has been great to watch them grow up to become the people they are today. Anne is an energetic grad student, studying to become a registered dietitian. She's passionate about helping us eat right, run triathlons and cut unhealthy carbs, though I'm happy to note her assessment -- her determination, in fact -- that liquids that violate Central Command General Order Number 1 are not deemed to be unhealthy carbs.
Meanwhile, our son Steve, whom we moved three times in his four years of high school, was nonetheless his high school's valedictorian, and went to MIT and, while there, he joined ROTC. He's now serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, having completed a tour with the brigade in Afghanistan as an airborne infantry platoon leader.
Anne and Steve, thank you both for being who you are. Needless to say, your mom and I are very proud of you.
They say that behind every successful man is a surprised mother- in-law. In my case, it's a supporting, loving and proud mother-in-law. Along with Holly's father and three brothers, she welcomed me into the Knowlton family, and made me a fourth son. General Knowlton passed away during my final tour in Iraq, but he is, I hope, looking down from Fiddler's Green at his wife, Holly and me, and enjoying this ceremony at the same parade field where he and Mrs. Knowlton were recognized after their 37 1/2 years of service.
As I listened to the music being played during today's ceremony, I heard some familiar strains: the Victory Division song, the Dogface Soldier, We Have a Rendezvous With Destiny, and the All-American Soldier -- the songs of the divisions with which I soldiered over the years. And be assured, classmates, that was indeed the official West Point March, The Thumper, that was played during the inspection of troops.
During my years in uniform with those units from the mid-1970s until the present, our military rose from the depths it had hit in the early post-Vietnam era, developing into the great force that serves our nation today -- a force that is, without question, the most experienced, best equipped, finest military ever to serve our nation.
In truth, the Army I joined as a second lieutenant had suffered enormously. In the wake of our involvement in Vietnam, our Army and much of our military were grappling with a host of very serious challenges. I know I speak for many when I say that we came away from that period vowing to never let our forces get to such a point ever again.
In the ensuing years, determined leaders transformed what was described as "the hollow Army" and our exhausted military. Our services worked together to develop the joint forces that prevailed with such overwhelming capability in Panama and the Gulf War; that demonstrated such versatility in peacekeeping and stability operations in Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans; and that have carried out with such admirable qualities the enormously challenging missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Looking back, the resurrection of our military was nothing short of remarkable. Indeed, we owe an enormous debt to the individuals so important to that rebirth, men like Generals Galvin, Gorman, DePuy, Vuono, Richardson, Shelton, Sullivan, Keane, Clark, McCaffrey, Peay, Franks, Reimer, Foley, McNeill. These and innumerable other great leaders, those just from my services but indeed from all the services, provided the vision, leadership, organizational skills and drive that guided our forces as they rose again like a phoenix.
Many of them, from all our services, are here this morning, and I want to ask them to stand, so that we can express our gratitude. And that includes you, Chairman, and all of our serving Joint Chiefs members and combatant commanders. Thank you all so much. Please stand. Stand up, Chief.
They were joined in this effort, of course, by a renewed noncommissioned officer corps, one that truly is the backbone of our military and the envy of militaries around the world -- men like my first platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class David Oakie, or my wingman for four combat commands, Command Sergeant Major Marvin Hill, a man who exemplifies the initiative, energy, professional competence and, above all, inspirational leadership of our noncommissioned officer corps, and who is here with us today, representing that great noncommissioned officer corps. And I'd ask, Sergeant
Major, that you please stand and even step out on the field, so that we can recognize you as well. Hoo-ah!
Together these determined, visionary senior leaders and gifted noncommissioned officers mentored the captains and lieutenants, the sergeants and specialists who they knew would one day inherit the mantle of leadership. Our nation and I in particular, given the commands I've had since 9/11, owe these generals, admirals and senior commissioned and noncommissioned officers an enormous debt of gratitude for their extraordinary service during a critical period in our nation's history.
Of course our military went through a further transformation in the early years of our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. We refined our doctrine, revised our leader development curricula, overhauled our combat training center scenarios and revamped the unit training events on the so-called road to deployment.
These and other changes ultimately helped enable the retrieval of a desperate situation in Iraq, progress against al-Qaida and reversal of the Taliban momentum in Afghanistan.
It was a privilege to play a part in that process while in the States between tours in Iraq with my great Marine buddy and shipmate Jim Mattis, and it was the greatest of honors to then help put our ideas into practice in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greater Central Command area of responsibility.
It is wonderful, needless to say, to see so many of those who contributed to those critical efforts here with us today. As the chairman noted, another transformational leader, General Schoomaker, said, "Shake up the Army, Dave." And we did our best to do just that.
And I'd now like to ask all who helped to do just that -- the COINdinistas, the commanders in the field, my brain trust, the execs, the aides, personal staff and others with whom I've been privileged to serve in a host of different assignments since 9/11 -- to stand, so that we can say thanks to each of you as well. Hoo-ah!
We are now approaching a similarly difficult period. The future requirements include maintaining pressure on al-Qaida, continuing to draw down in Iraq and commencing reductions in Afghanistan -- all while sustaining our hard-fought, hard-won, but still fragile progress in those areas. This will be done, of course, against a backdrop of ongoing change in the Middle East and difficult budget decisions here at home.
As these decisions are made, we should never forget that the U.S. military is composed of many parts: exceptional ships, planes and ground systems, unparalleled institutions and infrastructure, the finest of high technology and world-class networks that enable all that we do. But as all here appreciate, I know, the essence, the core of our military is and always will be its people: men and women who raise their right hands and recite the oath of enlistment, even though they know that act may result in them deploying to a combat zone where they will be asked once again to put it all on the line, day after day, in crushing heat and numbing cold, under body armor and Kevlar, against resilient, tough, often barbaric enemies; never knowing, as they go outside the wire, whether they'll be greeted with a hand grenade or a handshake, but being ready and capable of responding appropriately to either.
Our men and women in uniform are sustained in this exceedingly challenging effort by their families and their communities: wives and husbands, moms and dads, daughters and sons, all who, without complaint, move from post to post, each time making the new unit a family, the house a home, and the neighborhood a community. These uncommon individuals unfailingly support us when we're at home, and do even more for us when we are gone, be it for a three-day field exercise or a third tour downrange. And they, in turn, are supported by civilian communities across our great nation, around posts like Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; MacDill Air Force Base, Florida -- communities where Holly and I were privileged to serve, and that are wonderfully represented here this morning.
The towns around these and other posts and bases across our land have been incredibly staunch supporters of our military families, and they've been particularly supportive of the Petraeus family in recently years. And I'd also like to ask all of our civilian community supporters to stand, so that we in uniform can say thanks to each of you, as well.
I want to single out one of those supporters in particular: Ken Fisher. Indeed, I think no one individual in our country has done more for our wounded warriors and their families than has he and his organization. The Fisher Houses that he has with his great team built at military bases and hospitals across our country and overseas have made an enormous difference in the lives of families when they have most needed help and support.
And, Ken, I'd like to ask you to stand, so that we can give a special thanks to you as well -- if I can figure out where you are. There he is. Thanks, Ken.
As our nation contemplates difficult budget decisions, I know that our leaders will remember that our people, our men and women in uniform, are our military, and that taking care of them and their families must be our paramount objective.
Beyond that, it will be imperative to maintain a force that not only capitalizes on the extraordinary experience and expertise in our ranks today, but also maintains the versatility and flexibility that have been developed over the past decade in particular. Now, please rest assured that I'm not out to give one last boost to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, or to try to recruit all of you for COINdinista nation. I do believe, however, that we have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared or most inclined.
Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But again, I know that that fact is widely recognized. Indeed, I take my final pass in review in uniform with a sense of great confidence in our military and in our country. Despite the innumerable challenges that face our nation and our world, I believe in our citizens, our country, our system of government, and above all, our men and women in uniform.
Moreover, those assuming leadership positions in our military, those about to step forward, our classmate General Marty Dempsey, Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, General Ray Odierno and many others -- I know that they will guide our forces superbly. They are experienced. They are forthright. They have vision. And they will provide Secretary Panetta and President Obama thoughtful, principled advice.
As I reflect on the extraordinary opportunities I've had over the past 37 years, I recall the familiar words of Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech. "It is not the critic who counts," Roosevelt stated, "not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
I have been privileged to serve in the arena together with America's finest, its men and women in uniform, as well as with its finest diplomats and civilian officials and innumerable coalition partners. And I'd single out our great NATO senior civilian representative, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, who is here as well, as exemplary of them. All of them have been magnificent, and the members of our young generation in uniform in particular have earned the description Tom Brokaw gave to them. After a great day with us in Iraq in 2003, he shouted to me over the noise of a helicopter before heading back to Baghdad: Surely, General, this is America's new greatest generation. I agreed with him then, and I agree with him now. And I was delighted to see that title used on the cover of Time magazine two weeks ago for a wonderful piece by Joe Klein.
When the great Sergeant Major Hill and I visited units this past 4th of July in Afghanistan, a commander stopped and asked me how many 4ths of July I'd spent deployed over the past decade or so. When I answered eight of the past 11, he thanked me for my service and sacrifice. I responded, in fact, the privilege has been all mine. It has been the greatest of honors to have soldiered with our nation's new greatest generation in tough but important endeavors for the bulk of that time. I can imagine no greater honor.
Before closing I also want to remember reverently those who have given the last full measure of devotion in our endeavors in recent years. They and their families must never be forgotten. In a poem published a few years ago, a British trooper who was deployed in Afghanistan captured eloquently the emotions of those who serve and those who sacrifice. He wrote, "And what is asked for the service we give? No high praise or riches if we should live, just silence from friends, our name on a wall, if this time around it is I that fall." To the family, friends and countrymen of those who have fallen and to all those who have served and sacrificed on behalf of our cause, I offer my deepest respect and my eternal gratitude.
As I close I know that I can speak for Holly in saying that our journey with the U.S. military has been an amazing one; in truth, one will that will not end today even though we're about to begin an exciting new journey with another extraordinary organization.
And so let me conclude by again extending our deepest thanks to each of you gathered here, to all those with whom we have soldiered since 1974, and indeed to all the members of our armed forces and their family members. May God bless each of you, our great country, and most importantly our men and women in uniform and their families. Thank you very much.