Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks at SOCOM Change of Command


Good morning.  Ladies and gentlemen, elected officials, members of the SOCOM team, the broader DOD team, friends and family, privileged to be here today to honor two great Americans and their families.

For both Joe Votel and newly promoted General Tony Thomas, their families have been a vital foundation, providing them the flexibility to answer their country's call repeatedly and to lead missions of incredible difficulty.  To Joe's two sons, Scott and Nicholas, and especially his wife Michelle, you've supported Joe at every stop in his distinguished career.  With a generosity of spirit and a warm heart, you've welcomed so many of Joe's troops and their families into the SOCOM team.  As Joe has repeatedly taken charge of no-fail missions, your support has sustained him.

Few understand better how Joe's family has served beside him than the Thomas family, and Tony's wife, Barbara, and sons Mike and Tony.  They've been just as steadfast in their support.  In General Thomas' family, we also see the continuation of a proud legacy.

Indeed, there can be fewer greater honors or indications of his personal success than the decision of Tony's sons, Mike and Tony, to serve in our military.  So it's a privilege to speak before these two families, but also before this greater SOCOM community, before a community of men and women whose constant readiness and unparalleled excellence provides our nation a critical advantage over every adversary.

It's an essential soft truth that while special operators can be rapidly deployed, they can't be rapidly developed.  The abilities of our special operators and the support they provide our total force are the product of years of arduous training and constant preparation.  And when your capabilities are called upon, we never forget the risks and the sacrifices you take on.

So even as we enjoy the Florida sunshine and mark this important occasion, we know that in places we rarely speak about, in operations the world may never know about, special operators are executing critical missions, carrying out their orders, protecting their teammates, safeguarding us all.  And as secretary of Defense, you have my solemn commitment to prevent unauthorized disclosure of Special Forces operations, to defend the tradition you carry forward as men and women committing to maintaining your anonymity as you defend our country so nobly.

And in a year when threats can emerge from nearly anywhere on Earth and when greater destructive power risks are falling into the hands of smaller and smaller groups of people, the citizens of this great country will continue to depend on your constant pursuit of excellence.

Today, in more than 80 nations across the world, men and women of SOCOM are answering our nation's call, strengthening partnerships, providing training and assistance to friendly local forces, keeping a watchful eye on emerging threats, prosecuting targets with precision and finality.

Over the past 19 months, you have accomplished all of this under the distinguished command of one of our most accomplished warriors, Joe Votel, whom we honor today with not one, but two ceremonies.  I recommended General Votel to President Obama to lead CENTCOM for three central reasons, reasons that are plainly evident when you look at his extraordinary leadership at SOCOM.

First, Joe has extensive experience with all elements of the Joint Force:  air, sea, ground, core special operations, but also cyber, space.  And this joint experience and, importantly, transregional experience, has provided him the perspective and authority to lead the enormous and varied force American brings to bear in the CENTCOM AOR.

Within SOCOM itself is clear and creative problem-solving, from personnel and leadership issues to acquisitions, and of course, operations, is something I have come to consult as I approach broader challenges of DOD.

And second, General Votel has extensive experience and deep understanding of CENTCOM's Area of Responsibility.  Joe's insights, historical knowledge and strategic perspective have helped us shape our approach to our interests in this complex region.

And third, this last talent is also why he's the perfect fit to lead CENTCOM, his politico-military skill and strength as a warrior diplomat.  We have important partners and allies in the region, including Israel.  A critical part of our approach to defending ourselves and our interests is to work with partner security forces in our strategic approach to a lasting defeat of ISIL, to our continued support of Afghanistan, to continuing to counter Iran's malign influence.  For these complex strategic situations, Joe Votel has it all.

Of course, the great majority of Joe's successes will stay classified, but this we do know, time and time again, Joe has asked difficult questions and demanded that we develop better solutions for our people.  So it's clear that General Votel leaves some big boots to fill.  And it's just as clear that there's nobody more capable or trusted to fill them than the man they call T2, Tony Thomas.

Tony describes himself, and I'm from Philly too, as Philadelphia fast, and it's true.  He gets to the point quickly, gets to the point candidly and he's also the original Philadelphia flyer.  There are soldiers 10 to 20 years his junior who would think twice about trying to keep up with Tony in a five miler and some might struggle to keep the pace and others keep up with a conversation.  By the end of the run, they'd all have a couple life lessons or book recommendations.

There's one book Tony often recommends by Steven Pressfield called the Gates of Fire.  Well, the story it tells is about Thermopylae's defense 2500 years ago.  The warrior ethos is captures has clear echoes in SOCOM's work today.  As one soldier declares before a critical fight, and I quote, "This is my shield, I bear it before me in battle.  But it's not mine alone.  It protects my brother and my city.  I will never let my brother out of its shadow, nor my people out of its shelter."

Tony Thomas has lived this commitment like few warriors in his generation.  He's led many of our most elite war fighters through the gates of fire and has helped our partner forces to escape them.  On so many days and so many missions, Tony's leadership has provided shelter for the people of this country.

Soldiers under Tony's command were some of the first to enter Afghanistan in the weeks after September 11, 2001.  They arrived at what's now Bagram Air Base where, at the time, rusted hulks of Soviet airplanes served as their cover.  While his troops were eager to join the fight immediately, Tony stressed the need for constant preparation.  Knowing their test would come, Tony replicated the rigors of combat through rigorous live fire exercises.  As the saying goes, steel sharpens steel.  Tony clearly understood that a warrior must constantly challenge himself to be ready, and his focus on real-life training quickly had real impacts on countless soldiers and their families.

In March of 2002, U.S. special operators arrived at Takur Ghar, the strategic mountain top in Southeastern Afghanistan to find an entrenched rear guard of Al Qaida fighters.  After coming under a withering assault and enduring a prolonged firefight, our forces took several casualties, found themselves isolated.

Tony's Rangers would receive an order to launch a no notice mission to recover heroic Navy SEAL and reinforce U.S. forces.  After the initial shock of having their helicopter hit during landing, the rescue force held off a far larger number fighters for 14 hours while recovering the fallen SEAL.  Tony's men not only endured a ferocious assault in one of the most forbidding locations in the Hindu Kush, they accomplished their mission.

While parts of this story have been told many times, in many ways, the scope and the scale of the bravery and heroism at Takur Ghar may only be fully known by those who were there.  We will never forget the seven courageous Americans who gave their last full measure of devotion on that Afghan peak.

But we also know that there are many more brave Americans who will tell you this plainly; they are alive today because of Tony's men.  Because of their courage, because of their readiness to carry out the most complex and dangerous of missions.  Tony's one of our toughest battle tested leaders in Special Operations.

He is also one of the few to cross and serve a critical command role for conventional forces.  And whether it's serving as deputy commander of the first armored division in Iraq or in Afghanistan for a decade, or during his most recent leadership of joint Special Operations command, Tony's never concerned himself with what patch the people under his command where under their uniform.

His remarkable record of accomplishments speaks to a commitment far larger than to a single elite organization but to meeting a single, solemn obligation, which is to protect and to strengthen this nation.  The character, the vision and leadership of both Tony Thomas and Joe Votel has been tested over 15 years of war and proven over more than three decades of preparation.

It is telling that these two soldiers both graduated from West Point in the spring of 1980 and that they became officers just weeks after U.S. Special Operations began a painful period of self-examination in the wake of Desert One.

The relentless drive of these two leaders to excel, to adapt and to learn from the past: both from failures and successes, has helped U.S. Special Operations forces become the envy of the world.  So today, we honor true -- two true pioneers in our military.  Two officers who have been indispensable in making U.S. Special Operations and our entire force into a far more effective protector of our nation and our people.

As we transfer leadership of this command between these two professionals, these two consummate warriors and two soldier statesmen, we also celebrate a certain continuity.  We know that the standard General Votel has set for this community to constantly learn, adapt and prepare for a world of diffuse threats will be carried forward under the command of Tony Thomas.  We know the people of SOCOM and the people of our nation will continue to grow stronger because of General Thomas' proven leadership.

So General Thomas, General Votel, thank you both.  Bless your families.  Bless you all this audience.  Bless our great country and congratulations again guys.