In an interview with the Herald last week, Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, spoke about his memories of Fort Hood, his controversial new book “Duty” and the future of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
Gates was the U.S. secretary of defense from 2006-2011, and was the Pentegon chief during the Fort Hood shootings on Nov. 5, 2009.
He journeyed to Fort Hood last Thursday to sign copies of his new book, and spoke with the Herald the night before.
When was the last time you were at Fort Hood?
Well, it certainly was when I was secretary. I honestly can’t remember, but I think it was probably in 2010.
What comes to mind when you think of Fort Hood?
Obviously, one of the most vivid memories of my visits to Fort Hood was the one for the memorial service for those who were killed by Major Hasan … That was a very emotional and very difficult day for everybody.
My first visit was right after they finished the new barracks. And I got a tour of those in the middle of a raging sand storm. I was really impressed with the new living facilities for the single soldiers. Every visit has been something different.
You were secretary of defense during the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings. Do you remember that day, specifically?
What do you remember about it?
One of the things that made a big difference for me, and I actually write about it in the book, is I had wanted to attend the hometown funerals of fallen heroes the whole time I had been secretary. But I hesitated to do so, because I didn’t want to be a disruptive element and interfere with the families’ mourning. But when I was going around talking to the families before the memorial service at Fort Hood, one of the fathers — the father of Fred Greene — invited me to come to the funeral of his son in Mountain View, Tenn. … And so it was actually the hometown funeral of one of those who was killed at Fort Hood. It was the only funeral for a soldier that I was able to attend, other than Arlington National Cemetery, the whole time I was secretary.
Are you excited to be coming back to Fort Hood?
I am. My first senior military assistant was Gen. (Peter) Chiarelli, who had commanded at Fort Hood, so he was pretty excited about it himself, and made me a big fan of Fort Hood.
Do you think soldiers should read your new book, and what should they get out of it?
Well, I hope they will because I think it describes for them what was going on, sort of at the 30,000-foot level, in terms of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what was behind the decisions that I made that affected their lives. But it is also a description of the battles that were going on in Washington over those wars, and particularly, the battles for equipment to protect them, whether it is the MRAPs or the intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities or medivac in Afghanistan, it really tells the story of how much a fight it was to get all of those things into the field that had such a direct impact on their ability to accomplish the mission and come home safely. Not to mention, the politics of it all.
What is your view of the situation in Afghanistan right now?
Based on the people in the military I still talk to, I think it’s better than is conveyed by some of the media. I think the Afghan army is doing a better job in terms of getting into the fight. They are now responsible for a big part of the Afghan population’s security. And they don’t do it as well as we do, but as I told Gen. (David) Petraeus once: Them being able to do it adequately for themselves is better than us doing it excellently for them. And, in particularly, the long term.
So, I think that we have been successful in hammering the Taliban hard, rooting them out of longtime safeholds, strongholds, in Kandahar, Helmand and in eastern Afghanistan. And the key element in all of this, is for the Afghan security forces is to be able to control their own country, and prevent extremists from coming back.
And I think that we are in reasonably good shape to achieve that objective. I think that it’s really important that the U.S. and our allies in Afghanistan agree on this residual force to stay behind. As much as anything, it’s a symbolic gesture of our continuing support. Not to mention, what they can do in terms of training and counterterrorism and providing intelligence and other kinds of support.
So you do support leaving a force of 10,000 or so American troops in Afghanistan after 2014?
Very strongly. I think it sends an important message to the Afghans that they are not going to be abandoned again. It sends a message to the Taliban that they are still going to have to face us working with the Afghans. And I think it sends a message of reassurance to the Pakistanis and others in the neighborhood that we are not going to walk away as we did after the Soviets left.
Anything you would like to say to people in the Fort Hood community?
Thank you for your support of all those folks at Fort Hood. Relationships between Fort Hood and the community have always been good, it seems to me, at least while I was secretary of defense. And I’m just grateful for the folks of Killeen and area for the support that they provide, particularly to the families of the soldiers when they deploy.