WASHINGTON — "Welcome aboard, sir."

The Defense Secretary Leon Panetta era began on the Pentagon steps at 8:38 a.m. on Friday with that greeting, a salute and a firm handshake from Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Kelly, senior military assistant to the secretary.

Panetta, 73, is now officially President Barack Obama’s second secretary of defense and the first Democrat to lead the military since 1997.

With a wide smile and a wave, the former CIA director, chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and member of Congress walked into the building and upstairs to the secretary’s office where top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson gave the oath, 10 minutes later.

"I am mindful of the great responsibility the President has entrusted to me," Panetta said in his first statement to the military and Defense Department employees, "and I will work with you — America’s men and women in uniform and this Department’s civilian employees — as I lead the Department of Defense in its mission to protect our citizens and our nation’s interests around the world."

Panetta inherits the responsibilities of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, operations over Libya and all of the products of a decade’s worth of combat and counterterrorism operations worldwide, at a time when lawmakers are looking to cut military spending and bring troops home.

In his parting remarks Thursday, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the Defense Department and the country are “fortunate that a statesman of Leon Panetta’s caliber and experience has agreed to serve once again, and at such an important time. My parting advice for Leon is to get his office just the way he likes it. He may be here longer than he thinks.”

Panetta planned to spend his first day on the job getting acclimated in briefings with senior defense leaders and staff. Together with his wife, Sylvia, he planned to dine with the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, and his wife, Deborah. In the afternoon, Panetta also was scheduled to sit in on a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, including its vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright.

Panetta is expected to record a July Fourth video message to the troops that will air on the Pentagon Channel throughout the weekend.

For now, there are no changes immediately anticipated for many of the top DOD positions, including the No. 2 official to Panetta, Deputy Secretary William Lynn, chief weapons buyer undersecretary Ashton Carter or policy chief Undersecretary Michele Flournoy.

Panetta brings with him Jeremy Bash, his longtime chief of staff, as well as Marcel Lettre, who is heading the secretary’s transition, has worked in the Pentagon’s legislative office and is a former national security adviser to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

baronk@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @StripesBaron

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