Robert Gates, the former chief of the CIA and Secretary of Defense under two presidents, told Clark County high school students that his hardest choice as secretary was deciding how to provide enough troops to sustain the "surge" of forces in Iraq in early 2007.
His choices, he said, were to shorten the mandatory time at home between deployments or lengthening the time troops would serve in Iraq. Ultimately, he decided it was better to preserve the full year at home and ordered combat tours be extended from 12 to 15 months.
That extension pushed many troops' families past what Gates called "the law of twos" -- deployed troops might miss two birthdays, two anniversaries, two Christmases or two Thanksgivings, rather than just one. That had a significant impact on families, he said.
Further, he said, he worries that the wave of psychological and emotional stresses that have beset returning troops since then can "in part, be traced to those very long, 15-month tours."
Gates made the remarks during his visit to Vancouver's Hudson's Bay High School to deliver the 18th Gen. George C. Marshall Lecture, sponsored by the Fort Vancouver National Trust.
In response to a question about the belligerence of North Korea, Gates revealed that many in government suspect that the country's current ruler, Kim Jong Un, pushed his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il to provoke South Korea and its allies with military strikes. North Korea is believed to have sunk a South Korean patrol boat in 2010, killing 46 sailors. Also that year, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, killing four and causing widespread damage.
While Gates said he didn't think North Korea poses a credible military threat to the United States, he said he is concerned that Kim Jong Un, who took command upon the death of his father in December 2011, is "young and inexperienced" and doesn't know "where the red lines are."
That's troubling, he said, because "the South Korean people are not prepared to absorb those provocations again. They've had enough. They've had their fill."
During his prepared remarks to a gymnasium packed with students, faculty and veterans, Gates described Marshall as "a personal hero of mine and a role model." Marshall went on to become chief of staff of the Army, Secretary of State and architect of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Gates said a lesson from Marshall's life is that it's important to "do what is right and necessary, not what is popular."
In recapping the fight over the F-22, a program that Gates succeeded in capping over the objections of many in Congress, he said, the military will be damaged if Congress won't allow the Defense Department to manage its own operations by cutting unnecessary weapons programs or closing military bases. His point of view prevailed in the fight over the fighter jet, he said, because President Obama was prepared to veto a defense bill that included funding for the F-22.
Finally, when a student asked Gates about the much-publicized photo of the Situation Room where he, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others were gathered to watch the raid on the Pakistani compound where Osama Bin Laden was killed, Gates said the photo led to an important decision.
Seeing how quickly the Situation Room photo was digitally altered and circulated on the internet, Gates said he urged the president to block the release of any photos of the dead Bin Laden. The release of such a photo, doctored or not, could inflame the Arab world and endanger American troops, he said.
Photos of the executed Al Qaida leader, Gates said, are "one of the few things about that operation that has never leaked and I'm grateful for it."