WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2011 -- Senior defense and national security leaders were on hand here yesterday as the National Defense University Foundation honored Arizona Sen. John McCain and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman at its American Patriot Award dinner.

The annual event highlights the role of the National Defense University, based at Fort Lesley J. McNair here, as the pinnacle of professional military education.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said one of his first trips as chairman was to NDU.

"I did that on purpose, because I make three promises to the leaders of our military as I travel around and meet them," he said. "The first promise I make is that we will probably not design your organizations exactly as you want them to be."

The second promise, Dempsey said, is that they will get equipment that probably will not be exactly what they need.

"The third promise … is whatever guidance we give you will be a little late," he said with a grin.

"I've lived up to those promises in my first month as the chairman," the general said, "but the point I make to them is that it is the leaders that we develop that knit together all of that and produce the outcomes that our nation needs. And we ought to be really proud of that."

The military is the premier leader development institution in the United States, "and leaders are what we need to move into an uncertain future," he said.

Dempsey said he was delighted to be part of the event honoring McCain and Lieberman. He thanked them for their careers of service to America and for their commitment to character and values and also their commitment to developing leaders.

CIA Director David H. Petraeus, a retired Army general, said McCain and Lieberman have "walked point here in Washington for our troopers, intelligence professionals and diplomats -- two men who have answered the call of duty over expediency, the call of country over party."

The senators have worked from their convictions to implement policies to meet wartime goals, Petraeus said, even when their positions were not politically popular.

The American Patriot Award recognizes people who have dedicated their lives in service to the United States. "But more importantly, it's the ideals of our nation that they represent," said Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff. "As a result of their efforts, today we have the strongest armed forces in the world as we continue to fight and serve across many continents."

Lieberman and McCain have spent almost their entire lives serving the American people, Odierno said, "ensuring that we are not only prepared today, but prepared for tomorrow."

The senators have served together on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and both have made repeated and in-depth visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. Lieberman has served in the Senate since 1989 and was the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, but supported McCain, a Republican, in his bid for the presidency in 2008.

McCain entered the Senate in 1987. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1958, and flew jets for the Navy. He was shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.