TAMPA — They gathered to honor a departing commander and to welcome his successor.
As often happens at a military change of command, officials talked about sacrifice and honor and bravery of the fallen.
On Monday, these were not mere abstractions.
Just days after 30 U.S. troops, including 22 Navy SEALs, died when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, Adm. William McRaven took the helm of U.S. Special Operations Command in a somber ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base.
McRaven, 55, who oversaw and helped plan the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year, replaces Adm. Eric Olson, 59, who is retiring after serving four years as SOCom's chief.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told several hundred people at MacDill's Davis Conference Center that recent deaths in Afghanistan provide a powerful reminder that, even with bin Laden gone, the United States is a nation at war.
A war, he said, "that has seen its share of triumph and tragedy."
Of the dead, Panetta said, "We owe them our deepest gratitude for their willingness to put their lives on the line, for their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation. But we also must pledge to them and to their families that we will never cease fighting for the cause for which they gave their lives — the case of a secure and safer America."
Olson, who like McRaven was dressed in fatigues, handed SOCom's colors to Panetta, who then handed them to McRaven.
At that moment, McRaven assumed command of SOCom's 61,000 troops and civilian personnel around the world.
The ceremony is a ritual as old as ancient Rome, when a baton was passed from old to new legion commanders. Then as now, the transfer is a symbol of the unbroken succession of command, a message for friend and foe.
"We will send a strong message of American resolve," Panetta said. "From this tragedy, we draw even greater inspiration to carry on the fight."
McRaven becomes the second Navy SEAL to rise to command of SOCom. Olson was the first.
McRaven, who has commanded at every level of special operations, was most recently the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, which has headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He comes to SOCom's top job as the military continues to wind down its mission in Iraq and as it struggles to contain insurgents in Afghanistan.
SOCom, like U.S. Central Command, has its headquarters at MacDill. Both commands lead the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SOCom faces numerous challenges, from troops who rotate far more frequently into combat than any others to fears that budget cuts in Washington will erode the command's capabilities.
Troops like those who died in Afghanistan are among the finest in the world, McRaven said.
"We will never forget your sacrifice nor the ultimate price your loved ones paid to protect this great nation," McRaven said.
Olson provided the audience with one more reminder that war and sacrifice continue.
Just hours before the ceremony, SOCom lost an Army ranger.
Reach William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.