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For Robert Gates, caring for troops was job No. 1

Through two wars and administrations, the outgoing Defense secretary fought for better armor and faster medical care, and he personally signed thousands of letters to families of the fallen.

June 18, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Washington Bureau
  • Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who retires at the end of June, talks with a soldier at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. He frequently visited combat zones and personally fought for better armor and faster medical care for the troops.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who retires at the end of June, talks with… (Jason Reed, Pool )

Reporting from Washington — When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates leaves the Pentagon every evening, he carries home a sheaf of documents about the latest American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. After dinner, usually alone, he takes out a pen and writes notes to the families of the fallen.

And most nights, he weeps.

He has signed about 3,400 condolence letters since taking over the Pentagon in late 2006, aides say. "There's probably not a day in the last four years that I haven't wept, and it's mostly when I'm doing those letters," Gates said in an interview.

As Gates prepares to retire at the end of June, the toll on his psyche after serving as a wartime Defense secretary during two bloody conflicts spanning two administrations seems more and more visible.

Other than Robert McNamara, who headed the Pentagon during the early years of the Vietnam War and left office a broken man, perhaps no other Defense secretary in the last half-century has seemed more affected by the hard task of sending American soldiers into combat than Gates.

He often chokes up when he is talking to troops on his frequent visits to war zones, a rare show of emotion from a normally reserved and unflappable former intelligence analyst.

On trips to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he hands wounded soldiers his business card with "Call me if you need me" scribbled on the back, along with his initials. "I love you," a bleary-eyed Gates told a group of soldiers, whose unit had suffered severe casualties, at Forward Operating Base Joyce in eastern Afghanistan in December.

Gates' concern for the troops is a key part of his legacy as he leaves office.

He has pushed the lumbering Pentagon bureaucracy to turn out new armored vehicles and other equipment to keep soldiers safer in combat and to get them treatment faster when they are wounded.

And he has become a voice of caution and even outright opposition to committing American forces to new wars. Gates publicly questioned the need to join the NATO air war in Libya, arguing that the military already was overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, he has sought to limit the U.S. role.

Gates emphasizes that he would not hesitate to support sending troops to another conflict if national security were threatened, and he favors only "modest" reductions in troop levels in Afghanistan in coming months. That puts him at odds with some in the Obama administration who want to bring U.S. troops out sooner.

But the longer he is in office, Gates said, the "heavier" the burden he bears when he is asked to make decisions that inevitably involve sending more American troops to their deaths.

"I've got a military that's exhausted," he said. "Let's just finish the wars we're in and keep focused on that instead of signing up for other wars of choice."

He was interviewed last week in a specially outfitted Air Force C-17 on his way home from his last overseas trip as Pentagon chief. During four days in Afghanistan, Gates said goodbye to U.S. troops at remote outposts, including several where combat has been especially intense during the last year.

At each stop, almost the same scene unfolded: Surrounded by camouflaged soldiers or Marines in sweltering heat, Gates, wearing khakis and a baseball cap, pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, glanced at it, and spoke in a low and halting voice, as if the words came hard but from his heart.

"Probably more than anybody except the president, I am responsible for you being here," he told about 300 troops from the 101st Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base Sharana, a desolate Army outpost near the Pakistani border. "I'm the guy that signed the deployment orders that sent you here, and that has weighed on me every day that I have had this job."

Among those in the audience was Sgt. Chris Carbone, who received a Bronze Star for bravery from Gates for helping recover the body of another soldier, Staff Sgt. Kenneth McAninch, who was killed in October a few miles from FOB Sharana.

"I wasn't expecting it, and it's an honor," Carbone said after Gates pinned the medal on his chest.

Carbone was on patrol when a buried bomb exploded beneath one of their combat vehicles, a hulking armored truck with a V-shaped bottom built to withstand all but the most powerful detonations. Protected inside their vehicles, everyone in Carbone's squad survived the blast, but McAninch was killed when insurgents opened fire on soldiers caught in the open as they tried to tow away the damaged vehicle.

McAninch's widow, Shawnna, and his mother, Cheryl Nance of Peru, Ind., each received handwritten letters from Gates. In her letter, the mother recalled, Gates wrote that he was "sorry for my loss and that he was a hero in their eyes, and I should be very, very proud of my son. That really touched me."

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