Story and photo by Spc. Breeanna DuBuke, 29th MPAD, USD-C
BAGHDAD – Secretary of Defense Leon A. Panetta met with Soldiers from United States Division-Center at Camp Victory, Iraq, July 11, to discuss the goals he has for the U.S. Armed Forces.
Panetta’s visit to Camp Victory was part of his first trip as the new secretary of defense, where he toured Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is my first trip as secretary of defense,” said Panetta. “I wanted to take my first trip to the war zones. I wanted a chance to meet with the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for our country.”
During his visit, Panetta expressed his gratitude for the commitment the service members had for serving their country.
“First and foremost, I want to express my deepest thanks for what you do,” Panetta said to the Soldiers that crowded in around him. “Thanks for your service, thanks for your sacrifice.”
“I thank you for giving something back to this country which is what public service is about, there nothing better in public service than men and women in uniform fighting for what they believe in,” Panetta said.
To express how deep of thanks Panetta had for service members protecting America’s freedoms and way of life, he shared the story of his parents’ difficult immigration from Italy to the United States in the 1930s.
“Like millions of other immigrants, they had very little money in their pockets,” said Panetta. “They came a long way to this country to hopefully find some degree of opportunity.”
The reason Panetta’s parents made the journey to the United States was because they believed they could give their children a better life, said Panetta.
“What you are fighting for here is to make sure that our children have a safer, better life back in America,” Panetta said. “I appreciate that.”
As part of the advise and assist mission here in Iraq, service members have the chance to help bring the rights and freedoms Americans enjoy to the Iraq people.
“As a result of the great sacrifice and work of the U.S. military, this country is on a much better path,” said Panetta, discussing the successes of the U.S. in Iraq. “This nation has been able to develop itself as a democracy in this part of the world.”
Panetta expressed to the Soldiers the importance of the work they are doing here and how it will impact the future of the Middle East.
“We have a chance to put in place a nation that is going to be extremely important to this region as a model for a democratic government,” Panetta said. “And more importantly, (Iraq will be) a symbol of the fact that when you fight for your freedom and you fight for your independence that that then becomes a great signal for this region that this entire area can move in the right direction towards providing better rights, better dignity, better opportunities for their people.”
“What you have done here is you have investing the future peace of the world,” said Panetta.
Although Iraq has moved forward to creating a better way of life for its citizens, there are still threats that plague the country and the region.
One of those threats is the support extremist groups are getting from Iran.
“We cannot just simply stand back and allow this to happen,” said Panetta. “(Iran) needs to know that our first responsibility is to protect those who are defending our country.”
Panetta also commented on his goal to eliminate the threat Al-Qaeda has presented to the U.S.
“I’m interested in making sure that Al-Qaeda never represents a threat to the United States of America,” said Panetta. “We have to continue to the fight of going after them. We have to end that threat once and for all.”
One of the steps the Department of Defense has done to move against that threat is the removal of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden.
“It’s one of the best things we were able to accomplish because it made very clear to the world that nobody attacks this country and gets away with it,” Panetta said.
Although his job as secretary of defense is to protect the U.S., Panetta let the Soldiers know that one of his biggest concerns is supporting the service members and their families.
“As the secretary of defense, I deem one of my greatest responsibilities is to make sure I’m doing everything to protect your families and to protect you,” said Panetta.
Before taking questions from the crowd, Panetta thanked the Soldiers for their work and wished them a safe journey home.“I thank you and America thanks you,” said Panetta. “I just want to say God bless you for the service you provide and more importantly, may you all be brought home safely from this responsibility.”