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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When Robert Gates steps down this week as secretary of defense, he will have completed a tenure unlike any other. He's the only defense secretary to have overseen two wars under two presidents from two different parties. Gates is known for his straightforward, no nonsense style. And as he's made his weekly visits to the White House, he's also spent a lot of time in khakis and a baseball cap, visiting with the men and women in uniform.
NPR's Rachel Martin has more.
RACHEL MARTIN: Whenever Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visits troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he looks them in the eye and takes responsibility for sending them into combat. Here he is in Baghdad.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): This is kind of personal for me. I'm the guy who signed the orders that sent you here.
MARTIN: And in northern Iraq.
Sec. GATES: For the last four-and-a-half years, I'm the guy who has signed the paper that has sent every single soldier, sailor, marine and airman in harm's way.
MARTIN: And in Afghanistan earlier this month.
Sec. GATES: More than anybody except the president, I'm responsible for you being here. And that weighs on me every day.
MARTIN: There's a heavy sense of accountability there almost paternal a message that no matter what challenge you face someone has your back. Robert Gates has been that someone for the troops under his command and the president he serves.
President BARACK OBAMA: I am confident Bob Gates will be remembered as one of the finest defense secretaries in American history and I will always be grateful for his service.
MARTIN: President Barack Obama came into office pushing to end the war in Iraq and double down on what he called the right war in Afghanistan. He was untested as a commander in chief and needed national security credibility - Robert Gates helped give him that.
Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): There was a great deal of confidence in the foreign policy area as long as Bob Gates was involved, and this, I think, benefited the president a huge amount.
MARTIN: Richard Armitage has known Gates for close to 30 years. They met when Gates was the deputy director of the CIA, Armitage was at the Pentagon. He says this president flat out needed Gates.
Mr. ARMITAGE: The fact that we were in the middle of two wars, now almost three, and you had a steady hand at the helm is something that must have comforted our president, as it comforted the nation.
MARTIN: Gates gave the president political cover when he needed it. He stood up for the president's decision to wind down the war in Iraq, to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" - the ban on gays serving openly in the military. And on Afghanistan, when Mr. Obama was accused by Republicans of taking too long to figure out his war strategy dithering even - Secretary Gates was there to defend him.
Sec. GATES: We need to understand that the decisions that the president faces on Afghanistan are some of the most important he may face in his presidency, about how we go forward there. And this is a situation in which I think this decision process should not be rushed.
MARTIN: Gates served eight presidents, Republicans and Democrats. He's been at the center of power for more than three decades.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was the national security advisor for President Jimmy Carter. He hired Gates in 1977.
Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Center for Strategic and International Studies): He is a kind of calmly self-assured person and probably isn't swayed either by the emotions or the consensus of the moment.
MARTIN: That may be why Gates is such a straight talker. Here he is in 2006. Senator Carl Levin asked him a direct question and he got a direct answer.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?
Sec. GATES: No sir.
MARTIN: This past February, during a speech at West Point, another straight shot.
Sec. GATES: In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia, or into the Middle East, or Africa should have his head examined.
MARTIN: And in the run up to the NATO attack on Libya this spring.
Sec. GATES: There's a lot of frankly loose talk about some of these military options and let's just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.
MARTIN: Up until this point, the president and his secretary of defense had been on the same page on the big issues. Then came the debate on Libya. Gates was against intervention, but the president authorized the mission anyway. It happened again in the run up to the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Officials close to Gates say he gave the president a more cautious option - a missile attack that wouldn't be nearly as risky for U.S. troops. And most recently, the debate over drawing down troops in Afghanistan. Gates warned against taking too many troops out too fast. President Obama listened to his secretary of defense and in the end went his own way.
Now, Robert Gates is getting ready to go his. He's planning to move back to his lakeside home in Washington State, where he'll write a book about his time leading the U.S. military, which is likely to include at least a few chapters on the war in Iraq.
MARTIN: Gates has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan more than two dozen times as secretary of defense, always on a specially equipped 747.
Sec. GATES: The area from the glass just behind where you guys typically sit, the press, all the way back to the glass here, is the battle staff area.
MARTIN: I was on Gates' last trip to Iraq in April and was shown around. There are sleeping quarters for the crew, a kitchen that churns out a lot of beef brisket that's the secretary's favorite - and there's a big operations center right in the middle of the plane where the crew and Pentagon staff work. The plane is designed to be a full service command and control center. Some of the crew call it the doomsday plane, but most of the time, the souped-up aircraft is just a way to get Gates from point A to point B.
On that trip - Gates was headed to Baghdad to visit U.S. troops.
Unidentified Soldier #1: Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce the 22nd secretary of defense for the United States of America, Honorable Robert M. Gates. Sir, hooha(ph).
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MARTIN: It was a familiar scene, men and women in uniform gathered around him. Some standing, others kneeling or cross-legged.
Unidentified Soldier #2: Ten hut. Command to fall out, muster around me. Fall out.
MARTIN: They came in close to hear the secretary tell them again, he's got their back. When the talking's done, Gates makes sure to shake each and every hand, thanking them for their service.
Unidentified Soldier #3: Hi sir, nice to meet you, thanks for coming.
MARTIN: Again, he makes himself accountable to them - as he has to the presidents he's served. He's the one who sent them to war and he's also among those who grieve if they don't come home.
In 2007, Robert Gates gave an emotional tribute to Doug Zembiec, a Marine major who was killed during combat operations in Baghdad. It's the kind of speech Secretary Gates would give many times over the next four years - and it speaks to how Gates measured his own success in this job, how well he took care of the troops he sent to war.
Sec. GATES: 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 countries' sons and daughters. They are in a tradition of service that includes you and your forbearers, back to the earliest days of the republic. God bless you, the Marine Corps, the men and women of our armed forces and the country we have all sworn to defend.
MARTIN: Robert Gates will step down as secretary of defense on Thursday.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.
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