Senior Defense Department, White House and congressional leaders bade farewell to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter today in a Pentagon ceremony marked by both laughter and tears.
Carter’s final working day is Wednesday, but today’s ceremony marked his official goodbye to the department.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opened the ceremony by noting that an internet search for “Ashton,” brought up the actor Ashton Kucher before Ashton Carter. While the two share a first name, he laughed, according to Politico, Carter is more famous for making “think-tanker’s hearts flutter”.
Carter “worked without glamor or fame behind the scenes to make sure through good management, common sense and discipline that we are an organization that continues to adapt,” during his tenure with the department, the general said.
“I think he’s been called the most important, least known figure in Washington,” Dempsey added.
Carter, who served as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from April 2009 until his appointment as deputy secretary in October 2011, had one moment of fame, the chairman said.
During the recent sequestration-related furloughs of Defense Department employees, the deputy secretary — exempt from furlough — returned a fifth of his pay in solidarity with furloughed workers.
“He became known as the superhero of sequestration,” Dempsey said. “We did respect his willingness to put skin in the game, to be personally invested and to think big when many around him were thinking small.”
Long after Carter departs, the nation will continue to benefit from his unfailing focus on mission, on facts and what works, said White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. McDonough also delivered remarks from President Barack Obama, who called Carter’s work “extraordinary.”
In his two tours at the Defense Department, Carter served under 11 defense secretaries, among them former secretary Leon E. Panetta, who sent his regards in a note read by Jeremy Bash, Panetta’s former chief of staff.
“I couldn't have done my job as secretary without you," Bash read. "You are the real deal -- a brilliant and compassionate patriot who brings as much heart to the cause of running the DOD as you do to the bedside of a wounded service member.”
The entire Defense Department has benefitted from Carter’s leadership, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“His career in public service is a model for all who aspire to real and effective public service,” Hagel said.
The secretary noted that Carter’s practical vision gave hope to those who strive for better things.
“Throughout his career, Ash Carter has shown again and again that he can translate his high ideals into better, more efficient, more effective ways of doing business for our department, for our people and for our country,” Hagel said. “In the course of those efforts, he's made a better world ... He is a reformer.”
Hagel presented Carter with the Department of Defense Award for Distinguished Public Service with a gold palm, the highest civilian award presented by the secretary of defense. Carter also received the Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the highest civilian award given by the DOD.
“It’s been the greatest privilege of my life,” Carter said of his time as deputy defense secretary. “Nobody accomplishes anything in this building without other people,” he said, noting that he was blessed with a spectacular team of colleagues.
Carter spoke about his hopes for the future, starting with a chance to win in Afghanistan. “Winning is truly within our grasp,” he said. A win means Afghanistan's people can have a decent, secure life, and America retains its reputation for keeping its commitments to its friends, he added.
“More broadly, I hope we continue to learn ever better ways to combat terrorism, because as long as there is human society, there will be the problem of the few against the many, the aberrant and twisted against the decent and tolerant civilized life.”
"To leave behind the era of Iraq and Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden and face this department towards the challenges and opportunities that will define the future for ... our successors as soldiers and citizens.”
Peace and prosperity will depend in the future on the pivotal stabilizing role of America’s military, Carter said. And so, he added, he hopes to see the nation invest in new capabilities in cyber, special operations forces, space, intelligence and more.
"And I hope to see us advance the numbers and capabilities of the alliances and partnerships that the US only, because of the values it represents, has. Our challengers and antagonists have none.”
Carter, as he has often done, again expressed strong views about the on-going discord over the federal budget.
“We can fulfill our strategic destiny as the single most important provider of security to the world without the ever-increasing defense budgets we once enjoyed,” he said. “But the turbulence surrounding governance in Washington is having serious effects.
“It injects inefficiencies into our programs and industry that we're striving to have deliver better buying power to the taxpayer for their dollars.
“It's unsafe, because it affects the readiness of the forces that would respond to contingencies.
“It's dispiriting to and unworthy of the patriots -- military and civilian -- who serve this government.
“Most seriously, it embarrasses us in front of friends and allies -- and also potential opponents.
“A great and strong nation needs a working government,” Carter said.
The uncertainty is purely the result of political gridlock, he added, and the service members and citizens of the nation deserve better.
Carter said he also hopes that the department continues its internal efforts to change the way it operates.
“All of this I hope for you, our amazing force represented by you here,” he said.
In emotional tones, Carter told the audience he has “complete confidence, that with President Obama, Secretary Hagel and this superb leadership, the department will meet its management challenges and grasp all the right strategic opportunities ahead for your America.