Retiring Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta expressed his gratitude today for all those he served with through five decades of public service to the nation during his farewell ceremony here.
The Armed Forces Farewell tribute, hosted by President Barack Obama, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drew a distinguished audience of current and former military and government leaders as Panetta reflected on his career.
"It's been 50 years of public service, and I ... will always cherish the deep and lasting friendships that I've made here in Washington," Panetta said. "I'm extremely grateful that so many of those friends could be here this afternoon."
"I have spent a long time in this town," he said. "As the son of immigrants ... I have truly lived the American dream. Being an Italian-American in Congress, at senior levels in the executive branch, has been for me a very unique experience."
Panetta said he is still impressed by the sight of the Capitol and the White House at night, calling it a "very special experience." He thanked the president for giving him a chance to lead the Defense Department.
"Mr. President, I want to express my deepest thanks to you for the opportunity to serve this country again as a member of your administration," he said.
"It has been a tremendous honor and a tremendous privilege these past four years, and especially now as the 23rd secretary of defense," Panetta said.
"I hope that in some small way I have helped to fulfill the dream of my parents, the dream that they wanted and the dream that all of us want, of giving our children a better life," he said.
Panetta recalled some of the proudest moments of his career and some of the experiences and memories he will cherish.
"I will never forget the pride and exhilaration when I walked out of the White House after the president announced the success of the bin Laden operation," he said.
"I could hear the chants of those people who were gathered around the White House and in Lafayette Park yelling, 'USA, USA,'" Panetta said. "Thank you, Mr. President, for your strong support in what was a very tough decision. The memory of that operation and the team that helped put it together, both the intelligence team and the military team, will be with me forever."
The defense secretary said he'll remember visiting deployed troops on bases around the world, and "looking into the eyes of brave men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day for this country."
Panetta cited moments where he honored veterans of past wars, and was inspired by wounded warriors returning home from war.
"I'll always remember the moments of grief, when this nation has rendered final honors to our fallen heroes and when we've had to comfort their families," he said.
"Writing notes of condolence to those families who have lost loved ones has been for me one of my toughest jobs," Panetta said. These moments of selflessness, courage and sacrifice, and heroism provide optimism and a renewed sense of pride in our country.
Panetta said he would have "no greater honor" in his life than leading the men and women of the U.S. military as secretary of defense, serving alongside Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs.
"As we used to say when I was in the Army, there isn't anyone I'd rather be in the foxhole with than Marty Dempsey," he said. "I cannot tell you what a privilege it has been to work with you and to work with all of the service chiefs."
"We've dealt with some very tough issues, and there is no way that I could have done this job without your support, without your loyalty, and without your dedication," Panetta said.
Panetta noted he and the chairman have testified before Congress 11 times and held 10 press conferences together since assuming leadership of the Pentagon.
"It has been the honor of my life to have served in the position of secretary of defense," he said. "And wherever I go and whatever I do, I will thank God every day for the men and women in this country who are willing to put their lives on the line for all of us."
"My prayer as I leave," Panetta said, "is that we all have the same courage and dedication to protecting our nation, the United States of America, the home of the free and the brave."