The Envoy

Defense Secretary Gates signs off

The Envoy

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates walks before burial services for Marine Lance Corporal Nicholas O'Brien, Tuesday, …

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sent an emotional farewell message to U.S. forces today ahead of his last day in the job Thursday.

"For four and a half years, I have signed the orders deploying you, all too often into harm's way," Gates wrote, in a message shared by his press secretary Geoff Morrell with journalists today. "This has weighed on me every day."

"It has been a difficult time for you and your families, from long and repeated deployments ... to the anguish of those of you who have lost friends and family in combat or you who have suffered visible and invisible wounds of war yourselves," he wrote.

"It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve and to lead you for the past four and a half years," he wrote. "You are the best America has to offer."

A holdover from the cabinet of President George W. Bush, Gates originally agreed to stay on in the job under President Barack Obama for just one year. But thanks to his decades of experience serving seven presidents--including stints over the Cold War as CIA director, deputy national security adviser and Pentagon chief--Gates quickly became one of Obama's most influential national security advisers. The Defense holdover helped the new president manage the drawdown of 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq and handle pressure from his generals to send thousands more to Afghanistan. Gates' pragmatic, no-drama, non-ideological style suited Obama, who hosts a farewell dinner for Gates at the White House tonight.

Perhaps Gates' most memorable public comment on national security came last February in a talk at West Point.

"Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia, or into the Middle East or Africa 'should have his head examined,' " Gates told the cadets, in his typically candid manner, adding "as Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it."

Gates plans to retire to his home in Washington state and write another volume of memoirs. (Gates' first memoir, From the Shadows, about his tenure as CIA director and adviser to five presidents, came out in 1996 after what he thought would be his final stint in government.) And Gates, 67, has repeatedly vowed that he will not return to head a government agency again.

We'll see. Gates' successor, former CIA director Leon Panetta, who starts his new job at the Pentagon on Friday, turned 73 just yesterday.

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