WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has presented outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the country's highest civilian honor in a surprise move at Gates' farewell ceremony outside the Pentagon on June 30.
Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the 67-year-old Gates after calling him one of the best secretaries of defense the United States has known.
"What you see is a man that I've come to know and respect -- a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency, [and] quite simply one of our nation's finest public servants, " Obama said.
"Bob, today you're not only one of the longest serving secretaries of defense in American history, but it is also clear that you've been one of the best."
Gates appeared emotional in receiving the award, but joked to Obama, "We should have known a couple of months ago that you're getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff" -- a reference to the U.S. mission that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.
Gates served under eight presidents in a career that spanned four decades.
Obama credited him with helping to the turn the tide of war in Iraq and for refocusing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Succeeding Gates as secretary of defense will be Leon Panetta, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).