WASHINGTON — A visibly moved Defense Secretary Robert Gates paused briefly at a Pentagon retirement ceremony rife with pomp and pageantry, collected himself and told his president: "You're getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff."
Barack Obama, the eighth president Gates has served in more than 30 years at the CIA and Department of Defense, had just presented him with the prestigious Medal of Freedom. And Gates was teasing his boss about keeping the award a surprise, in a reference to how Obama had kept the world in the dark about his plan to bring down al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Proving that there are sometimes second acts in America, the 67-year-old Gates had an encore retirement Thursday, with considerably more fanfare than accompanied his initial departure from Washington in 1993, when he left the intelligence agency. This goodbye came after Gates spent 4 1/2 years helping to manage protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the ceremony under brilliant blue skies outside the Pentagon, Gates bid an emotional farewell to the military. And Obama, who had kept him on as Pentagon chief at the end of the Bush administration, hailed him as "a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation's finest public servants."
It was Gates, he said, who pressed to get more heavily armored vehicles and hunter-killer drones to the war front, and made it his mission to ensure that the department served the troops in the field "as well as they serve us."
In a surprise break from the printed program, Obama presented Gates with the medal – the highest civilian honor he can bestow.
"I can think of no better way to express the gratitude of the nation to Bob Gates than with a very special recognition," Obama said as he asked Gates to step forward to receive the award.
"I'm deeply honored and moved by your presentation of this award," Gates responded.
Gates, who is being succeeded by CIA Director Leon Panetta, was to fly home to Washington state on a military aircraft later Thursday. But he technically remains secretary of defense until Panetta is sworn in Friday morning. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said that Gates will reimburse the department for the cost of his flight. Gates' retirement has been a long time coming. When he took the job in December 2006, he carried a clock with him that counted down his days in D.C.
But when asked by Obama to stay on in Jan. 2009, he agreed, knowing that there was still much work to be done as troops began pulling out of Iraq and pouring into Afghanistan.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognized Gates' well-known penchant for blunt talk and no-nonsense style. During his four-plus years, Gates fired or forced out more than half-dozen high-ranking civilian and military leaders, including the Air Force secretary and chief of staff and the Army secretary, whom he believed failed to act on some critical issues.
"He made us think about things we hadn't considered. He made us try a little harder. He made us lead a little better," said Mullen. "He tells it straight, no bull, no fancy words."
Gates also is known to tear up when he talks to troops, particularly during visits to the warfront. He acknowledged that in his speech Thursday, saying he knew it would be difficult to get through his remarks if he tried to include a tribute to the armed forces.
So he sent an e-mail message to all members of the military on Wednesday, lauding the troops for their courage and commitment that keeps Americans safe.
"For four and a half years, I have signed the orders deploying you, all too often into harm's way. This has weighed on me every day," he said in the note. "I have tried to do all I could to provide whatever was needed so you could complete your missions successfully and come home safely -- and, if hurt, get the fastest and best care in the world."
Gates' personal staff – from his top military aides to the cooks in his dining room – lined the hallways and stairs just after 1 p.m. And as Gates made his final exit out the doors and into the waiting black SUV, he paused for a few final hugs and handshakes as they applauded.
His mixed feelings about the day were evident.
Speaking to the crowd of dignitaries, friends and staff that wrapped around the small parade field on the north side of the Pentagon, Gates said his time as defense chief "has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life."
And, as he wrapped up his speech – the last stop in what he acknowledged has been a "long goodbye," he looked toward his wife nearby, and smiled.
"Well, Becky, we're really going home this time."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.