Gates: Bin Laden Mission Reflects Perseverance, Determination

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)

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