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Remarks by Secretary Hagel during a Troop Event at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
May 28, 2014

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you. Thank you. General, thank you very much for your leadership and for everyone here for your service, your sacrifices, and in particular, your families. And I want you to please convey to your families how much we appreciate their service and their sacrifices. We understand that. It's important. It's, as much as any one thing, an anchor for you, for each of us, our families always are. So give them my regards and my thanks.

I also bring you greetings from your commander-in-chief, President Obama. I was with him yesterday before he went up to West Point to give the commencement address today, and he, too, wanted me to convey his best personal regards and his thanks for what you do up here every day for our security and for our country and for our future, so on behalf of the president of the United States, thank you.

I thought I'd take a few minutes to cover some issues that are important to our country. They're important to all of us as citizens. And then we'll open it up to questions and whatever you all want to talk about.

Let me first say that I think what you all do up here and how you work together is as much a model for how our active-duty integrates with, works closely with our National Guard and our reserves. This is the model how it works the way it's supposed to work. And I want you to know that. I know you take that for granted, I suspect. But that's -- that's very important. And it is part of our -- not only the integration, the pattern and the structure of our defense operations and our enterprise, but it is also laying a predicate and a foundation for the future of our force structure.

That's going to lead me into a comment about what the president said today. I know many of you have served in Afghanistan, and I know some of you have served a couple of tours there. Some of you have served in Iraq. And for that service in both those countries, we're particularly grateful to you.

If you had an opportunity to hear any of the president's remarks today, he, first of all, thanked our forces and our people for their service. We are coming out of now almost 13 years of war in this country, two wars, our longest war, in Afghanistan. And what the president talked about today at West Point was not just our post-2014 role in Afghanistan, because we do have one, and we think it's important, that role, not only for our security, but for continuing the work and the building and the effort, the sacrifices that have made and are making a big difference for the country of Afghanistan, but also the region that you all know something about.

So he talked a little bit about that in not just the more specific terms of Afghanistan, what our policy will be, what we'll be doing over the next two years, but he framed that up in a larger context of, what is America's role today in the world? With the kind of challenges that we face that are complicated, more complicated than we've ever seen ever, that complicates your jobs. That complicates all of our jobs. But he also talked about, in his words, the exceptionalism of our people.

He said it in an important way. He wasn't boastful about it. There are great people all over the world, and we respect all cultures, we respect all countries. But our country is unique. And I think you are all clear testaments to that exceptionalism, and that's what he talked about, as well. Where are we going to go in the world in the future, America's role in the future?

And one of the things that he emphasized, which is particularly important to you, as we work our way through these big challenges over the next few years, is building partners, building partners' capacity and capability. I know you work with our friends, the Canadians. And there are probably some Canadians here, and I want to thank the Canadians for their partnership with us.

But continuing to strengthen our partners' capability, activity, strengthen the integration of alliances, relationships, these big challenges that face the world today are so complex, so integrated, so global, so sophisticated. If we isolate only on terrorist networks, they're not isolated to one country or one city. But they are connected.

And it's going to take the integration of all of our efforts, our policies, our focus, all of our instruments of power, and our partners. But the president also started with something today that's particularly important for you, it's particularly important for me as secretary of defense, and that is people. We always begin with people. Regardless of the sophistication of our weapons, our systems, the uniqueness of any component that we have, our Constitution, our laws, if you don't have quality, capable people, people committed to great things and committed to their country, for the right reasons, it won't matter.

So people are the first priority. The president went on to talk a little bit about -- which we often focus on, as we are transitioning not just out of Afghanistan, but we are going through an historic transition in the world. We are defining a new world order. You're doing that up here. A good example of that is the Arctic. The Arctic strategies and focus, our interests, the Arctic is opening. It will continue to open. That is going to make possible many new opportunities for many countries, many people. It's going to present also new challenges and new dangers for the world.

That's but one example how you fit so importantly into this new framework of America's role in the world, where you are, what you do every day. You are defining much of our strategic operational focus with what you do every day. You probably don't think a lot about that every day, because you've got everyday real-life challenges and jobs that you've got to do, but you're doing that.

And I want to remind you of that, because we tend all of us to be consumed with our day-to-day work that sometimes we don't give enough thought to the broader context of where we are, where we're going, really, why we do this. Yes, we do it for the immediate security of our country, and that's our responsibility, but we also do it for larger framework issues, which essentially define our future.

And I was very proud of what the president said today on some of these things, because he laid that out. And that's important for all of us. It's particularly important for you and your families to get a bigger sense of why you make these big sacrifices. You're committed to do that. You do that every day. But it goes beyond just the immediate day-to-day and week-to-week and month-to-month work that you do to keep our country safe.

All of that fits. It all works together, just like what I noted on how our National Guard, our reserves, and our active here connect, how you integrate, how you work, how you -- how you make this work together seamlessly in the interests of our country.

I want to also reassure you as the secretary of defense that we're going to continue to support our people and your families. We're going through -- as you all know -- the Defense Department -- also a transitional period. We are transitioning out of 13 years of war, as I've noted at the beginning of my comments. That is shifting and transitioning and reshaping not only force posture, but also new priorities. The president spoke about that today, as well.

But I want you to know that we are committed to our people first. We'll get through this. We've got budget challenges. But this is not unusual in our history when we come out of wars. You do transition and you do restructure and reposition and re-posture.

But we're always going to need you. We're always going to need active, agile, ready, modern armies, navies, Air Force, our reserves, our National Guard. We're not going to do away with any of that. But we are shifting, we are changing, we are transitioning.

So I want to give you that assurance that I hope is helpful, because I know that the worst thing any of us can -- can live with in our lives is uncertainty, what's going to happen. Am I going to have my job? And I get that.

But we're going to make it work, and it will work. We'll work through this, and we'll work through this together.

Well, thank you again for what you do. I am grateful for an opportunity to be here. I'm on my way out of the country for about 11 days. I'm going to Singapore tomorrow morning from here for the Shangri-La Dialogue, which as you know, because you're all a part of so much of all regions of the world, and certainly protecting our homeland, but Asia Pacific, as we rebalance and we -- we shift and reprioritize, we look to where our interests are, the Asia Pacific, as you all know, becomes a more and more important area of our own interests.

We've always been a Pacific power, as you know that, but this is but one example of how we have to shift in order to balance our interests and our priorities. We're not going away from any place in the world. We're not retreating from any place in the world, any region of the world. We're still the world's leader, and we understand that role. But we have to do that with partners. And we need the strength of those alliances that the president talked about.

From Singapore, I'm going to stop in Afghanistan and then go onto Europe for a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels and spend a couple of days there, then to Romania. As you know, Romania is a particularly important country for our alliance, a NATO member. Next year, we'll see operationally the first component of the missile defense system, the European phased, adaptive approach. They've been very helpful in an exit route out of Afghanistan, as you know, then go to Paris, on to Normandy to be with the president for celebration, commemoration of celebrating the victory of World War II, but commemorating more to the point the courage and astounding sacrifices, astounding courage that was manifested that day 70 years ago on the beaches of Normandy. So I'm looking forward to that. We'll go back to Paris for some more meetings with the minister of defense and some others and then home.

But this was a good opportunity for me to get up here to say hello to you, to thank you. I know sometimes that maybe you wonder if anybody's paying attention, but we are. We know how valuable you all are, so thank you.

Now, question, comments? Any -- anything you all want to talk about? I'd be glad to -- if you want to just come up and -- yeah, grab microphones. Yeah, thanks. Whoever's -- go ahead.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My name is Specialist (inaudible), and I'm from Washington, D.C. My question is, what do you believe is the future of the infantry as technology becomes -- as warfare becomes faster and more technologically advanced?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll tell all your buddies in Washington hello for you when I get back. Well, I'm an old infantry guy, so I admit I'm a bit partial to the infantry. But nothing works without us all, the Air Force, the Navy, Marines, Army infantry. It all has to work together. That's as much the strength of who we are as I have already noted.

But as to your question, we're always going to need -- always going to need an engaged, agile, flexible, modern, ready, infantry. Every component of our defense enterprise has a role, but in the end, you've got to do something on the ground so it all works. Infantry will be with us when your grandchildren are in the infantry, and they'll be ready and modern and capable and agile, just like you. Thank you.

QUESTION: (off mic)

QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Secretary. I'm -- (inaudible) -- from hometown Miami, Florida. My question for you is, to my knowledge, the retention boards are expected to last for about a 15-year cycle, approximately. With so many members willing to and/or wanting to voluntarily separate, how do you think this will affect the retention boards for upcoming NCOs of the near future?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, you just noted a couple of very important points in this. People wanting to rotate out for whatever reason, and then I think when you talk about the retention board, as we downsize -- and I know that's part of what's in everybody's mind -- but we will do that on a glide slope that's responsible, that won't hurt -- hurt anybody. It all fits together.

We're going to continue, I believe, to be able to attract, recruit the most capable, the best people, just like you, that we've been able to do since we started the all-volunteer force in the early 1970s. The all-volunteer force has worked better than I think anyone could have imagined. Many of you probably weren't alive when all that happened, but I was, and I remember -- excuse me -- coming out of Vietnam in December 1968, and I remember President Nixon had made that a campaign promise, and it was during the Nixon administration that we went into that. And it was a bipartisan effort, both Democrats and Republicans.

But there was a lot of criticism at the time, and there was -- there were a lot of people who said it wouldn't work. Well, it worked better than I think anybody could have predicted, because of the commitment and the ability for us to recruit the best people and, to your point, retain. We've been able to retain the best people.

The way we've been able to retain them is, first, we start with you. You're here, first of all, because you're committed to our country, to a purpose, to a belief. You all have your own stories. And each of you has at least one book in you. You may not think that, but you do about your life.

But then why you stay, well, you stay because of that belief and that purpose, but you also stay because we've been able to adjust to and meet the demands that all of our young people have on education, on training, on opportunities, on fair compensation, on all the things that you deserve, you've earned, and everybody wants in their lives, if not just for themselves, for their families, for their families. And we've been able to do that very well, because the nation is committed to that.

The United States of America, our population, reflected in both political parties, reflected by all presidents we've had and Congresses, willing to invest and do what we need to do to recruit and retain the absolute best people. We'll be able to do that, I'm confident of that. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Staff Sergeant (inaudible) from Destin, Florida. My question is, in recent events, we lost a veteran paratrooper who was part of the 501st family. He suffered from PTSD, and he tried to seek help from the VA hospital. My question is, is what the DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs is going to do to mitigate cases like his and others and what is going to happen to be able to ensure servicemembers that are transitioning out of the military to make sure that if they're suffering from PTSD, that they're going to be taken care of after serving their country.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you for the question. There's no higher priority that we have as an institution than to take care of our people, bar none. As I have often said regarding the connection, the partnership, the relationship, the -- many ways, the dual responsibility that DOD and VA have together, we produce the veteran and we, at the end of the active-duty member's service, we hand off that -- that veteran. So that transition of the handoff in how we do that, preparing that active-duty member for the next phase of his or her life is a big responsibility we have.

We focus on that. It's not perfect. We can do better. We will do better. But this as high a priority as I have as secretary of defense as any one thing, our people and making sure not only that we take care of them and their families when they're here serving, but also as they transition out into a new world, into a new life, into new possibilities, into every component of what we commit to you when you first get here.

The suicide issue is a particularly horrendous issue for the reasons you guys all know. And we are doing more and more. We have -- I think as you know, we have units set up. We have invested in medical facilities, in focus. We have trained, engrained all of our senior enlisted, our officers, to pay attention to this, to sense it, to see it, to be there.

When you've got someone who is on the edge or you think they are or a friend, or however way you can detect it, and be -- and always be -- always be open to detecting these kind of things, they need help. And they should be encouraged, not ostracized, because they're not weak people. We all need help. And so we need to embrace each other. We need to do a better job of that than -- than all of us are now.

But it as much a focus as we have. So thank you for asking the question.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My name is Captain (inaudible). My hometown is Buffalo, New York. With some programs going over budget and over timeline, I was wondering if you could discuss if there's any talk of overhauling our current acquisitions process.

SEC. HAGEL: Of overhauling our current acquisitions process?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

SEC. HAGEL: Yes, that has been ongoing. We've had over the last few years particular -- but let's just take the last four -- this has been a high, high, high priority in the Congress and with my predecessors, programs like Better Buying Power, the current undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, Frank Kendall, was one of the guys who started this. We've been able to save billions of dollars. We're not where we need to be yet, but this is as high a priority, also, on the acquisition side, on the budget side as we have, is monitoring this, is overseeing this, and being smart how we buy, being smart what we buy, the process we use to buy our weapons, research, development. We've put a particularly high priority on those areas, so that we just don't leap out and make deals without really solid evidence, and we've got plenty of examples in some of our past acquisitions how we've done it the wrong way, but it's a high priority.

And the Congress is working with us on it. They have high expectations on this. The American people should. It's their money. We're the stewards of their taxpayers' dollar. We're responsible to them. And we'll continue to put that as a high a priority on that side of the ledger as we have.

Okay, thank you very, very much. General, thank you.

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