More than 2,000 sailors on the USS John C. Stennis heard from U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Wednesday before their expedited return to the Middle East.

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BREMERTON — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke to more than 2,000 sailors on the USS John C. Stennis before their deployment back to the Middle East.

Panetta traveled to Bremerton to speak to the sailors Wednesday as part of an “all hands call” aboard the aircraft carrier. He ordered the Stennis strike group to deploy roughly four months earlier than planned.

The Stennis returned to port in March after a seven-month deployment that included missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In January, the Stennis was involved in the capture of 15 suspected pirates off the Gulf of Oman. In that operation, the Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen who had been held captive for more than 40 days.

Panetta thanked the sailors for helping “keep America the strongest military power in the world.”

“You are the heart and soul of our national defense,” he said. “You are the heart and soul of what makes America strong.”

The Stennis leaves Monday.

Panetta recognized the quick turnaround back to the Middle East.

“I know it can be tough, but it’s also something that makes us very proud,” he said.

Talking with reporters after the event, Panetta said that the deployment “deals with a lot of threats in the Middle East right now,” including Iran and the continuing turmoil in Syria.

“All of that is the reason we maintain the force we have in the Middle East,” he said.

Panetta said the U.S. government is committed to assisting the humanitarian effort in Syria, monitoring the threat of chemical and biological weapons at sites in the country “to ensure that none of those weapons falls into the wrong hands” and working with the opposition to the Syrian army “to try to give them what assistance we can.”

“Basically, we’re providing nonlethal assistance at this time, but we’re working with other countries to try to give them what support they can get in order to try to confront the Syrian army,” he said.

He said there are no plans now to shift any additional resources to the Mediterranean because of the conflict in Syria, but he noted that the Stennis is joining another aircraft carrier, the USS Ponce, in the Gulf for a reason.

“The purpose of that is to be prepared to deal with any contingency that develops in the Middle East,” he said.