Southern Command Change of Command Ceremony


By:  Leon Panetta
Date: Nov. 19, 2012
Location: Doral, Florida

Thank you very much Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests, Ambassadors and representatives from our partner nations, men and women of U.S. Southern Command. Above all, let me pay tribute to General Fraser, to General Kelly, to their family members, especially Rena and Karen, it is a real honor and pleasure for me to be able to participate in this ceremony.

This afternoon, we pay tribute to two very extraordinary officers, to their families, and to the service members and civilians they have led.

We celebrate General Fraser's nearly four decades of selfless service to our country, his strong leadership in a number of key positions, and his many lasting accomplishments as SOUTHCOM Commander.

In many ways, Doug has come full circle. As a youth, he went with his family to Bogotá, Colombia and finished high school there. So this has been a fitting final assignment after a stellar rise through the ranks of the United States Air Force.

Incidentally, Doug is the last active duty member of the Air Force Academy class of 1975, and a number of his classmates have traveled here for this ceremony. If I could ask those classmates to rise, we'd like to thank you for your service as well. Welcome to the Air Force's version of Last of the Mohicans.

As we all know, Doug is a fighter pilot. He's flown some of our military's most advanced fighter jets. And as Doug agrees flying is the second greatest thrill known to man. Landing is the first. But he has all that right skills to succeed as a fighter pilot and as a Co-Com Commander: a natural killer instinct…finely tuned physical reflexes…and he has the ability to deal with constant turbulence.

Those qualities also help explain why, despite whatever crisis it is, Doug is composed, he's calm, and in he's control in the most demanding and the most high-stress situations. Thanks to his extraordinary record of accomplishment, Doug was an excellent pick to be the first-ever U.S. Air Force officer to lead this command.

Shortly after taking command, General Fraser was faced with one of the most significant operational challenges SOUTHCOM has ever faced when it had to confront the devastating earthquake in Haiti. That earthquake's human toll, its huge destruction was immense, with hundreds of thousands killed and one million people displaced from their homes.

The main airport and the seaport in the capital city of Port-au-Prince were unserviceable, and the vast majority of public ministries were simply destroyed.

SOUTHCOM responded immediately with Operation Unified Response -- the largest Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster relief mission this command has ever undertaken. In total, SOUTHCOM delivered 2.3 million meals, 17 million pounds of bulk food, 2.6 million bottles of water, and 150,000 pounds of medical supplies, among many, many other services.

The devastation caused by that earthquake in Haiti underscores the fact that the key security challenges in this hemisphere are not just national, they are transnational, and they impact on every nation in this hemisphere. Whether natural disasters, sometimes horrendous in their impact on people and their countries, illicit trafficking, organized crime, or narco-terrorism, the threats to security in the Americas are not contained by political boundaries.

That reality of understanding the common threats that face every nation in this hemisphere is one of the core principles of our new defense strategy of building partnerships with other countries.

Doug has recognized this reality and responded to it by focusing the team here at SOUTHCOM on the mission of developing bilateral and multilateral defense partnerships with nations in this critical region.

He has effectively advanced the kind of small footprint, low-cost approaches to building new defense partnerships, new alliances, that are emphasized in our defense strategy. These partnerships are helping the nations of this region more effectively deal with our shared security challenges.

One of General Fraser's most significant and enduring contributions has been rallying support across the U.S. government in order to focus more attention on Central America, which continues to confront the problem of illicit drug trafficking.

SOUTHCOM has helped galvanize U.S. and Western Hemisphere support for enhanced engagement in this region. We've made significant progress in partnering with the militaries of Central American nations, and they are now taking greater responsibility for their own security.

And even as General Fraser has engaged partner nations across the entire region, he's pushed his staff to set achievable objectives and to be "demanding partners" -- in other words, to get measurable results from our programs to build partnership capacity. The annual PANAMAX exercise has been a notable success and one of the real important exercises in this region: this year, Colombia led the land component command for the second time, while Brazil led the maritime component for the first time. These are huge steps toward sharing security responsibilities in the Western Hemisphere. In an era of constrained resources, that is exactly the right approach.

SOUTHCOM's Joint Interagency Task Force South has also brought interagency and international cooperation to new levels, particularly through Operation MARTILLO. In 2012, this task force took 152 metric tons of cocaine -- worth almost $3 billion -- off the market. Operation MARTILLO serves as a real model of regional cooperation for the future -- and I've encouraged, and continue to encourage, our regional partners to build on that cooperation in other areas, as well.

All of these accomplishments are the direct result of Doug's steady leadership -- and the great work of many in this audience. I want to thank everyone, personally want to thank all of you in SOUTHCOM for all you do to keep America safe.

As we all know, we could not do these jobs without the strong support of our family. I want to thank Doug's wife Rena and his father Bill for supporting him every step of the way. Your love and your support is critical to this guy's success. Thank you. I'm told if you want anything done around here, all you have to do is tell Rena, and it's done. I want to thank you Rena, and to all of General and Mrs. Fraser's children: Heather, Ian, and Hannah. Thanks to all of you for your service, for your support, for your love, and for your dedication.

As I've often said as Secretary of Defense, one of the great strengths of the US military is that we have an outstanding bench of dedicated leaders. One of those comes off of my bench at the Pentagon, John Kelly.

John is someone who has always maintained the perspective of an infantryman and the values of the Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Boston where he grew up. His name may be Kelly, but as I always remind him, his mom was Italian. Educated in Catholic schools, John must have been a real pain in the ass to the nuns and to the brothers.

He is someone who was always looking, always searching. He joined the Merchant Marine early on and travelled the world. Every damn port that I went to, Kelly had been there before me. From Cam Ranh Bay to Tokyo and beyond, tested in life and tested in battle.

He joined the Marines as a grunt, he became an officer, and what an officer he became. He has been tested in battle through four combat deployments -- one in the Gulf War and three in Iraq, where he commanded the Multinational-Force West at a critical and challenging time in that campaign.

He, I believe, is the true embodiment of a warrior scholar, compassionate, caring and tough, he has educated and inspired all who have had the privilege of serving alongside him.

In fact, I am one of those who he has personally educated and inspired by John. As you all know, he's been my Senior Military Assistant since I came to the Pentagon last year.

He's been at my side as a trusted confidant and a trusted friend. And more than anyone, he has ensured that the daily reality of those serving on the front lines informs and guides every decision I make. I could not have done my job without his judgment and blunt, honest counsel.

It was a profound honor for me to join many of you just a few moments ago to promote John to the rank of General.

As I said during that promotion, I learned a lot about John and a lot about his character during our time together. I also learned that in a tough situation it helps to have a Marine from Boston telling you what the hell to do.

My over forty years of public service began as a lieutenant in the Army. There are a lot of people that I've had the opportunity to meet, a lot of egos, a lot of smart people, a lot of dumb people, a lot of crooks, and a lot of honest people.

There are few that you would like to share a foxhole with and John Kelly is one of those. He's always watched my back, and he's always watched my glass. We've shared a number of drinks together in this job. But he's always applied the great qualities as SOUTHCOM commander as he has applied those qualities to everything he has done.

I will be eternally grateful to him, and to be honest, while I will miss him, he will be a great commander here at SOUTHCOM. I very much look forward to relying on his perspective and forthright advice as he leads our military efforts in the region.

John is also a man who is intensely loyal and dedicated to family. He's treated me and the rest of the team at the Pentagon like family -- and I know he'll treat the SOUTHCOM team like family, as well. And whether you like it or not, you better damn well be a Red Sox Fan.

But like Doug Fraser, he also has a truly wonderful family of his own. Let me take this opportunity to publicly thank John's wife Karen, and their children.

The Kelly's, like thousands of other military families over the last decade, have felt the heartbreak of war in the most profound way possible. But in them America sees the selflessness, sense of duty and love of country that gives our military, and our nation, its strength.

John and Karen, I can think of no better team to help lead the SOUTHCOM effort here. You will continue the great work that Doug and Rena have done here over the past three and a half years. And to borrow an old Air Force metaphor, the Frasers have taken this command to a higher altitude, and with today's change of command, I'm confident that it is in extraordinarily capable hands of John Kelly, that it will soar even higher in the future.

Thank you for what you do, what both of you do, to keep this nation safe, strong, and secure.

America is blessed by those who are willing to fight and die and lead others into battle. And I want the American people to know that it is generals like Fraser and Kelly that represent the heart and soul and spirit of military leadership. I am so proud of them and all the officers who serve in the United States military. And all who serve with honor and distinction and dedication.

God bless them and God bless all of you.

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