Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's service as a senator and diplomat served as an inspiration for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to approve the decision to end the ground combat exclusion rule for women in the military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
"In many ways, I have to tell you, it was her inspiration that encouraged me to move forward to be able to bring down the last barriers for women in the Department of Defense and to give them the ability to have a chance to engage in combat," Panetta said.
"I thank you for that inspiration," Panetta told Clinton, who was the first former First Lady to win a Senate race seat when she was elected in 2000 to the seat formerly held by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
At a Pentagon ceremony to present Clinton with the Defense Department's highest civilian honor – the Distinguished Public Service Award -- Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hailed Clinton for setting a new course at the State Department by working closely with the Pentagon on foreign policy.
Clinton said the State and Defense Departments "had not had the best working relationship" and some of her predecessors were "bewildered that we got along."
Clinton also jokingly agreed with Panetta that Al Pacino would have been a better choice than James Gandolfini to play him in the role of the CIA Director in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" on the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
Dempsey said Clinton's constant travels to troublespots as the nation's chief diplomat – he estimated she had spent a total of 87 days airborne – "had greatly facilitated the roles of our combatant commanders" around the world. In the process, "she became an enormous champion of our military men and women and their families," Dempsey said.
Panetta singled out the "passion" that Clinton brought to public life in "trying to find some way to help people achieve a better life." To that end, Clinton brought a special ability shared by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to find common interest with potential adversaries, Panetta said.
"Hillary had that same capability to make others understand what was in their interest" when faced with common problems, Panetta said.
Panetta admitted to some envy of Clinton in that she was able to step down quickly after the easy Senate confirmation of her successor as secretary of state, former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
"I feel like it's Groundhog Day around here," Panetta said of the stalled confirmation process for his own successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Panetta flew back to California Thursday afternoon, but Pentagon officials said he would be on hand next week to represent the Defense Department at a European conference if Hagel still hasn't been confirmed.
Both Panetta and Dempsey avoided mentioning the terrorist attacks last September in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, and the allegations by Republicans that she ignored warnings of the threat.
In her own remarks, which will inevitably be pored over by pundits for signs that she might be running again for President in 2016, Clinton said she took pride in working closely with the military in what has come to be called the "Pacific Pivot."
It was a lengthy foreign policy paper by Clinton that set the stage for the Obama administration's decision to pursue the shifting of military assets to the Pacific region to counter the rise of China.
"American leadership remains respected and required around the world," Clinton said, but she also said that a successful foreign policy required that "We have to get our house here at home in order."