ANNAPOLIS, Md., May 27, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2011 today to embrace the power of perseverance and determination as he contrasted the failed 1980 hostage rescue attempt in Iran with last month’s successful mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Speaking at commencement ceremonies at the U.S. Naval Academy, Gates recollected the nail-biting night at the White House on April 24, 1980. He was executive assistant to the CIA director at the time, he said, and had been involved on planning the secret rescue mission for 52 Americans being held hostage in Tehran.
“While the operation was clearly risky, I honestly believed it would work,” he told the audience in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium here. “It did not.”
Gates conveyed the painful images of burnt helicopters and the charred remains of U.S. servicemen that were splashed around the world. “It was truly a low ebb for our nation and for a military that was still recovering from Vietnam,” he said.
But rather than be defeated, the special operations community and U.S. military as a whole “pulled itself together, reformed the way it was trained and organized [and] took on the corrosive service parochialism that had hobbled our military institutionally and operationally.”
The results, he said, were seen May 1, when Gates spent what he acknowledged was a “nerve-wracking afternoon in the White House” watching a risky special operations mission unfold. “When word of a downed helicopter came back, my heart sank, remembering that awful night 30 years ago,” he acknowledged.
“But this time, of course, there was a very different result,” Gates said, sending the audience into widespread applause. “A mass murderer was brought to a fitting end; a world in awe of America’s military prowess; a country relieved that justice was done, and frankly, that their government could do something hard and do it right; and a powerful blow struck on behalf of democratic civilization against its most lethal and determined enemies.”
Gates urged the new Navy and Marine Corps officers to learn from that experience as they launch their military careers.
“I want each of you to take that lesson of adaptability, of responding to setbacks by improving yourself and your institution, and [to take] that example of success with you as you go forward into the Navy and Marine Corps you will someday lead,” he said.
Noting that today’s address would be his last opportunity to engage future military leaders before retiring next month as defense secretary, Gates drew another contrast from the past.
He recalled his days as president of Texas A&M University, seeing 18- to 25-year-old students walking the campus between classes. In December 2006, just after becoming defense secretary, Gates visited Iraq, where he saw young men and women of the same age group.
The difference, he said, was that the latter group was “wearing body armor and carrying assault rifles, putting their lives at risk for all Americans.”
Gates said he knew some would not make it home whole and some wouldn’t make it home at all, and that soon he would be the one sending all who served in harm’s way.
“Ever since, I have come to work every day with a sense of personal responsibility for each and every young American in uniform — as if you were my own sons and daughters,” he said, emotion choking his voice.
“My only prayer is that you serve with honor and come home safely,” he said. “And I personally thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service. Serving and leading you has been the greatest honor of my life.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)