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Cohen Notes "National Treasure" at Desert Site

By Linda D. Kozaryn
National Guard Bureau

RIYADH AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia, March 8, 1999 – America's men and women in uniform are "a national treasure," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told soldiers here March 7.

People back home don't fully appreciate how hard service members work, he said. "They may catch a clip of you on CNN when an attack takes place from time to time, but they don't see the outstanding work you perform on behalf of our country on a daily basis."

Cohen stopped at this air defense artillery site during a nine- day, nine-nation trip through the Middle East. He presented awards and re-enlisted several soldiers after touring the facility, currently manned primarily by members of D Battery, 2nd Bn., 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Fort Bliss, Texas.

For nearly the past six months, the battery has manned Patriot missile systems, protecting the base from combat aircraft and tactical ballistic missile attack. Members from the battalion's B Battery have started arriving for the next six-month rotation.

Sporting a crisp white shirt and dark tie, khaki pants and desert boots, Cohen spoke to more than 100 Patriot crew members and support personnel clad in desert fatigues and floppy hats. Taking a hand-held microphone from the podium, the Pentagon's top civilian leader moved forward, beckoning the assembled troops to come closer.

"We're trying to raise the level of consciousness on the part of the American people about how good you are and what a national treasure we have in all of you," the secretary said. He wants to "reconnect" the American people with the military by addressing state legislatures, corporations and other forums.

Last week, for example, Cohen said, he told young, innovative computer specialists at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle that they are there breaking advanced technology barriers because of "the sacrifice that each of you makes every day of every year."

Cohen then noted that field visits like this one are important because they help him "put a face on" deployment orders and other documents he regularly signs back at the Pentagon. He gets a chance to hear firsthand about service members' needs and concerns, and the troops get a chance to speak to him.

"It's my job as secretary of defense to find out those kinds of things that will be an incentive for you to come into the force and then to stay in," he said.

The secretary pointed out that the Patriot batteries here, like all of the military's forward-deployed units, epitomize the three pillars of the nation's "shape, respond, prepare" defense strategy. "The mere fact that you are out here gives people a chance to see how professional you are, and it makes them feel secure," he said. "It also sends a signal to a potential enemy that you are a force that they don't want to reckon with."

This forward presence, Cohen explained, "shapes" the environment by creating "a situation where conflict is less likely, as opposed to waiting for things to fester and then asking us to respond."

But, when necessary, he stressed, the armed forces must be prepared to "respond" to any challenge or crisis. "We have to be able to carry out humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, and also take on someone like Saddam Hussein, or be able to go to war in Korea."

While the military has maintained combat readiness through more than a decade of downsizing, Cohen said, the defense strategy's third pillar, "prepare," has suffered as a result. This third part of the strategy involves preparing for the future by procuring modern weapons and equipment.

"We've been deficient over the years because we've continued to take money out of procurement and put it in operations," he said. "As a result, we will not be ready in the future unless we really upgrade the preparation part of our strategy, and that's what we're doing."

Since the height of the Cold War in about 1985, Cohen said, the force structure has been cut by about 30 percent and procurement by almost 70 percent. "We've been living off that buildup that took place during the Ronald Reagan presidency. It's been a steady decline ever since, and now it has to start coming back up. We can no longer afford to live off the investment we made back in 1981 through 1985."

For the first time in 15 years, Cohen said, the proposed defense budget includes a sustained increase of $112 billion projected over a six-year period. While this is a substantial increase, he noted, it's not as much as the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted.

"They indicated to President Clinton that they needed $148 billion to meet all of their needs," Cohen said. Defense officials took a second look, however, focused on the meeting the most critical needs, and came up with the proposed $112 billion, he said.

The proposed increase includes a 4.4 percent pay raise and would restore pre-1986 retirement formulas that started at 50 percent of base pay after 20 years of service, Cohen pointed out. "We've also reformed the pay table to target the increases to those who are performing in an outstanding fashion." The goal is to retain quality people and be competitive with lucrative competition from the civilian sector, he said.

The Senate has proposed a 4.8 percent pay raise, Cohen added. "What we have told the Senate is that we would welcome any increases over what we have suggested, provided they pay for it. Don't increase the pay, but then fail to put the money in the budget."

If approved, the Senate proposal would add up to $11 million, and that would have to come out of operations, training or procurement if the money isn't added to the budget, Cohen explained. "We don't want a situation where it looks good on paper and we make a promise, but ultimately, it is self- defeating because we're taking it out of our hide."

From Riyadh, Cohen moved on to stops in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. He is scheduled to return to Washington March 12.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Patriot Missile Launcher is raised to its readied position, while in the distance a F-16C comes in for a landing. During Secretary Cohens current trip to Southwest Asia, he visited a Patriot missile site, manned by members of the 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Fort Bliss, Texas.  
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