Gates Emotional Description of Dover Visit

Mar 18, 2009 5:55pm

ABC News’ Luis Martinez reports: Defense Secretary Robert Gates grew emotional this afternoon as he recounted a visit Monday night to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to attend the return of the remains of four servicemen killed this weekend in Afghanistan. He grew misty eyed as he described what was obviously an emotional moment for him, before pausing to end his brief description and moving on to another question. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell had told Pentagon reporters yesterday that Gates had intended on visiting Dover for months, but had been difficult to schedule. Morrell described it as such a personal visit that an official photographer did not accompany the Secretary. Morrell said Gates had "been pushing his staff to find the time and the means to do it, and they were able to do so last night. And it was a very moving experience for him." At today’s Pentagon briefing we got a sense of how moving it must have been. He initially declined a reporter’s question to describe what the experience was like and what his feelings were like during that visit. With a smile he said, "Actually no. I will tell you that it was very difficult. " But when another reporter asked him later to expand on his earlier answer Gates’s description was more emotional. Here is the exchange: Q Sir, can we clarify one thing? And we don’t mean to cause you any problem. But your answer on Dover was rather abrupt. And military families could be watching and wondering. Is it — with all due respect, is it simply just too — was it too emotional to talk about, or can you help us understand, since now it will be open to the news media and the public will be able to see it? Gates: If the families agree. Q If the families agree. Certainly, sir. But people might wonder — is this just too hard to talk about? Gates:: I — well, I will add a sentence or two. I went to the back of the plane by myself and spent time with each of the transfer cases. (Pause.) I think I’ll stop there. It was during the pause that Gates’ eyes grew misty as he recounted his visit. Choosing not to continue with his description he moved on to another question. It is not the first time the Secretary has gotten emotional when describing those who have fallen in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In July, 2007 speaking at the Marine Corps Association’s annual dinner, Gates grew emotional in recalling the bravery of Marine Major Doug Zembiec who had been killed earlier that year. During the April, 2004 battle for Fallujah Zembiec had earned the nickname, "the Lion of Fallujah" for his valor. Gates said a framed picture of Zembiec taken during that battle hangs on the wall of one of his conference rooms. "On one wall of my conference room there is a large, framed photo of a Marine company commander taken during the first battle of Fallujah, in April 2004. He’s speaking into a radio handset while giving directions to his men as combat rages just blocks away. It’s a shot that could have been taken of any number of Marines in any number of places over the last century – at Tarawa, at Inchon, or of Lieutenant Peter Pace at Hue, in 1968." Gates’ voice cracked and was near tears as he described how Zembiec was killed in May 2007 during a combat operation in Baghdad, after asking to be sent back to Iraq. "Every evening I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec. For you and for me they are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a website. They are our country’s sons and daughters. They are in a tradition of service that includes you and your forbears back to the earliest days of the republic. God bless you, the Marine Corps, the men and women of our armed services and the country we have all sworn to defend," he said. "

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