WASHINGTON– Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, today praised President George W. Bush as a patriot who has championed the nation’s men and women in uniform while standing up to terrorists who threaten the United States. The defense leaders paid tribute to the president during an armed forces farewell ceremony at Fort Myer, Va.

Gates called Bush a visionary who recognized before becoming president the threat terrorists and other unconventional threats posed, and that the military was still structured to confront Cold War-era conventional threats.

But even more so, Gates said, Bush had the fortitude to confront terrorists head-on when they attacked the United States just months after he took office, as he propelled a historic transformation of the U.S. military.

“The result is an American military that has become more agile, lethal and prepared to deal with the full spectrum of 21st century conflict,” Gates said. He noted that the military has become a force dramatically more deployable and expeditionary than when he last served in government 15 years ago.

Gates cited just a few of the historic changes that have taken place under Bush’s leadership:

— The Army carried out its most significant restructuring in more than two generations, moving from a division-based to a modular, brigade-based force.

— The Navy’s Fleet Response Plan nearly doubled the number of strike carrier groups that can be surged in the first weeks of a crisis.

— Special operations forces have seen vast increases in budget, personnel, authorities and capabilities critical to the campaign against terrorism worldwide.

— The number of unmanned aerial vehicles has grown some 40-fold to more than 6,000.

— The military has undergone “a genuine revolution” in its ability to fuse intelligence and operations.

— Cold War-era bases in Germany, South Korea and Japan have been modernized and sized to better reflect the security requirements of this century.

— New authorities and programs enable the military to build the capacity of allies and partners in cooperation with civilian agencies and organizations.

Gates noted that in the midst of this transformation, Bush showed strength as he led the military through two major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and a broader struggle against terrorist networks around the globe.

“He has not flinched when faced with difficult wartime decisions, including the momentous decision two years ago to send more troops into Iraq and revamp our strategy there,” Gates said.

Mullen joined Gates in thanking Bush for leading the U.S. military at a critical time in the country’s history.

“After this nation was attacked by a rising evil, the same evil which later murdered many others in places like London, Madrid, Islamabad and Mumbai, you quickly led us from the grip of fear to a serenity of purpose and unity of action,” he said.

Mullen called that serenity “well beyond our dreams on Sept. 12, [2001] when all thought further attack was not only likely, but gravely imminent.”

He credited Bush for having the vision to establish a new national security strategy to reach America’s enemies overseas so they could not revisit U.S. soil.

“We sent our forces to hills and caves, alongside tribesmen on horseback, to root them out and hunt them down,” he said. “We liberated Iraq from tyranny, now on the road to renewal. And we are shifting our focus to Afghanistan.”

Through these operations, Mullen told Bush, “we felt your unmatched confidence in us, which only made us better.”

Mullen said he felt humbled to represent the 2.2 million servicemembers in thanking the president and first lady Laura Bush “for all they have done for our military and our nation.”

“More than 280,000 are walking point right now on the front lines,” he noted. “They stand tallest with us on this day. And it is right to thank them for making this celebration possible.”

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