June 30, 2011 -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates could likely see from his office this morning the military bands and honor guards gathered on a parade field to practice the pomp and circumstance of a departure ceremony Friday in his honor as he leaves the Pentagon for the last time.
Gates finishes today his four and half year tenure as defense secretary that began when President George W. Bush asked him to return to government service and replace the controversial Donald Rumsfeld.
A member of the Iraq Study Group tasked by Congress to review the worsening U.S. military situation in Iraq, Gates said at the outset that as defense secretary he would focus on righting the situation in Iraq.
Since then, he has won praise from many quarters for taking on the Pentagon's bureaucracy, fighting for better care for service members, cutting expensive weapons systems and overseeing the surge in troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He will leave his post as one of the most popular defense secretaries in recent times.
Gates made history when he became the first secretary of defense to work for both Republican and Democratic presidents after President Obama asked him to remain in his post for another year. Two and a half years later, Gates will step down as defense secretary and turn the reins over to CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Gates started his long career in government service as a CIA analyst and eventually worked for eight presidents in various posts at the National Security Council and ultimately as CIA director. But it is the post as defense secretary that he has referred to as the most rewarding job he has had in his career.
In meetings with service members, Gates constantly tells them of the affection and admiration he has for their service through a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The feeling is mutual.
On his farewell visit with the troops in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, a young soldier asked him, "Is there anything we can do to get you to sign up for another hitch? We'd love to have you stick around."
To laughter, Gates replied jokingly, "I'm sorry. I didn't hear that."
Gates' answer reflects that while he is proud to have served as defense secretary, he has also made no secret of his desire to return to private life. During his service under the Bush administration, he always joked that he carried around a clock that ticked away how many days were left in office
A series of interviews with various news outlets the past few weeks have provided an opportunity for Gates to discuss the past four and a half years and how they have affected him.
In an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer en route to Afghanistan, he spoke of how the casualty tolls of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have weighed on him.
"I've become more cautious," he said. "First, because I always knew the unpredictability of military conflict. And so often when the war drums are beating, everything is made to look simple and clean. We'll do this for a few weeks and we'll be done and we'll be over, it will be over. And it almost never works thatway.
"I go to the hospital and go to Arlington. I see their family. So I feel the human cost. And that's why I told somebody the other day, maybe, in fact, it is time for me to leave, because these things have begun to weigh on me in a way that maybe I'm not as useful as I used to be."
Gates Memoir in the Offing
Continuing in that vein, Gates told the New York Times, "I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice."
Gates expressed skepticism about the United States' intervening militarily in Libya.
A common theme in Gates' farewell interviews has been what he considers to have been his main accomplishment as defense secretary: getting the troops what they needed to do their jobs safely as quickly as possible.
He told PBS' Jim Lehrer, "I'm proudest of what I've been able to do for our troops, giving them these heavily armored vehicles, these Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles; giving them one-hour medevac or less in Afghanistan; more reconnaissance capabilities to prevent them from being attacked; trying to do whatever was necessary to help them accomplish their mission and come home safely."
At his final news conference last week, Gates thanked journalists for raising public awareness about the heavily armored MRAP vehicles and the health care shortcomings for wounded warrior outpatients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"Responding to both of these critical issues, which only came to my attention through the media, became my top priority and two of my earliest and most significant management decisions," he said.
Gates cut through the Pentagon's bureaucracy to get the MRAP's into rapid production and out into the field to protect service members from the roadside bombs that scourged Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ultimately, 27,000 of the heavy vehicles were produced for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Walter Reed episode showed Gates' steely decisiveness in putting leaders on notice that they would be held accountable.
In the Walter Reed episode, Gates quickly fired the secretary of the Army and the surgeon general for the substandard care highlighted in media reports. Gates also fired the Air Force's top two leaders after a series of missteps involving nuclear weapons.
Asked by the Associated Press what he will miss the most when he leaves his job, Gates responded, "One is the people that I work with, and the other is the troops. I won't miss anything else."
In retirement, Gates said, he plans to write two books, one a memoir about his years at the Pentagon and the other a humorous take on how to reform "large public institutions."