Gen. Stanley McChrystal said goodbye to the Army on Friday in a poignant ceremony that paid tribute to his three decades of military service and barely mentioned his firing by President Barack Obama for insubordination.
It was McChrystal who alluded most directly to his own precipitous fall, standing at the podium and looking out at formations of soldiers and former comrades.
“Service in this business is tough and often dangerous, and it extracts a price for participation and that price can be high,” McChrystal said. “If I had it to do over again, I’d do some things in my career differently, but not many.”
McChrystal’s remarks were the first in public by the former top commander in Afghanistan since being summoned back to Washington and relieved by Obama in June over remarks in a Rolling Stone article in which he and several aides seemed to mock and criticize civilian officials. McChrystal was replaced in Afghanistan by Gen. David Petraeus.
The ceremony was held on a sweltering early evening on the parade ground at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., a few miles from the Pentagon and adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.
Dressed in combat fatigues rather than a dress uniform, he was joined on the reviewing stand by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, as well as McChrystal’s wife, Annie. In the crowd of several hundred were soldiers, many now retired, with whom McChrystal had served in the Rangers, the 82nd Airborne Division and other units.
“This has the potential to be an awkward, even sad occasion,” McChrystal said, beginning his remarks with an allusion to the circumstances of his departure.
But he tried to puncture the tension with a joke, telling the crowd that if anyone challenged the war stories he was about to tell: “I know a Rolling Stone reporter.”
At several points, he seemed to grow emotional, particularly as he recalled comrades with whom he had served with over the years – some buried nearby.
McChrystal, 55, is being allowed to retire as a full general instead of as a three-star officer, as would normally occur for an officer relieved of command.
“My service did not end as I would have wished,” he said. “Still, Annie and I aren’t approaching the future with sadness but with hope.”
Gates had been on a trip to Asia, but left Indonesia early Friday to be back in Washington in time for the ceremony – a sign of the regard with which McChrystal is held within the Pentagon.
Gates alluded only obliquely to McChrystal’s firing, noting that the occasion was one of “pride and sadness.”
He paid tribute to McChrystal’s largely secret role in Iraq, when he headed the Joint Special Operations Command and was in charge of the covert effort to hunt down al-Qaida militants. Among his successes was the attack that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who had carried out many of the most vicious attacks in Iraq.
“Over the past decade no single individual has inflicted more fear and more loss of life on our country’s most vicious and violent enemies than Stan McChrystal,” Gates said.
The son of a general and a 1975 West Point graduate, McChrystal reached the pinnacle of his career when Obama chose him in 2009 to be commander in Afghanistan, partly because of his role in quelling the insurgency in Iraq.
He mentioned Obama in his remarks, calling it “an honor to serve for him and with him.”