This time he really is going home to stay, Leon Panetta said Friday as he took leave of his post as Defense Secretary with a pass in review from the troops and a salute from President Obama.
"It's been for me one helluva' ride," Panetta said, bringing to a close nearly 50 years of public service that he began as a moderate Republican and ended as a moderate Democrat.
The 74-year-old Panetta, who retired before to his California walnut farm only to be called back to Washington as CIA Director and then the Pentagon's top civilian, stepped down praising the troops.
"I've witnessed a new generation of Americans ask themselves what they could do for their country," Panetta said, and through more than a decade of war "they have done everything the nation asked them to do, and more."
At the indoor farewell ceremony at Joint Base Fort Myer-Henderson Hall next to the Pentagon, Obama told Panetta that "you've led with heart and you've led with humor," a reference to Panetta's liberal use of salty language and jokes that sometimes ruffled feathers overseas.
Panetta was leaving while the Senate confirmation of his likely successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was still on hold as Republicans demanded that he turn over more past speeches and other documents.
But Obama expressed confidence that the nomination of Hagel, who served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, would be approved to allow him to bring "the experience, judgment and vision that our troops deserve" to the Pentagon.
Panetta was going home after presiding as CIA Director over "perhaps, what was the greatest intelligence success in American history – delivering justice to Osama Bin Laden," Obama said.
At the Pentagon, Panetta was in charge of ‘welcoming more of our civilians to military service" by allowing gays to serve openly in uniform and ending the combat exclusion rule for women, Obama said.
On his watch as Defense Secretary, Panetta also saw a deadly uptick in attacks by Afghan trainees on U.s. forces, the onset of a "pivot toward Asia" by the military, a rise in violence across the Middle East and challenges to the U.S. relationship with Israel.
Obama also made reference to the huge problem that Panetta tried to resolve but was leaving behind – the budget and spending impasse with Congress called "sequester" that could lead to $500 billion in cuts for defense on March 1. Obama urged lawmakers to follow Panetta's example by "solving problems, not trying to score points."
"I have truly lived the American dream," said Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, Carmelo and Carmelina Panetta, who settled in Monterrey, Calif., and began the walnut farm that has sustained the extended family.
During his time in Washington, "we have shown the world that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it," Panetta said.
Panetta also paid tribute to his wife, Sylvia, who brought along their golden retriever "Bravo" for the ceremony. She led Bravo from the stands and handed the leash to her husband as the troops passed in review. "Her Valentine's gift is that we're both going home together," Panetta said.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Panetta that his greatest asset was "you've always believed in governing well."
Dempsey, who has a master's degree in literature, called Panetta the "Prospero of Public Service," referring to the master magician and main character of Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
Dempsey quoted from Prospero's last line in the play: "Let your indulgence set me free."