|Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta speaks with troops at U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, Italy, Jan. 17, 2013. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo|
On Final Official Trip, Panetta Shares Legacy of ServiceBy Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2013 - Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta returned here yesterday after concluding a six-day tour of European capitals that he has said was likely his last official trip in office.
Along the way, the secretary touched down in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Great Britain. In each country, he discussed Afghanistan; all of the nations Panetta visited over the week are coalition partners in NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
He also grappled with the Algerian hostage situation, and talked to troops, world leaders and reporters about budgets, strategies and the crucial nature of strong alliances in a world facing 21st century threats, including the invisible but nightmarish specter of computer-based attacks that could shut down the world's flow of money, energy and information.
Panetta also outlined a legacy, a vision and a dream: a legacy of service; a vision of resolute, committed global security cooperation; and a dream that he often says is not exclusively American, but simply human: a better life "for our children."
Panetta frequently speaks about public service, as he did to soldiers in Vicenza, Italy, Jan. 17, and to students who attended his speech at London's King's College Jan. 18.
The secretary started his own nearly half-century career in public service with a stint as an Army lieutenant, later representing his home state of California in Congress for 16 years. He was chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton's presidency, and as part of President Barack Obama's administration has led both the CIA and the Defense Department.
Panetta has visited troops -- primarily U.S. forces, but also Japanese, Afghan, South Korean and British service members, among others -- on virtually all of his foreign and domestic travels as defense secretary, and his respect for the military people he leads is clear, as it was in Vicenza.
"The proudest thing that I do as secretary of defense is have the honor and the pride to serve and to lead the men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line every day for our country," he said to the soldiers of U.S. Army Europe's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. "A generation of young people since 9/11 who have come forward and been willing to serve this country and willing to fight and, yes, to die, has been a great tribute to the dedication of young people to what our democracy is all about."
Panetta told the students at King's College his love for democracy dates back to his formative memories of Monterey, Calif., during World War II. Born in 1938, he was too young, he explained, to understand all that was happening in the world.
"I can still remember the feelings of fear and uncertainty and vulnerability that pervaded those years," he said. "Blackout shades, the air raid drills, the paper drives, the soldiers and sailors who walked the streets of Monterey before they were sent off to battle. Those are all memories."
But his memories of that time also include some that seemingly still inspire him. The man who helped to bring down Osama bin Laden spoke warmly to the King's College crowd of his early impressions of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Panetta perhaps displayed the roots of his own "no refuge" approach to terrorists as he described those leaders' resolve: "By making clear that they would accept nothing less than the total defeat of fascism, Roosevelt and Churchill were determined to shape a new world, and to do everything they could to ensure it would never again descend into total conflict," he said.
"Their stirring oratory, their personal friendship, their clear-eyed resolve inspired a generation at war and, I know, continue to inspire all of us today," he added.
Panetta likely will be remembered for some stirring oratory of his own. The former congressman has not been shy as defense secretary in exhorting his 21st century counterparts to carry out the duties they were elected to perform.
As he told the soldiers in Vicenza while discussing budget issues, "This is not an unsolvable problem. We can do this. People have just got to suck it up and ... take on some of the risks and take on some of the challenges that are required by people in leadership."
The secretary has taken on daunting challenges while leading the Pentagon. A war-weary force has struggled with high suicide and sexual assault rates. Insider attacks have tested the strength of the ISAF coalition. Constant budget uncertainty has strained the nation's defense industries and frustrated and worried military commanders, service members and the defense civilian workforce.
Panetta spoke about that last item at the National Press Club here in December, shortly after returning from a trip to Afghanistan.
"It's easy to get cynical and frustrated in this town," he admitted. "And after 40 years, I know my level of cynicism and frustration. But my confidence and my hope for the future is restored every time I have the opportunity to visit with our troops on the front lines, as I did last week. In them, I see the spirit of public service that has kept this country strong for more than two centuries and which has helped us to overcome every period of crisis and adversity in our history."
At that same event, Panetta also displayed some of the same empathy he showed in Vicenza, when a young soldier who had been standing in formation waiting for him -- likely for quite some time -- started to sway on her feet in the middle of the secretary's remarks. He stopped and gazed at her in concern as two fellow soldiers led her from the formation. "Are you all right, dear?" the leader of the world's mightiest military asked her.
At the press club in December, Panetta exhibited the same respect for others in discussing a far more serious situation. He paid tribute to a reporter who had suffered an explosive blast in Afghanistan, leaving her with a prosthetic left leg and a shattered right foot that had been pieced back together.
"Journalists who commit themselves to doggedly pursuing the truth and telling the everyday stories of American people are public servants in their own right," he said. "On my last trip, I was honored to be accompanied by Cami McCormick, an award-winning radio reporter for CBS News who three years ago suffered a terrible injury ... while covering the war in Afghanistan. It was truly an emotional experience to be with her as she returned back to Afghanistan for the first time after that injury. She put her own life at risk in order to tell the story of that war."
McCormick also accompanied Panetta on his European trip. She delighted in a photograph she took of the Roman Catholic secretary in Rome, after he attended a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI. In the photo, the secretary's grin is incandescent. "It's perfect Panetta," she said.
The secretary's legacy of public service reaches even into his years outside the Capital Beltway. Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, in 1997 founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. The institute, as its website details, serves the entire California state university system, and under the direction of Sylvia Panetta -- before his return to the national stage, the couple shared the job -- provides study opportunities in government, politics and public policy. The institute also sponsors other activities, such as the Monterey County Reads program, which recruits hundreds of reading volunteers from communities around Monterey to work with children in kindergarten through third grade.
The institute's mission, the secretary told his London audience, is to "help prepare the next generation for a career in public service." He added, "I look forward to returning to the institute, to ... my wife and family, and, yes, to our walnut farm."
But last week, Panetta's focus was far from Monterey. In Lisbon, in Madrid, in a Rome wracked by thunderstorms and a London slushy with snow, the secretary spoke of his vision: a NATO alliance retooled for a young century's new threats, ready to foster security alliances and military cooperation around the world.
"The goal of this trip is really in line with that," he told reporters traveling with him while en route to Lisbon. "It's to try to strengthen and reaffirm the transatlantic alliance, our relationship with NATO, to reflect on what we've accomplished over the last decade of war, and to also lay the groundwork for the future."
In Portugal, the secretary said the war on terrorism continues. "We have made good progress," he added. "We have undermined their ability to conduct the kind of attacks that they would like to conduct. But the war on terrorism continues."
In Italy, he noted that "this is the kind of war that's going to require continuing pressure over a period of time."
In Spain, he said efforts to implement the way forward in Afghanistan decided upon at a NATO summit in Chicago were continuing as the alliance members' leaders had hoped. "Because of the work that has been done by all the nations involved to help build the Afghan security forces, ... I believe we are on track to meet the goals that our nations agreed to last year in Chicago."
And in London, the secretary asserted, "NATO has been an unprecedented force for global security and prosperity, developing into the most effective and capable and enduring multilateral security alliance the world has ever seen."
During his previous travels -- 18 international trips over as many months leading the Defense Department -- Panetta has talked of a world that is united against threats, where relationships that are not alliances, as with China, can remain respectful and engaged, and where a common goal of peace and prosperity becomes not exclusively the American dream, but also a globally achievable objective.
Panetta famously credits his Italian parents, who brought him up on that walnut farm after immigrating to America with "no money and few skills," with instilling that dream in him and his brother. The Panetta sons were the first in their family to attend college, and then law school, he noted.
The secretary says openly he hopes to return soon to wife, family, farm and institute. He told the troops in Vicenza that when their turn comes to go home, "I hope ... you'll have the same deep sense of pride that I have in the service that we've provided this country. We don't make a hell of a lot of money in these jobs, but if we can have a sense that we have maintained our integrity and that we have given something back to this country that has given us so much, that's the best pay we could ever have."
His own greatest accomplishment, he told a soldier who asked, is "being a part of something that really, I think, in the end, helped all Americans and the whole world to be safer."