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Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently took the time for an interview with the Bayonet and Saber to talk about his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, and the challenges facing the U.S. military going forward.
Gates served as Secretary of Defense from December 2006 to July 2011 in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations.
While in office, he oversaw the war efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, during which time Gates made numerous trips to visit troops on the front lines or in veterans' hospitals. In his book, Gates discusses the mounting emotional toll those visits took on him.
"I began to take on a sense of personal responsibility for each one of those folks who were putting themselves at risk," he said. "I had the conviction that I would do anything in my power to keep them safe, give them the equipment they needed to succeed in their mission and then to come home and if they came home wounded, I wanted to make sure they got the best care the nation could provide. ... I felt it was my responsibility and I wound up telling guys on the front line that I felt about them as if they were my own sons and daughters."
While he stepped away in July 2011, Gates said he continues to keep a close eye on defense matters, both at home and abroad. He said the military faces numerous challenges in the years ahead.
"In the past when we've cut our military budget, whether it was after World War II, Vietnam, Korea or the Cold War, we could look out and basically see a world that at that time, looked like it was going to be a better, safer world," Gates said.
"Nobody can say that today as we look at Russia, as we look at the Ukraine, China, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela and so on.
"I'm very worried that we're going to cut the military back and the way it's being done by not being able to close facilities or kill certain programs that we don't need anymore will cause the burden to fall on maintenance, operations and training. I'm worried people are going to get frustrated because they don't have the opportunities to train."
Prior to serving as Secretary of Defense, Gates served as deputy assistant for national security affairs under President George Bush before becoming director of central intelligence in 1991, which made Gates the head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
After leaving the CIA in 1993, Gates would eventually become president of Texas A&M University, one of three public universities with a full-time volunteer Corps of Cadets.
Gates would hold that position until being tabbed for Secretary of Defense.
Gates said the transition from university president to defense secretary was tough because he had to see young men and women living a normal life in one context and in danger in another.
"What I think made it harder was going overnight from being on campus and seeing thousands of kids 18 to 25 walking around with backpacks, shorts and t-shirts on a college campus to seeing kids exactly the same age wearing full body armor, carrying assault rifles and putting themselves in harm's way," Gates said.
Gates said he has received very positive feedback on his book from most Soldiers he has been able to meet while promoting the book on various military installations. He said he always relishes opportunities to show his gratitude to those that served while he was Secretary of Defense.
"I thank them for their service, thank them for signing up and I thank their Families for the sacrifice that they make," Gates said. "I think we have the best military today we've ever had."