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HONOLULU — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and several of the nation’s top military leaders bid farewell Monday to Adm. Timothy Keating, the silver-haired, affable leader of Pacific Command for the past two and a half years.

“Thank you for your service to your Navy and our country,” said Gates, during a brief change-of-command ceremony on Monday overlooking breezy Pearl Harbor. “I hope you have better luck with retirement than I did,” he joked.

At the command’s headquarters, a stunning mountain top vista of Oahu, a trio of sailors lowered Keating’s flag and raised the colors of a new commander, Adm. Robert F. Willard. Keating choked up as he made a brief round of thank yous and, after passing command to Willard, stood at attention with a hefty sigh.

Gates said PACOM, the largest of six military combatant commands, “has its share of challenges,” including keeping watch over 36 countries, more than half the world’s population.

Keating presided over roughly 30,000 servicemembers supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including five carrier strike groups and the 44 ships participating in three expeditionary strike groups. Also during Keating’s tenure, the U.S. shot down a failing satellite, pushed ahead with missile defense, and sailed aid to millions displaced by tsunamis and other natural disasters.

The senior U.S. military servicemember, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, also flew to Hawaii for the ceremony, which included several military and civilian international dignitaries, from Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle to current and former high-ranking Asian defense ministers.

Willard said he was “honored” to take the helm after previously commanding the Pacific Fleet. Willard is a 1973 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and F-14 aviator who was executive operations officer of Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN). He also commanded the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and was most recently Pacific Fleet commander.

“Two and half years ago I was standing in this exact spot, welcoming Admiral Keating as commander of Pacific Command, and I must tell you I never dreamed I would be here to see him off,” Gates said, drawing laughs. Willard said the secretary could well be there for his own relief two years from now.

“Not a chance,” Gates said, “But then, I’ve said that before too.”

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