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Gates to witness Pacific command change


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POSTED: Friday, October 16, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will attend Monday's change-of-command ceremony in which Adm. Robert Willard will take over as head of the 250,000-member Pacific Command at Camp Smith.

Willard will assume leadership of all U.S. military forces in the Pacific from Adm. Timothy “;Timbo”; Keating, 60, who is retiring. The traditional, colorful ceremony, complete with a 19-cannon salute, will begin at 10 a.m.

Both Willard, recent commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Gates will visit Japan and South Korea following the ceremony. Gates first will fly to Tokyo to meet with Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. Gates will take up the sensitive issue of U.S. forces on Okinawa and Japan's decision to end its Indian Ocean naval refueling mission, which began in December 2001, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a recent Pentagon news conference.

Hatoyama has called for a review of the agreement, but Morrell suggested the administration was not ready to reopen negotiations. Under a 2006 plan, Futenma Air Base would be closed, and Marines would be moved to Guam and a new base in northern Okinawa.

During his Seoul visit, Gates will seek to “;reinforce America's commitment”; to the U.S. alliance with South Korea in the face of threats from North Korea, Morrell said.

; Gates then will proceed to Slovakia for a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Bratislava that will likely focus primarily on the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.

In a recent meeting with Hawaii reporters, Keating said he has visited 29 of the 36 nations in the Pacific Command during his 2 1/2 years as Pacific forces leader. He has visited Japan a dozen times, the Philippines about six times, Indonesia three times and China and India twice. Keating said he had wanted to visit China more often, but military contacts were cut off by the Chinese last year following the announcement of arms sales to Taiwan.

Keating was deputy chief of naval operations in April 2001 when a Navy P-3 surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese jet fighter sent to intercept it near the island of Hainan. The Chinese pilot was killed, while the 24-member American crew, whose plane landed safely at a Chinese air base, was detained for 11 days.

Several months later, on a September morning, Keating, having received an intelligence briefing in the Navy Command Center on the Pentagon's southwest face, walked out just before a hijacked plane destroyed the center.

Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the “;dark days”; of his 42-year naval career, he told reporters: “;We lost 26 kids with whom I had taken the morning operations update.”;

The hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon was piloted by a fellow 1971 Annapolis graduate and naval aviator, Chip Burlingame, Keating added.

“;The resilience, the perseverance, the strength (of) our Navy and our armed forces have been a source of strength for me and my family for all these years. So in spite of these grave tragedies and significant events, I look back with a great sense of pride and fulfillment. I would do it again in a second.

“;It's been a grand adventure.”; said Keating, a naval F-18 Hornet pilot with 5,000 flight hours and 1,200 landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier. “;It still is, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.”;