WASHINGTON (Jan. 31, 2012) -- The Defense Department and the Army said goodbye today to a general known for his leadership and his innovation, but who may be best remembered for his focus on advancing brain injury treatment and mental health care.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among hundreds who gathered today at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's Summerall Field to celebrate the career of Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, as he retired following 40 years of service.
As the son of a World War II Silver Star recipient, Chiarelli "exemplified the values of his father: of patriotism, of courage, of resilience, of dedication," the secretary said.
Panetta said he traveled to Baghdad as part of the Iraq Study Group in September 2006, where the group heard a briefing from Chiarelli, then commander of Multinational Corps Iraq. Iraq at the time was "in considerable turmoil," the secretary said.
"But Pete's presentation demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge of the 21st-century battlefield," he continued. "He was honest. He was direct. He called it as it was, and he pulled no punches."
The secretary said one member of the group who was particularly impressed with Chiarelli was then-Texas A&M University President Robert M. Gates, who as secretary of defense later chose the general to serve as his senior military assistant.
"For 17 months, Pete served as Bob Gates' right-hand man, advising him on a full range of pressing national security matters, and always -- always -- giving him insight into how the decisions he was making would impact on the men and women on the battlefield."
The hallmark of Chiarelli's career is "the depth of his concern for the welfare of every Soldier," the secretary said. "It's that quality that made him the perfect choice to be the vice chief of staff of the Army."
For his more than three years in that job, Chiarelli has not rested, Panetta said, but has devoted himself to improving the lives of Soldiers and family members at a time of extraordinary strain.
"Under his leadership, the Army has taken tremendous steps to give Soldiers increased dwell time [at home stations] between deployments, and he's been an outspoken advocate for wounded warriors -- in particular, those suffering from the unseen wounds of war," the secretary said.
More than any other officer, Panetta added, Chiarelli sought to eliminate the stigma of post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues.
"And he's devoted every ounce of his energy to the problem of suicide in the Army," the secretary said. "Thanks to his tireless efforts, the department is fully working to confront these issues."
Panetta said Chiarelli and his wife, Beth, have made "an extraordinary difference."
"You've touched so many lives," he told the couple. "You've inspired all of us to redouble our efforts to protect the men and women who fight to protect us."
Panetta assured Chiarelli that while the nation's military members will miss him, "the light that you have lit will continue to shine, and to light our way in the future."
Dempsey used his remarks in part to offer guidance to media members covering the event: "I want you to report that we have never had a finer man in uniform, and never a finer couple, than Pete and Beth Chiarelli," he said.
Dempsey said his fellow general is an outstanding son, husband, and father, as well as "an unbelievable friend." But as a Soldier, the chairman added, Chiarelli "is a giant of a man in every way, inside and out."
Dempsey said that after watching Chiarelli "stalking the halls of the Pentagon," he finally got the image he was seeking to describe his fellow general, likening the general to Paul Bunyan, the larger-than-life lumberjack of North American folklore.
"[It's] almost like he's got a big hatchet or ax on his back, hacking his way through the bureaucracy to make life better for Soldiers and their families," the chairman said.
Dempsey said before the end of the Cold War, Chiarelli was known as one of the finest trainers in the Army, and was the first commander assigned to Iraq to realize -- and train his staff to deal with -- the key question of how to run a city.
In Baghdad, Chiarelli led the Army to transform its "fundamentally flawed" command-and-control structures, and then to make those systems reach to ground troops, so a squad leader could build context from the bottom up, Dempsey said.
When he came back from war, Dempsey added, Chiarelli confronted the Army's "enduring challenge" with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress injury.
"He drove our Army -- drove it -- to recognize the problem, to reduce the stigma, to confront it. And that was Pete Chiarelli," Dempsey said.
Beth Chiarelli likewise worked to improve the Army, the chairman noted, by focusing among many other issues on the challenges military children face while changing schools frequently during a parent's career.
"Here's the bottom line," Dempsey said. "The enduring example of both Pete and Beth Chiarelli is that you have to live with a passion for something. The goal is not just to make a living, but to make a difference. And boy oh boy, did you two make a difference."
On Chiarelli's last day at work, Dempsey noted, hundreds of members of the Army staff formed a cordon from his Pentagon office to the parking lot to "clap him out" of the job.
"What struck me was this wasn't organized by his executive officer, it wasn't organized by any other general officer, it was organized by the noncommissioned officers," the chairman said. "And if that doesn't tell you about Pete Chiarelli, you don't know anything about Pete Chiarelli."
During the ceremony, Chiarelli received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the department's highest noncombat military award. His wife, Beth, received the Secretary of the Army Exceptional Civilian Service Award, the highest Army honor a civilian can receive.
Chiarelli thanked his wife and their four grown children for their love and support during his career. Marrying Beth was the "best decision I ever made," he said, adding that they are both "immensely proud" of their sons and daughter.
Chiarelli said he bought his father a journal after the senior Chiarelli retired, and asked him to record some of his experiences from World War II, during which the older Chiarelli received a battlefield commission.
"I still have that journal," the general said. "Every page is blank. He never wrote a single word. Like many from his generation, he never talked about his experience or exploits in combat."
One of his father's fellow Soldiers, however, sent him a 24-page narrative outlining some of the two men's shared exploits across North Africa, Italy, southern France, Austria and Germany.
That document proved to him something he's also learned for himself over four decades in uniform, Chiarelli said: "There is undeniably a thread that links every Soldier to those who came before, and those still to come."
Years after commanding 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq and later Multinational Corps Iraq, Chiarelli said, not a day goes by that he doesn't think of the 650 Soldiers under his command who were killed.
"I would trade all the medals and ribbons on my chest, and every bit of rank, to get just one back," he said.
Two years ago, Chiarelli added, he presented a Purple Heart to a young staff sergeant who had been wounded in successive roadside bomb explosions in Afghanistan.
"He was there with his parents, his wife and their two children," the general said. "Over the course of our conversation, he told me how much he loved being a Soldier, leading Soldiers. He wanted desperately to get back to his unit."
Chiarelli said the young man was suffering from traumatic brain injury, and it was "readily apparent to me he had difficulty gathering his thoughts and speaking."
The general said he now believes the invisible injuries of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury are the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"While we have made significant progress in recent years, we must, must, must continue our efforts," Chiarelli said. "We owe it to our men and women in uniform, active and reserve, as well as veterans, and their families.
"I want this to be my parting message to all of you as I leave our Army's active ranks," he concluded. "I certainly hope in retirement to be able to continue to champion this most important cause, and contribute in some meaningful way."