By CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy
Military leaders past and present gathered Tuesday morning to say farewell to the Army vice chief of staff, Gen. Pete Chiarelli.
In a job that often goes largely unnoticed outside of the Pentagon, Chiarelli has made a name for himself as an outspoken and tireless advocate for soldiers, especially those who are victims of what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called "the unseen wounds of war."
Chiarelli's 40 years in the Army saw him rise through the ranks by a path similar to that of other generals - tank battalion commander, commander of the First Cavalry Division, commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq when the war there was at its worst.
"When he came back from war, he realized that we had this enduring challenge with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress injury," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He drove our Army, drove it, to recognize the problem, to reduce the stigma, to confront it."
Panetta said Chiarelli has been the Pentagon's leader on the issue.
"He's been an outspoken advocate for wounded warriors, in particular those suffering from the unseen wounds of war," Panetta said. "More than any other officer, Pete has fought to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues. And he's devoted every ounce of his energy to the problem of suicide in the Army."
Chiarelli himself, speaking within shouting distance of Arlington National Cemetery, was close to tears about the soldiers who died during his time in Iraq.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think of the 650 soldiers I lost over the course of two years," he said. "I would trade all the medals and ribbons on my chest and every bit of rank to get just one back."
Panetta, who is not shy about telling the story of his Italian roots, said Chiarelli's leaving means a special void in the Department of Defense.
"Pete's retirement from the Army signals not only the conclusion of this distinguished career, it's also the end, at least for the moment, of the Army's version of of the Italian Duo, the Spaghetti Generals, with Ray Odierno and Pete Chiarelli in the lead, not to mention a secretary of defense who was once a former army officer," Panetta said. "All of us have been doing it the Italian style. Which means that the Army is family and you don't mess with the family."
Panetta closed his remarks by returning to the theme of their common Italian heritage. "My mother and father would acknowledge a good man by calling him something special in Italian, a 'bon homo,' which means a good man, and Pete, you are a bon homo."
Chiarelli said that after he took off his uniform Tuesday, he'd only put it on again one more time, for his granddaughter Amelia's preschool share day, which happens just before his retirement becomes official.