Gates stops by to chat with enlisted ranks

Defense secretary pays a visit to county military bases
By Rick Rogers

January 8, 2008

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took off his suit jacket, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at a table full of young Marines and sailors yesterday afternoon at Camp Pendleton.

“Thank you for coming,” he told 19 wide-eyed servicemen before launching into what a Pentagon spokesman said was a favorite part of Gates' job: engaging in unscripted conversations with lower-ranking, enlisted members of the military.

“We didn't brief the Marines on what to say. Secretary Gates wanted to hear what they have to say,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the 1st Marine Division. He was one of several generals who waited outside while Gates and the troops talked.

After the session, which was not open to the media, Gates held another private chat with about 30 enlisted Marines. He later traveled to a firing range on the base to observe boot-camp recruits going through training.

His activities at Camp Pendleton capped a daylong visit to military installations in the county, including Navy bases in San Diego. It was Gates' first stop in the region since becoming defense secretary.

Marines who spoke with Gates said he seemed intent on hearing their views. Topics included when base officials would fix damage caused by the Horno wildfire in October, and whether Gates would allow the Marine Corps to swap its increasingly nation-building mission in western Iraq for an expeditionary combat role in Afghanistan.

Gates answered each question fully and carefully, the round-table participants said.

Sgt. Kevin Knight said the meeting energized his faith in the highest reaches of the military.

“I think (it) says a lot about our leaders' caring about the opinions of young Marines and the military in general,” said Knight, a member of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

Knight asked Gates why it took years to build urban combat simulators when such training methods might have saved more Marines on the battlefield.

“He gave a great answer – that no one could have predicted how long the war was going to last,” Knight said.

Gates began his swing through the county with a stop at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, where he pinned Bronze Stars on 10 members of an explosives-disposal unit and half a dozen Navy SEAL commandos who fought in Iraq. He also spoke to a class of sailors training to become SEALs.

Gates praised the bomb-disposal experts, some of whom have served three tours during the Iraq war, for their work in disarming roadside bombs and for setting up an operating base from scratch in southern Baghdad.

He thanked SEAL combat veterans for their “secret reconnaissance and direct-action missions against some of the world's most ruthless and dangerous killers.”

The SEALs, Gates said, saw heavy action in Ramadi and Habaniyah, Iraq. They established outposts, foiled ambushes by insurgents and trained Iraqi soldiers and police.

Gates described how one of the Bronze Star recipients used grenades to flush out insurgents who were firing on his position – after taking a bullet in the chest that was stopped by his body armor.

“Stories of SEALs' grit and sacrifice are usually unknown and untold,” he said.

Gates then went to San Diego Naval Station, where he joined a private lunch with 25 sailors from the amphibious transport dock ship New Orleans.

“Each of them asked me a question,” Gates said, “and a couple of them gave me advice.”

Staff writer Greg Gross contributed to this report.