WASHINGTON President Barack Obama awarded retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a farewell ceremony on Thursday morning.
"A humble American patriot; a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation's finest public servants," Obama said of Gates.
Obama spoke at a departure ceremony outside the Pentagon. Leon Panetta has been named Gates' successor as Defense Secretary.
Gates was originally appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and retained by Obama, making him the only defense secretary in history to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president, according to the Department of Defense.
Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke first at the ceremony, marked by a fife and drum corps passing in review and military service members standing in formation.
"He tells it straight. No bull," said Mullen.
Saying the award was not part of the announced program, Obama asked Gates to stand to receive the highest honor a president can bestow to a civilian.
"The Presidential Medal of Freedom to Robert M. Gates," a military aide read from the medal citation. "(He) has selflessly dedicated his life to ensuring the security of the American people."
Gates was emotional as he began his response but joked of Obama, "We should have known a couple months ago you're getting pretty good at this covert-ops stuff."
He also advised his successor Panetta to "get his office just the way he likes it -- he may be here longer than he thinks."
Both Gates and Panetta have served as CIA director.
After the 2008 election, Panetta wrote an op-ed recommending Obama keep Gates on the job in Defense.
During what Gates described as "the last stop of what has been dubbed 'the long goodbye,' he said, "I will think of these young warriors -- the ones who fought, the ones who keep on fighting, the ones who never made it back -- till the end of my days."
Shortly, Gates said, he will walk out of his office for the last time, leaving it empty of all personal items and mementos.
"A sense of America's exceptional global responsibilities and the importance of what we do or do not do remain the 'great musts' of this dangerous new century. It is the sacred duty entrusted to all of us privileged to serve in positions of leadership and responsibility."
Obama teased Gates -- who has served eight presidents -- saying he "loves" the Washington spotlight, but also highlighted his achievements as secretary.
"The integrity of Bob Gates is also a reminder, especially to folks here in Washington, that civility and respectful discourse, and citizenship over partisanship are not quaint relics of a bygone era."
"We can only keep America strong if we remember what keeps America great."
(Reporting by Molly O'Toole; Editing by Jerry Norton)