President Obama spoke at the White House Monday morning to announce that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was stepping down from his post.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good morning, everybody. Please be seated. About a year ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was visiting our troops in the Republic of Korea thanking them for their service and answering their questions. And they asked about the usual topics, about our national security, the future of our military. And then one soldier, a sergeant from Ohio, asked him what was the pertinent question of the day, which was what was your favorite college football team, to which Chuck replied, “Born and raised in Nebraska, I don’t have a choice. I am a strong Cornhuskers fan.”
Now, there was a time when an enlisted soldier might have been reluctant to ask that kind of question of the secretary of defense, but Chuck Hagel has been no ordinary secretary of defense. He was the first enlisted combat veteran to serve in that position. He understands our men and women like few others because he stood where they stood. He’s been in the dirt, and he’s been in the muck. And that’s established a special bond. He sees himself in them, and they see themselves in him. And their safety, their lives, have always been at the center of Chuck’s service.
When I asked Chuck to serve as secretary of defense, we were entering a significant period of transition: the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready.
Over nearly two years, Chuck has been an exemplary defense secretary, providing a steady hand as we modernized our strategy and budget to meet long-term threats while still responding to immediate challenges like ISIL and Ebola.
Thanks to Chuck, our military is on a firmer footing engaged in these missions and looking ahead to the future.
Last month, Chuck came to me to discuss the final quarter of my presidency and determined that having guided the department through this transition, it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service.
Let me just say that Chuck is and has been a great friend of mine. I’ve known him, admired him and trusted him for nearly a decade since I was a green-behind-the-ears freshman senator and we were both on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
If there’s one thing I know about Chuck, it’s that he does not make this or any decision lightly. This decision does not come easily to him, but I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have had him by my side for two years.
And I am grateful that Chuck has agreed to stay on until I nominate a successor and that successor is confirmed by the Senate, which means that he’ll continue to guide our troops at this challenging time.
I’ll have more opportunity to pay tribute to Chuck’s life of service in the days ahead. For now, let me just say this.
Chuck Hagel has devoted himself to our national security and our men and women in uniform across more than six decades. He volunteered for Vietnam and still carries the scars and shrapnel from the battles that he fought.
At the VA, he fought to give our veterans, especially his fellow Vietnam veterans, the benefits they had earned.
As head of the USO, he made sure America always honors our troops.
As a senator, he helped lead the fight for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which is helping so many of our newest veterans and their families realize their dreams of a college education.
As secretary, Chuck has helped transition our military and bolstered America’s leadership around the world. During his tenure, Afghan forces took the lead for security in Afghanistan. Our forces have drawn down. Our combat mission there ends next month, and we’ll partner with Afghans to preserve the gains we have made.
The NATO alliance is as strong as it has ever been, and we have reassured our allies with our increased presence in Central and Eastern Europe. We’ve modernized our alliances in the Asia-Pacific, updated our defense posture and recently agreed to improve communications between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.
Chuck has been critical to all these accomplishments. Meanwhile, Chuck’s ensured that our military is ready for new missions. Today, our men and women in uniform are taking the fight against ISIL [the Islamic State militant group] in Iraq and Syria, and Chuck helped build the international coalition to ensure that the world is meeting this threat together.
Today, our forces are helping support the civilian effort against Ebola in West Africa, a reminder, as Chuck likes to say, that America’s military is the greatest force for good in the world.
Finally, in a very difficult budgetary environment, Chuck has never lost sight of key priorities: the readiness of our force and the quality of our (sic) life of our troops and their families. He’s launched new reforms to ensure that even as our military is leaner, it remains the strongest in the world and so our troops can continue to get the pay, the housing, the health care, the child care that they and their families need — reforms that we need Congress to now support.
At the same time, after the tragedies that we’ve seen, Chuck has helped lead the effort to improve security at our military installations and to stamp out the scourge of sexual assault from the ranks.
And, Chuck, I also want to thank you on a personal level. We come from different parties, but, in accepting this position, you sent a powerful message, especially to folks in this city that when it comes to our national security and caring for our troops and their families, we are all Americans first.
When I nominated you for this position, you said that you’d always give me your honest advice and informed counsel. You have. When it’s mattered most, behind closed doors in the Oval Office, you’ve always given it to me straight. And for that I will always be grateful.
You know, I recall when I was a nominee in 2008, and I traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq. Chuck Hagel accompanied me on that trip, along with Jack Reed. And it’s pretty rare, at a time when sometimes this town is so politicized to have a friend who was willing to accompany a nominee from another party because he understood that whoever ended up being president, what was most important was that we were unified when we confronted the challenges that we see overseas.
And that’s the kind of class and integrity that Chuck Hagel’s always represented.
Now, Chuck, you’ve said that a life’s only as good as the family you have and the friends you surround yourself with, and in that you are blessed.
I want to thank Lilibet, your son, Ziller, and your daughter, Allyn, for the sacrifices that they’ve made as well. I know that as reluctant as we are to see you go, they are equally excited to be getting their husband and father back. And I’m sure the Cornhuskers are also happy that a fan will be there to cheer them on more often.
Today, the United States of America can probably claim the strongest military the world has ever known. That’s the result of the investments made over many decades, the blood and treasure and sacrifices of generations. It’s the results of the character and wisdom of those who lead them as well, including a young army sergeant in Vietnam who rose to serve as our nation’s 24th secretary of defense.
So, on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, Chuck.