ABC News' Luis Martinez reports:
On the eve of the change in mission for U. S. forces in Iraq to a non-combat mission, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ remarks to the American Legion’s National Convention grew emotional as he recalled the sacrifice of America’s fallen in the seven year conflict.
In his remarks Gates to the Legion’s national convention in Milwaukee, he appeared to get choked up when he detailed the numbers of American killed and wounded in Iraq.
He said that as Operation Iraqi Freedom shifts tomorrow to Operation New Dawn “we must never forget that the opportunities in front of all Iraqis – and especially the opportunity for political freedom – have been purchased at a terrible cost: in the losses and trauma endured by the Iraqi people, in the blood, sweat, and tears of American men and women in uniform.”
He continued, “at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,427 American service members have died in Iraq, 3,502 of them killed in action; 11:09:49 34,268 have been wounded or injured.” At that point he began to speak haltingly and gripped the lectern as he said. “ The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice – and that of their families – along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition, possible. “ He emphasized “And we must never forget.”
Gates said in his speech that the transition to a non-combat mission in Iraq tomorrow “ is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation…We still have a job to do and responsibilities there.”
Turning to Afghanistan he reaffirmed his recent comments that the US won’t be turning off the lights on July, 2011. He admits there “ is a good deal of concern and impatience about the pace of progress, “ but he notes the 30,000 additional forces sent by President Obama are finally all in place.
Gates says the war in Afghanistan should be considered to have been two different wars, the liberation from the Taliban in 2001-2002 and the regrouping of the Taliban around the same time that the US diverted resources to the war in Iraq. Now all the military resources are in place and as he said repeatedly in his speech, the right strategy is in place.
He sees similarities in Afghanistan right now to the period in Iraq shortly after the surge of 30,000 additional combat troops in 2007. “Intensifying combat and rising casualties is in many ways reminiscent of the early months of the Iraq surge, when our troops were taking the highest losses of the war. Much of the coverage and commentary is similar as well.”
Gates said the doubts about the situation in Afghanistan are similar to what was heard in Iraq at the time of the surge. He said there wasn’t much confidence that the surge “could take us to where we are today in Iraq – and there were plenty of reasons for doubts.” But America’s “civilian and military leadership chose the path we believed had the best chance of achieving our national security objectives – as we are doing in Afghanistan today. Success there is not inevitable. But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight.”