The confirmation hearings for Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense opened today, and one of the memorable exchanges occurred during questioning by Ted Kennedy. After Kennedy spoke of soldiers from Massachusetts who had given their lives in Iraq, Gates answered:

GATES: Senator Kennedy, 12 graduates of Texas A&M have been killed in Iraq. I would run in the morning with some of those kids, I’d have lunch with them, they’d share with me their aspirations and their hopes. And I’d hand them their degrees, I’d attend their commissioning, and then I would get word of their death.

So this all comes down to being very personal for all of us.

The statistics, 2,889 killed in Iraq as of yesterday morning: That’s a big number, but every single one of them represents not only an individual tragedy for the soldier who has been killed, but for their entire family and their friends. And I see this.

Somebody asked me about the pressures of this hearing and I said the pressures of the hearing are nothing compared to the pressures I got from a woman who came over to me at the hotel while I was having dinner the other night, seated by myself, and she asked if I was Mr. Gates. And I said yes. She congratulated me on my nomination and she said, “I have two sons in Iraq. For God’s sake, bring them home safe. And we’ll be praying for you.” Now, that’s real pressure.

Senator, I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M, the job that I’ve probably enjoyed more than any that I have ever had, making considerable personal financial sacrifice, and, frankly, going through this process, to come back to Washington to be a bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think, and to speak candidly and, frankly, boldly to people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about what I believe and what I think needs to be done.

I intend to listen closely to people. I intend to draw my own conclusions. And I’ll make my recommendations.

But I can assure you that I don’t owe anybody anything. And I’m coming back here to do the best I can for the men and women in uniform and for the country, in terms of these difficult problems that we face.

–Thanks to Jack Rains for sending this transcript.