WASHINGTON — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal retired on Friday with the full pageantry of a 17-gun salute, an Army marching band and an emotional send-off from the secretary of defense, but with his own acknowledgment that he was not leaving the military on his own terms.
“Look, this has the potential to be an awkward or even a sad occasion,” he told 500 guests on the historic parade ground of Fort McNair, in his first public comments since he was fired by President Obama. He added, “My service did not end as I would have wished.”
But General McChrystal, who was relieved of his command of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month after he and his aides were quoted in a Rolling Stone article making disparaging remarks about Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other top civilian leaders, also took the occasion to joke about his circumstances.
“I have stories on all of you, photos on many,” he told his old friends in the crowd. Then he suggested that he had just the method for making those stories public, adding, “And I know a Rolling Stone reporter.” The crowd broke into laughter, then applause.
Originally planned as a much smaller gathering, the ceremony expanded as many in the military asked to attend.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had landed in Washington only three hours before from a 19-hour flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, made no mention in his send-off of the reasons for General McChrystal’s retirement.
“We bid farewell to Stan McChrystal today with pride and sadness,” he said. “Pride for the remarkable roster of achievement that he has compiled as a man and a soldier, sadness that our comrade and his prodigious talents are leaving us.”
But by the time Mr. Gates finished, his voice seemed to catch as he concluded that General McChrystal was retiring “with the gratitude of the nation he did so much to protect, with the reverence of the troops he led at every level, with his place secure as one of America’s great warriors.”
The ceremony, on the parade ground where the accomplices to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were hanged, occurred in sweltering Washington heat — it was still 97 degrees at its start at 6 p.m. — and within steps of General McChrystal’s 200-year-old house on what is called General’s Row. Afterward he invited guests to a reception in his home, which looks out on one of the prime bass fishing spots on the Potomac.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described General McChrystal and his wife, Annie, as “crushed” by the events of the past month, but the general was stalwart in his remarks.
“Service in this business is tough and often dangerous,” he said. “It extracts a price for participants, and that price can be high. It is tempting to protect yourself from the personal and professional cost of loss by limiting how much you commit, how much you believe and trust in people, and how deeply you care.”
In conclusion, he said: “If I had it to do over again, I’d do some things in my career differently, but not many. I believed in people and I still believe in them. I trusted and I still trust. I cared and I still care. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Then he added, “To the young leaders of today and tomorrow, it’s a great life.”