MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE —
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and most of all to the men and women of United States Central Command, it’s an honor to be here today as we mark the transfer of authority and responsibility from General Lloyd Austin to General Joe Votel.
As I mentioned earlier this morning at the Special Operations change of command, days like today are more about continuity than they are about change. We’re changing leadership at the Central Command, but the men and women in the command will remain in the attack. They’re not going to miss a beat in the performance of their mission.
Today we talk a lot about the complexity and volatility of the security environment, and for our geographic combatant commands, there’s no shortage of demanding challenges. But there is no other geographic combatant command that has been asked to do more and no other combatant command that has done more over the past several years than the United States Central Command.
To the members of the CENTCOM team, I want you to know that your contributions have been recognized and appreciated. I know you recognize that from the Secretary’s remarks. We’ve asked a lot of you, and you’ve delivered. And I’d like to quickly take the opportunity to highlight some of your accomplishments.
As General Austin says, what you do at CENTCOM is hard government work. When you’re responsible for a part of the world that consists of places like Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, you never know what kind of crisis or challenge you’re going to wake up to in the morning. But to bring all that to life, a typical day in CENTCOM involves conducting strikes against ISIL leadership and resources; supporting partners on the ground in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen; and conducting naval operations in the Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation. It involves conducting multilateral exercises to improve our interoperability and develop partner capacity in the region that spans from Egypt to Pakistan. And while the CENTCOM team is doing all that, planning for a wide range of crises and contingencies across the area of responsibility. If you’re on the CENTCOM team, the days are long and busy, and that’s typically six or seven days a week.
But it’s not so much what CENTCOM does that’s remarkable, it’s how they do it. I don’t believe I’d get much of an argument if I said that the current fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria is as complex as any fight we’ve ever had militarily or politically.
It was just a few months ago that there was little good news and all the pundits were saying that all was lost. But fortunately, the CENTCOM team wasn’t listening. They were too busy developing ways to push back on the enemy and gain momentum. They were too busy developing and maintaining a coalition of over 60 nations. They were too busy fighting for intelligence, improving a targeting process, and building the capacity of our partners. They were too busy incorporating the lessons learned during the first year in the fight and making the necessary adjustments to win.
And today, while much work remains to be done, the dialogue about ISIL in Iraq and Syria is much different. Today we talk about coalition forces having the momentum. We talk about the effects of over 11,000 strikes that have killed key ISIL leaders, degraded their command and control, limited their freedom of movement, and significantly reduced their resources.
Today we talk about the fact that more than 40% of ISIL-held ground in Iraq has been retaken by Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga. We talk about indigenous forces in Syria retaking 18,000 square miles. And we’re able to say all that as a direct result of the commitment, the professionalism, the competence, and the courage of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines of the United States Central Command.
When many others were wringing their hands on the sidelines, the CENTCOM simply tightened their chinstraps and drove on. And the results speak for themselves.
Though ISIL dominates the headlines, it’s one of the many tasks for the CENTCOM team as the Secretary has addressed. Last year alone, CENTCOM executed more than 50 bilateral and multilateral exercises consisting of naval, air, and land assets from 14 partner nations.
CENTCOM continues to oversee the fight in Afghanistan where we maintain a coalition of more than 14,000 NATO forces which includes 10,000 U.S. forces. And over the past three years, CENTCOM planned and executed a drawdown of over 100,000 forces and hundreds of forward operating bases and outposts, and I believe that’s an operational and logistical feat that will be studied in classrooms for many years to come.
CENTCOM’s also providing support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to support a partner and check the influence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And every day, CENTCOM is taking action to counter-align Iran’s malign influence to include bolstering the capabilities of partners in the region.
And all that is simply an overview of the heavy lifting that goes on in Tampa and across the CENTCOM area of responsibility every day.
For the last three years, the extraordinary performance of the United States Central Command has been a direct reflection of the extraordinary leadership of General Lloyd Austin.
I’ve known General Austin for over 17 years. Thirteen years ago this week, he was on my flank in combat. He’s been a role model, a mentor, a boss, a friend, and occasionally—and Lloyd, if you remember this, I was working for you in Afghanistan—you’ve been my chaplain.
For me, Lloyd Austin is the epitome of a military leader. Humble, selfless, courageous, and committed. As someone recently said, Lloyd Austin has earned the reputation as someone people want to follow into battle.
For the last three years, he’s been an inspiration to the thousands of men and women of Central Command, operating under the most challenging of circumstances. But what he has done at CENTCOM is simply another chapter in the 40-year career of a soldier who has lived by the West Point motto “Duty, Honor, Country.”
As he completes his last assignment, he leaves behind a legion of men and women and that includes Joe Dunford in that category, who are proud to be Lloyd Austin’s friend.
Now everything I just said is sincere, it comes from the heart. But Lloyd is not actually my favorite Austin. I want to recognize his wife, Charlene, who’s been with him every step of the way, a passionate advocate for military families. Charlene, thanks for your extraordinary sacrifice and support, and I would tell you that Ellyn and I are proud to call you our friend.
Fortunately for CENTCOM and the nation, we don’t have to look far to find another superb leader to take the helm at CENTCOM. General Votel, as the Secretary said, knows the mission, he knows the region, and he has the experience and credibility to take the command forward.
When it came time for the Secretary to pick Lloyd’s replacement, as we heard a minute ago, it was a short conversation. This is one of the most demanding assignments in the military at a very critical time. And that required a special leader, and we have that leader in Joe Votel. And once again to Michelle, Scott, and Nick, thanks again for your sacrifice and support. And Michelle, to you in particular, you know at times like this, many people say ‘congratulations.’ And Ellyn and I more often say ‘thank you’ than ‘congratulations’ because we appreciate that it is a rare opportunity to have command, especially as something like United States Central Command, but we’re also mindful of the extraordinary sacrifice that a family makes when someone like Joe assumes these responsibilities. And we know that couldn’t have happened without a conversation that took place probably over a glass of wine late one night when he said, ‘hey this is what’s going on’ and ‘can I?’ And thanks for saying ‘yes.’
Once again, ladies and gentlemen, it’s an honor to be here to thank General Austin for his service and mark the transfer of authority to General Votel. And now it’s my distinct honor to introduce my friend, a warrior, a leader, and at the end of the day, someone who defines what it means to be a soldier, General Lloyd Austin.