FORT BENNING, Ga. (May 4, 2012) -- The Defense Department's top civilian leader made his first official post visit today.

Leon Panetta, the 23rd secretary of Defense, was briefed by Maneuver Center of Excellence leaders and observed training across the installation, including demonstrations at the Clarke Simulation Center on Harmony Church involving dismounted squads, advanced situational awareness and leader immersion on the ELITE system. He also toured the National Infantry Museum and ate lunch with junior enlisted Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 11th Engineer Battalion, and the 209th Military Police Detachment.

The capstone event of Panetta's daylong stop took place at McGinnis-Wickam Hall, where he addressed about 1,300 troops from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in an all-hands session at Marshall Auditorium. The Sledgehammer Brigade, which deployed four times to Iraq, is gearing up for a mission in Kuwait.

"The main reason I'm here today is to thank you for making the decision to step forward and serve this country," he said. "This nation depends on men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to give our children a better and more secure life. We depend on you to make sure that you protect this country (and) keep America safe."

Panetta is a former congressman who also served as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. He was the CIA director prior to taking over as Defense secretary last summer.
He has roots at Fort Benning. As an Army officer, he completed 10 weeks of Infantry training here in 1964.

"It's been a great treat to be able to be with you and relive some old memories, and see a lot of new things that make Fort Benning the best installation in the world," he told the audience. "Like you, I had the opportunity to come here in a previous capacity as a young Army lieutenant. I've been through the swamps, I've been through the red mud (and) I've been through the humidity. Yes, I have lots of warm memories of Fort Benning."

Panetta expressed gratitude to military families for their dedication, sacrifice and loyalty to the nation, calling them "part and parcel" to the American fighting force.

The 3rd HBCT participated in the initial drive into Baghdad in 2003, endured the insurgency's worst days and assumed an advise-and-assist role during Operation New Dawn. The brigade lost 77 Soldiers in Iraq.

"Many of you deployed there; many of you lost brothers and sisters in that fight," the secretary said. "We will never forget these brave men and women, nor will we ever forget what they accomplished. Because of their sacrifice, the American people are safer today. Because of all that you've accomplished, we were able to bring the Iraq war to a responsible and honorable conclusion last December."

Military leaders now intend to do the same in Afghanistan, he said.

"The Taliban has been weakened," he said. "They've been unable to organize an effort to regain any of the territory that's been lost and their momentum has been broken."

President Barack Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement earlier this week with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. By the end of this summer, 80 percent of the Afghan population will be under Afghanistan's security and control, Panetta said.

"It sends a clear signal to our enemies and to our partners that we will finish the job right in Afghanistan," he said. "We have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan people."

The secretary said long-term success in Afghanistan will eliminate the safe haven al-Qaida used to attack America and deny the group any ability to rebuild.

The enemy, however, has attempted to capitalize on a recent series of "troubling incidents" involving alleged misconduct by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Panetta said. He said those individuals don't represent the vast majority of people in uniform but urged all military members to consistently display the highest standards of character, discipline and professionalism.

"The reality is we're fighting a different kind of war and living in a different kind of world," he said. "These days, it takes only seconds for a picture or photo to suddenly become an international headline. And those headlines can impact the mission we're engaged in. It can put your fellow service members at risk and they can cost lives."

"Our enemies will seek to turn these incidents in their favor at the very moment that they are losing the war. I want all of you to always remember who you are -- you are part of the best fighting force on the face of the Earth. Never forget that."

Panetta praised the Sledgehammer Brigade for its commitment to duty and always representing the American people with integrity and exceptional conduct on the battlefield.

"All of us have to be willing to fight to make this country great," he said. "The Hammer Brigade has always been willing to fight to keep America safe, make sure our kids have a better life, but most importantly, to always make sure we have a government of, by and for the people."