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Holidays offer special time to remember
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The holidays offer a special time to remember our many blessings as Americans - perhaps chief among them are the dedicated soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who protect our nation. Since assuming this post a year ago, I have been awed and humbled by our men and women in uniform who are carving for themselves a noble place in American history.

We began the year by deploying tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq as part of a concerted civil-military effort. Violence has declined sharply, and former enemy strongholds are being transformed into communities of hope and possibility. While it is premature to declare victory, we must protect our hard-earned and hard-fought gains and redouble efforts to defend our long-term interests in this region.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. and our allies have inflicted heavy losses on the Taliban, launched a comprehensive, nationwide reconstruction effort, and strengthened civic institutions. Afghanistan remains threatened by ruthless extremists, a destructive narcotics trade, and a legacy of decades of war and brutality. But our efforts are helping the people of Afghanistan rebuild their lives and enabling this fledgling democracy to take root.

To relieve the stress on the force, we began expanding the Army and Marine Corps
the first significant increase in a generation. Mobilization policies have been revamped to provide more stability and predictability for Guardsmen and Reservists.

To ensure troops have the best protection available on the battlefield, MRAPs became the military’s highest acquisition priority, and thousands of these vehicles are in production and en route to theater. And to meet our sacred obligation to care for those who have been injured defending this country, we have begun to fix the problems with outpatient care exposed earlier this year.

At home and abroad, I have met with small groups of service men and women
— from junior enlisted to field grade officers, from active duty to Guard and Reserve — to hear their questions, concerns, and aspirations unvarnished and uncensored. I am grateful for their candor, their questions — and their advice. These exchanges have frequently shaped my thinking and influenced my decisions on everything from day-to-day military operations to enhancing the quality of life for service members and their families.President Roosevelt could have been addressing us today when he said some seven decades ago, "To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." We are in our seventh year of war the first sustained combat with an all-volunteer force since our nation’s inception. Our troops and their families active, Guard, and Reserve are giving so much. This holiday season, many of those in uniform are on repeat deployments or have had their tours extended. Many missed midnight mass or Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights. Many did not hear the squeals of delight from their children on Christmas morning. Many will sing neither carols nor hymns. Instead, they serve half way around the world to honor a pledge they made to the country they love.

Please keep our troops in your thoughts and may God forever bless them and this wonderful nation we call home.

Gates is U.S. secretary of defense.

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