JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. — Army Gen. Mark Milley delivered a full-throated defense of democracy and not-so-subtle swipes at former President Donald Trump during a packed ceremony on Friday as he closed out his four, often tumultuous years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Under cloudy skies at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Milley never mentioned the former president by name. But he practically shouted on two different occasions that the U.S. military swears to protect the Constitution “against ALL enemies, foreign AND domestic.”

“We don’t take an oath to a king or a queen or to a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator,” he said. “We don’t take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we’re willing to die to protect it.”

Milley is retiring after more than four decades of military service, including multiple combat deployments and two often turbulent years as Joint Chiefs chairman under Trump. And it was those years, and the battles he fought against Trump, that formed much of the underpinning of his farewell address and also were sprinkled throughout other speeches in the ceremony.

As chairman, Milley pushed back against a host of Trump’s plans, including demands to pull all troops out of Iraq and Syria and his desire to put active-duty troops on Washington’s streets to counter racial protests. Several books have described Milley’s deep concerns about Trump’s fitness as commander in chief and his worries that Trump would try to use the military to help block President Joe Biden’s election.

Just a week ago, Trump railed against Milley in a post on Truth Social, condemning him as a treasonous, “Woke train wreck” whose actions have been “so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” The post, which some interpreted as a threat, has prompted Milley to ensure his family has adequate protection.

But seemingly in response, Milley said, his voice booming, the military will protect the Constitution, no matter the personal price, and “we are not easily intimidated.”

Biden, who spoke at the ceremony, continued the democracy theme, praising Milley’s staunch defense of the Constitution, which “has always been Mark’s North Star.” And he said the general has been a steady hand guiding the military during one of the most complex national security environments.

The farewell tribute on the base just outside Washington was both rousing and somber, with marching bands, troop salutes and speeches.

Milley’s four-year term as chairman ends at midnight Saturday, and Air Force Gen. CQ Brown takes over Sunday. Milley is retiring after nearly 44 years of service.

Retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, shakes hands with Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., the incoming chairman, right, during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Milley at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Fort Meyer, Va.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recalled Milley as a battle buddy, noting with a grin that he was always “eager to get into the fight. And I’ve seen that firsthand over our long history of working together, including one time when he got me blown up. Literally.”

When Austin was commanding the 10th Mountain Division during the Iraq War he visited Milley, one of his brigade commanders, who suggested they go to the hospital to see a wounded soldier.

“So we took Route Irish in Baghdad, which was known as the most dangerous road in the world. And we promptly got hit by an IED,” Austin told the crowd. “Afterwards, I asked, ‘Hey general, has this happened to you before?’ And Mark said, ‘Oh yes sir — I’ve been blown up about five times now.’”

The crowd of about 1,800 included past and current U.S. and international dignitaries and military leaders, families, friends, troops, veterans, wounded warriors and Gold Star families who lost loved ones in the wars.

Milley’s fellow hockey teammates from Princeton — where he got his military commission — were easy to spot, wearing the bright orange and black jackets they got at their 25th reunion. Many of them attended a reception Thursday night at Milley’s house, where his wife, Hollyanne, cooked lasagna for 65 people.

They all hollered out when Milley recognized them publicly from the podium, but he jokingly complained about their weak response, adding, “That’s all a result of last night.”

Also present were five female Afghan special forces whom Milley worked to get out of the country as Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021. Capt. Mahnaz Akbari said they wanted to come to Milley’s retirement to thank him for what he did for their country and for the female troops now in the U.S.

One of the opening performances was a stirring rendition of “God Bless America” by Army Capt. Luis Avila, who was severely injured and lost a leg in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. Milley’s choice of Avila was a tribute to wounded troops but also served as a pointed jab at Trump.

Milley has said Trump made disparaging remarks about Avila, who sang from his wheelchair at a ceremony for Milley in 2019. Milley said Trump asked him at the time, “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.”

Milley, 65, is a native of Winchester, Massachusetts. He commanded troops at all levels, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. He became Army chief of staff in 2015 and launched several initiatives, including the creation of Security Force Assistance Brigades, which train foreign forces, and the opening of Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, to pursue new technologies.

Baldor reported from Washington.

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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