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Col. Daniel Lecce (right), commanding officer of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, briefs Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the path and damage of April 16’s tornado on the Tarawa Terrace housing community at the TT Community Center, May 12. Gates then went on to speak to Marines and sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force at the base theater concerning the future of the Marine Corps.

Photo by Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

Secretary Gates speaks to Marines, sailors during visit to Camp Lejeune

12 May 2011 | Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

Before stepping down from his position as the United States secretary of defense this June, Robert Gates spoke to Marines and sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force about the future of the Marine Corps in America and in overseas operations at the mainside theater aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, May 12.

After having served as the secretary of defense for the past four and a half years, Gates is slated to retire and relinquish his position to current CIA Director Leon Panetta. As such, Gates visited MCB Camp Lejeune for the last time to personally speak with the nation’s “tip of the spear,” while also conducting a closed-door meeting with troops from 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, who just recently returned from deployment to Marjah, Afghanistan. His visit to Camp Lejeune is one in a string of military installations Gates is to visit within the month before retirement.

“America has leaned heavily on the Marine Corps for the past decade and shall continue to do so in the future,” said Gates. “It’s because the Marines are always ready, and for all your victories from Anbar to Helmand (provinces) and the sacrifices you and your families make daily, I thank you.”

Before arriving on mainside to address the troops, Gates toured the Tarawa Terrace housing community aboard the base to survey the recent tornado damage that ravaged the area on the night of April 16. Col. Daniel Lecce, commanding officer of MCB Camp Lejeune, briefed Gates on the devastated areas as well as what has been done to aid those residents affected by the storm.

Lecce, Gates and Lt. Gen. John Paxton, commanding general of II MEF, then visited the TTI Primary School, which has since been closed due to damages incurred by the storm. Although a man who oversees the defense of the country on a daily basis, Gates yet looked at the storm-swept hallways and rooms of the school with awe and pity.

“(Gates’) head and heart have always been with the Marines and their families for the past five years,” said Paxton.

After departing Tarawa Terrace, Gates continued his base tour at the base theater where the Marines and sailors eagerly awaited his address.

“You are the best the nation has to offer,” said Gates. “As former Commandant of the Marine Corps Carl Mundy once said, ‘Expeditionary is not a mission - It’s a mindset,’ and the things you do reminds me every moment of every day what you accomplish.”

Gates then took questions from the audience, answering queries and concerns from topics ranging from the downsizing of troops in Afghanistan to the upcoming budget cuts to current operations in Libya and America’s relationship to the warring rebels.

“It is very evident that the world is an unstable place and we cannot predict where we will be deploying to next,” said Gates in response to a question geared toward the Corps’ future after withdrawal from Afghanistan. “However, we will always need our military security, and as we face the current budget pressure, our military capabilities will not weaken.”

Although Gates spent an hour at the theater speaking to the various elements of II MEF, those in attendance were able to make their concerns about the Corps known and were assured that no matter what is to come in the future, there will always be a need for the Marine Corps.