WASHINGTON - Soldiers dressed in Revolutionary War regalia opened the 2009 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition: A Professional Development Forum in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center Monday in Washington, D.C.

The opening ceremonies included a tribute to noncommissioned officers, celebrating the Year of the NCO.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also spoke to the hundreds of Soldiers, civilians and others about the sacrifices Soldiers and their families have made for the nation and vowed to continue to support them.

"I am prepared to respond to urgent needs and will push to get the troops the equipment they need," Gates said.

He said Defense Department will also continue to find ways to counter and destroy IEDs to "protect our heroes," and that remains the No. 1 priority.

Gates said both the president and the first lady are supportive of Soldiers and their families. He said President Obama is committed to the well-being of every Soldier and to ensuring they have the tools needed to do their jobs, and that Michelle Obama supports programs for military families.

He also said $9 billion has been allocated for new family programs such as spousal support, housing and child care.

Gates gave updates on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and reminded the audience of the need to retain seasoned officers and NCOs for the continued fight in those countries.