By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
New Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta pledged there will be no hollow force on his watch.
The secretary made the commitment in a message to the Defense Department released after he took the oath of office this morning. DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson administered the oath in the secretary's office. Taking the oath transferred responsibility for the department from Robert M. Gates.
Panetta also pledged to be a tireless advocate for service members and their families. "You and your families will always be foremost on my mind and at the top of my agenda," he said.
The secretary will not hesitate to do what needs to be done to defend America. He also will fight for the needs "of the men and women who serve in harm's way, and the families who support them," he said. "Even as the United States addresses fiscal challenges at home, there will be no hollow force on my watch. That will require us all to be disciplined in how we manage taxpayer resources."
Later today, Panetta will meet with Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III, and participate in a "tank" meeting with the members of the Joint Chiefs, said Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, also will have lunch in his Pentagon office with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah.
The secretary, who served as the director of the CIA, has been intimately involved with operations around the world since the beginning of the Obama administration. The nation is at war, he said, and must prevail against its enemies.
"We will persist in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaida," he said. "The successful operation that killed Osama Bin Laden -- a mission that showcased American military strength and precision -- is a major step toward that goal."
In Afghanistan, the secretary said service members must continue to work with Afghan security forces and coalition partners to transition security responsibility to the Afghans by 2014. The goal must be an Afghanistan that never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, he said.
The transition of American troops in Iraq is well under way with more than 100,000 U.S. service members out of the nation, and 48,000 due to leave by the end of the year.
"As we continue our transition out of Iraq, we must cement a strategic relationship with the Iraqi government, one based not solely on our military footprint there but on a real and lasting partnership," Panetta said. "It is in America's interests to help Iraq realize its potential to become a stable democracy in a vitally important region in the world and to reinforce that responsibility, for the future security of Iraq must belong to the Iraqis themselves."
The secretary has a long public service career that began as an Army intelligence officer in 1964. He also served in the House of Representatives from California, director of the Office of Management and Budget and White House chief of staff in President Clinton's administration. Throughout his career, he said, he has focused on being disciplined with the taxpayers' money, but not short-changing security.
"We must preserve the excellence and superiority of our military while looking for ways to identify savings," he said. "While tough budget choices will need to be made, I do not believe in the false choice between fiscal discipline and a strong national defense. We will all work together to achieve both."
The secretary noted he is taking office just before Independence Day. He said his parents -- who immigrated to California from Italy -- believed it was important to give something back to their adopted country. "I will never forget my father's words: "to be free, we must also be secure,'" Panetta said. "As Americans come together to commemorate what we and those before us have accomplished, and as I take on my new role, my thoughts are with you and your families.
"You are making personal sacrifices to preserve our liberty, serving on front lines around the world," he continued. "You are fighting to keep America safe. Rest assured that I will fight with you and for you."
As he was sworn in this morning, Panetta noted there's "no higher responsibility for a secretary of defense than to protect those who are protecting America."
Panetta said that in the days and weeks ahead he will meet with all levels of military personnel and DOD civilians.