SecDef swings through Helmand during farewell tour

5 Jun 2011 | Sgt. Jesse Stence

During his farewell tour of Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stopped here, June 5, to praise service members and field a variety of questions.
Gates told a gathering of approximately 500 that he made the trip primarily to congratulate those who have fought terrorism at some point since the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.

He explained that his time as defense secretary is coming to an end, and seemed close to tears while reflecting on the sacrifices of those who have fought terrorism over the past decade. During his closing remarks, his voice quavered as he confessed that the troops are always in his thoughts and prayers.

After his speech, Gates fielded questions on current military issues.

Gunnery Sgt. Josef Venerose, from Youngstown, Ohio, said he was impressed with Gates’ efforts to provide meaningful answers to topics ranging from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to how Osama Bin Laden’s death may impact counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

“I thought he was very elaborate,” said Venerose, the Headquarters and Support Company gunnery sergeant with Regimental Combat Team 1.

Gates’ remarks didn’t, however, break any new ground.

Regarding the military’s new policy on homosexuality, the same standards of professional conduct will apply, he said; all sexual interaction will be equally forbidden in the workplace.

On how Osama Bin Laden’s death may impact timelines for troop withdrawal, Gates said he won’t jeopardize coalition gains by prematurely recommending a drawdown.

Lance Cpl. Davin Dupuis, a native of Macksville, La., said Gates’ input on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and military spending cuts came as a relief. The Camp Dwyer guard with 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment said he now feels confident that there “won’t be a whole lot of change with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell [repeal] … and with the benefits and pay.”

Sgt. Blayne Schott, from Anchorage, Alaska, chimed in on Gates’ response to the budget questions.

“I think [he] allayed a lot of people’s fears, with all the cuts – specifically, how [they are] going to affect people,” said Schott, the assault section leader with 1/23, based out of Houston.

After the question and answer session, Gates made himself available for photos with everyone in attendance. As camera bulbs flashed, he shook hands and passed out a seemingly endless supply of personalized military coins, which prominent military officials often use to recognize service members’ dedication.

Gates is slated to step down from his post as the secretary of defense this month.

Editor’s Note: The RCT supports 2nd Marine Division (Forward), the Marine ground combat element in Helmand province. The mission of the division is to conduct counterinsurgency operations to secure the Afghan people, defeat insurgent forces, and enable Afghanistan national security forces to assume security responsibilities in the region. Ultimately, the partnered forces promote the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.