Washington, DC – Citing nearly 50 years of public service that began in the uniform of an Army lieutenant, President Barack Obama today said soon-to-retire Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has kept alive and protected the dream his parents sought when they came to the United States from Italy.
During a farewell ceremony for Panetta at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall here, the president noted that Carmelo and Carmelina Panetta had no money and spoke little English when they passed through New York’s Ellis Island for a new life in California.
“They started a family and taught their sons that if they studied and worked, if they gave back to this country, that they, too, could share in America’s promise,” Obama said.
The president recalled luring Panetta away from the family walnut farm in Monterey, California, to return to public life as CIA director.
“Your leadership of the CIA will forever be remembered for the blows that we struck against al- Qaida, and perhaps the greatest intelligence success in American history, delivering justice to Osama bin Laden,” Obama told the secretary.
After that, Obama said, Panetta had every right to expect he could return home.
“I’ll admit that when we first asked him to stay on and lead the Pentagon, his answer was simple: ‘No,'” the president said. “But I kept asking. I am persistent. That’s how Michelle married me. I just kept at it. And it is a testament to Leon’s patriotism, to his sense of duty, that he agreed to serve on this one last tour.
“And perhaps it was the memory during World War II of his parents opening up their homes to GIs headed for the Pacific,” he continued. “Perhaps it was because Leon served himself as a young lieutenant in the Army. Perhaps it was the experience of watching his youngest son deploy to Afghanistan. What we do know is this: as our nation’s 23rd secretary of defense, every action Leon Panetta has taken, every decision that he has made, has been with one goal in mind — taking care of our sons and our daughters in uniform and keeping America safe.”
Under Panetta’s watch, Obama said, the war in Iraq ended and the war in Afghanistan is winding down toward its end next year. “We’ve put the core of al-Qaida on the path to defeat,” he added, “and we’ve been relentless against its affiliates.”
Treatment for wounded warriors, support for military families and efforts to help veterans transition to civilian life all have improved during Panetta’s tenure, the president said, and his time in office has seen the final repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law and the opening of combat roles for women. He also praised the secretary for overseeing formation of a new national defense strategy.
“Because we forged a new defense strategy,” Obama said, “we’ll be better prepared for the future, better prepared to meet the threats that we face without larger military footprints, better prepared against cyber attacks, better prepared to advance our interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and after more than a decade of war, better prepared for the broadest range of contingencies.”
The president thanked Panetta’s wife for sharing her husband with the nation. “Sylvia, Leon’s service has also been your sacrifice,” he said, “and we promise this time he really is coming home.”
Turning to the secretary, Obama thanked him for his service. “Leon, from your first day in uniform until today, your dedicated service to America has spanned nearly 50 remarkable years,” he said.
“And as you review these fine troops one last time, as you return home and walk your farm, know that the grand arc of your life speaks to our larger American story, for you can say with confidence and with pride that you’ve fulfilled the hopes that brought Carmelo and Carmelina Panetta to these shores all those years ago.
“You made them proud,” he continued. “You’ve helped keep alive the American dream, for not only your children and grandchildren, but for all of our children and grandchildren. And for that, we will be eternally grateful.”