Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday made his first official visit to Southern California since taking the post, kicking off his second year in office by presenting awards to 17 sailors, including several Navy SEALs, who recently returned from Iraq.
Gates spent 141 days on the road last year, mostly on high-profile overseas trips to regional hot spots and world capitals.
And like those foreign travels, Gates took several hours out of his schedule here to meet privately with dozens of enlisted personnel -- either deploying or returning from war zones -- to gauge their views on issues affecting the military.
Pentagon officials said the Defense secretary had also attempted to use a series of lower-profile domestic trips to express gratitude to family members of troops who have been deployed overseas.
During his daylong stay, which included a tour of naval facilities in San Diego and an afternoon trip to Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, Gates made repeated mention of the sacrifices parents and spouses make during the ongoing deployments to war zones.
In a short news conference after touring the amphibious assault ship New Orleans, Gates singled out the San Diego area -- home to one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the U.S. -- for particular gratitude.
“I don’t think there’s a community in America that’s more supportive of our men and women in uniform than San Diego,” he said.
Pentagon officials have grown increasingly concerned that, even as retention rates within the military have remained high throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, family “influencers,” particularly wives and mothers, are exerting increasing pressure on soldiers to stop reenlisting.
Gates has made improved treatment of military families one of his priorities, and he is considering a wide range of measures, including the expansion of education benefits to family members, to win over wavering spouses.
The issue came up repeatedly in talks with Navy and Marine personnel here, according to service members who attended the meetings with Gates, one of which was held aboard the New Orleans and two others at Camp Pendleton.
According to Marines who met with Gates at Camp Pendleton, most of whom recently returned from Iraq’s western Anbar province, the Defense secretary expressed optimism that the decrease in violence in Anbar -- a onetime insurgent hotbed -- can be replicated elsewhere in the country.
But, they said, Gates also was concerned such advances could be reversed.
“He knows that progress is escalating,” said Marine Cpl. Dan Ristow, 21, of Alaska.
“But he told us it’s all about timing and pacing, and it’s important that we don’t get excited and jump the gun” and withdraw too quickly, he said.
Added Lance Cpl. Chad Crawford, 21, of Oklahoma: “It’s good to know that somebody in the government supports us.”
About 330 Marines from Camp Pendleton and an additional 112 from the Twentynine Palms base have been killed in Iraq, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
No Marines from Pendleton have been killed in the last two months, a fact Marine leadership interprets as showing they have been able to “suffocate” the insurgency.
Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report from Camp Pendleton.