Today's Change of Command ceremony at Special Operations Command in Tampa was to have been a happy event, but everyone's thoughts were on the deaths of 30 American servicemembers in this weekend's deadly crash. The ceremony was even more poignant because the change of command involved two Navy SEALs, Adm. Bill McRaven taking over from Adm. Eric Olson. The majority of those killed in the crash were Navy SEALs.
In his remarks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said their deaths will not diminish U.S. efforts, but instead will strengthen the push to victory in Afghanistan. "We will never stop," said Panetta. "We will fight on until we have achieved the final goal of victory over terrorism. This is a reminder. It's a reminder to the American people that we remain a nation still at war, one that has seen its share of triumph and tragedy."
Panetta noted that "the thoughts and prayers of the entire nation are with the families and with the loved ones of those we lost in Afghanistan over the weekend." See ABC's interview with the wife of one of the SEALs killed in the crash.
He said the servicemembers were far from home, but "where they wanted to be" with men they considered "perhaps closer to them than their own brothers." "We owe them our deepest gratitude for their willingness to put their lives on the line, for their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation. "
Panetta said, "We must also must pledge to them and to their families that we will never cease fighting for the cause for which they gave their lives, the cause of a secure and safer America. " He added: "We will honor the fallen by showing the world our unyielding determination to press ahead, to move forward with the hard work that must be done to protect our country."
"As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail this country from our efforts to defeat al-Qaida and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan." Instead he said, "we will send a strong message of American resolve" and "greater inspiration to carry on the fight, to continue to hunt down those who would do us harm."
Panetta said the world saw the success of special operations forces during the bin Laden raid, but he explained how those successes are driven by "the willingness of these brave warriors to shoulder heavy burdens, to take on great risks. And as we all know, that comes oftentimes at a very high cost."
Panetta said that though the ceremony was being held at a time of great loss, "we affirm our even greater resolve and commitment to complete the mission at hand." He said that with Admiral McRaven "at the helm, we will honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by showing even more determination to do everything we can to ensure that our fellow citizens and future generations have a safer and better life. Those who we have lost in combat in Afghanistan would have it no other way."
The remains of the SEALs and other servicemembers killed in this weekend's crash will soon begin to arrive back in the U.S. They will arrive quietly and without media coverage at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware because they are returning in an "unidentified status." There will be no media coverage because they have not all been identified and next of kin are not in a position to grant approval for media access as required by Defense Department guidelines. Families will still be present for the arrival.