President Obama honored outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday by surprising him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's the highest honor the president can give a civilian.
"I can think of no better way to express the gratitude of the nation to Bob Gates than with a very special recognition," Obama said as he asked Gates to step forward to receive the award.
In an outdoor ceremony honoring Gates' retirement on Thursday -- his last day as a public employee -- the president called the Pentagon chief a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency, and one of the nation's finest public servants. Obama also said he considers Gates a friend.
An emotional Gates quipped that he "should have known the president was getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff," an apparent reference to last month's secret raid in Pakistan that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Gates said his tenure as defense secretary, a period in which he oversaw the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and recent U.S. military involvement in Libya, "has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life and for that I will always be grateful."
Gates became defense secretary in December 2006 under Republican President George W. Bush.
He is being replaced by outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta.