News | Aug. 9, 2011

Panetta urges continuing Afghan mission to emphasize resolve

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2011 — The United States must not break faith with those who have paid the ultimate price, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said during the change of command for U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., today.

The United States must continue until achieving final victory over terror, Panetta said as he presided over the transfer of command at Special Operations Command from Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson to Navy Adm. William H. McRaven.

“The thoughts and prayers of the entire nation are with the families and loved ones of those we lost in Afghanistan over the weekend,” the secretary said. Thirty Americans – including 25 special operations personnel – were killed Aug. 6 after the Chinook helicopter they were aboard was shot down in Afghanistan.

“They were far from home, but we know that they were also where they wanted to be, doing what they wanted to do, alongside men who were perhaps closer to them than their own brothers,” the secretary said. “We owe them our deepest gratitude for their willingness to put their lives on the line and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”

America must pledge not to forget their sacrifices, Panetta said.

“We will honor the fallen by showing the world our unyielding determination to press ahead, to move forward with the hard work that must be done to protect our country,” he said. “As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail us from our efforts to defeat al-Qaida and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan.”

Continuing operations against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies will send a strong message of American resolve, the secretary said.

“From this tragedy we draw even greater inspiration to carry on the fight, to continue to hunt down those who would do us harm,” Panetta said. “We will never stop. We will fight on until we have achieved the final goal of victory over terrorism.”

The tragedy is a reminder to the American people that the country is at war, Panetta said.

In almost 40 years of service, Olson has been an outstanding special operator and the perfect person to serve as a wartime commander, the secretary said. Olson is the first Navy SEAL to wear four stars, the secretary noted, and proved through the years his steadfast leadership.

“One of the most impressive chapters of Eric’s story, at least from the section that can be spoken about in an unclassified setting, unfolded during the 1993 ‘Black Hawk Down’ battles in Mogadishu,” Panetta said. Olson, then a Navy commander, led the ground convoy to rescue his comrades fighting for their lives against hundreds of enemy fighters who had them surrounded.

“That mission showed Eric’s extraordinary courage, his warrior spirit, his inspired leadership and the overwhelming care and concern he has for his comrades in arms – all traits that he has demonstrated again and again throughout his storied career,” Panetta said.

The admiral always put people first, the secretary said. “As he says, humans are more important than hardware, and quality is more important than quantity,” he added. “And that’s exactly where his focus has been here at Socom – finding, caring for and keeping the highest-quality people. As a result of his hard work, we now have the best trained, the best equipped and the most experienced special operations force in the history of the United States.”

McRaven comes to the post after serving as commander of Joint Special Operations Command. Panetta said McRaven will continue to manage Socom’s growth in the years ahead.

“He’s one of the military’s outstanding strategic thinkers and leaders, who has always kept faith with those serving downrange,” the secretary said.

Olson and McRaven and the men and women who serve around the world are defenders of the American dream and American rights, Panetta said.

“May the torch that is being passed today always burn brightly for freedom, for that American dream and most of all for the United States of America,” the secretary said.