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July 24, 2010

Gen. McChrystal's retirement ceremony

Last night, former Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal formally retired from the United States Army. The hour-long ceremony at Fort McNair included a 17-gun salute, a stunning performance by the United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and speeches by the Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Army. It was salute to a man set on the vast Army stage. And while there was a patina of sadness that loomed over the ceremony, it was a lesson in grace and humility as well.

There is a back story behind my ability to report this to you. Early in the week, Gen McChrystal invited a selected number of press –three to be exact – to be guests to his retirement ceremony. To be clear, however public a figure he is, having commanded U.S. forces in America’s current largest military engagement, it is his prerogative to invite whomever he pleases. But when the press learned that those select members of the press were not just personal guests but would be allowed to cover the ceremony it led to brouhaha within the Pentagon press ranks. I was part of the push to get the event either fully open or closed, that is that all reporters be allowed to cover it or that those invited would attend only as guests. Public officials can choose who attend their retirement ceremonies for sure but they cannot dictate the coverage. By allowing on reporters who the commander also considered friends of some kind to cover it, we felt that was exactly what was happening.

As we were meeting with Pentagon officials and sending a flurry of emails to the general’s staff, I felt we were fighting a first amendment principle and for fairness. After all, we were not being cut off from issues central to national security but at the same time, I didn’t want us to set a bad precedent. And by Thursday afternoon, the forces that be relented and let us cover the event.

Until Gen. McChrystal took the stage to address his guests, though, I felt we had simply won a first amendment battle. I hadn’t fully considered the richness of information the public would get from hearing the ceremony.

He gave a moving, thoughtful speech and confronted the thorny issues that led to his departure directly and humorously. He left under less than ideal circumstances a month ago, forced to resign over derogatory comments he and his staff made about top civilian government leaders to a Rolling Stone reporter. He began his speech by saying: “This is frustrating.  I spent a career waiting to give a retirement speech and lie about what a great soldier I was.  Then people show up who were actually there.  It proves what Doug Brown taught me long ago; nothing ruins a good war story like an eyewitness.   To show you how bad it is, I can't even tell you I was the best player in my little league because the kid who was the best player is here tonight.  In case you're looking around, he's not a kid anymore. To those here tonight who feel the need to contradict my memories with the truth, remember I was there too.  I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter,” he told the hundreds gathered around him, who laughed along with him.

The jokes did not end there: “Annie [his wife] and I aren't approaching the future with sadness but with hope and iPhones.  And my feelings for more than 34 years I spent as an Army officer are a combination of surprise that any experience could have been as rich and fulfilling as mine was and gratitude for the comrades and friends we were blessed with,” he said. “That's what I feel.  And if I fail to communicate that effectively tonight, I'll simply remind you that Secretary Gates once told me I was a modern Patton of strategic communications."

Throughout his 18-minute speech, he reminded everyone there – and by extension the public now allowed to listen – that in the end, matters of war turn on people not policy, that careers span decades and that a less than ideal end to a career does not mean one should hang his head low.

He ended his speech the following: “If I had it to do over again, I'd do some things in my career differently but not many.  I believed in people, and I still believe in them.  I trusted and I still trust.  I cared and I still care.  I wouldn't have had it any other way.  Winston Churchill said we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.  To the young leaders of today and tomorrow, it's a great life,” his voice cracking as the last sentence left his lips.

As a colleague of mine who was there put it, McChrystal “belied the shame portrayed in the some of the press of the man's leaving. It was bravery of a different sort.”

I agree, and I am glad the public got to see it. Here is a link to the entire speech.

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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