Troops Meet With Defense Secretary in California
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Jan. 8, 2008 Sgt. Kevin Knight has been a Marine for four years. He has deployed three times to Iraq. The first was in 2004, when he was just out of his infantry training. He returned from his most recent deployment in November.
With their commanders ushered from the room, Knight and about 50 other Marines fresh from deployment were able to sit across the table from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates here yesterday to ask straight questions and get straight answers on whatever was on their minds. Gates met with troops on Navy and Marine bases during his first visit to southern California as defense secretary.
Marines here met the secretary in a small conference room in a building nestled in the sprawling, scraggly hills of these coastal training grounds about 35 miles north of San Diego. Like Knight, many of the Marines in the room had served multiple deployments.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the meeting turned out to be anything but a gripe session, as questions ran the gamut from housing issues to educational benefits to politics. Most of the Marines were concerned not about their individual situations, but rather about what could be changed to benefit others, he said.
Fresh from his most recent deployment, Knight said he returned here to see a new urban assault training center being built. He wondered why such a training site was not built sooner, offering critical training for deploying troops.
“We lost a lot of Marines in urban combat that if we would have had these facilities two or three years ago, it could have helped prevent (that),” Knight said. The sergeant said he asked Gates why it seemed the military was “behind the curve” in funding training and facilities to prepare troops for urban combat.
The secretary’s answer was straightforward and logical, Knight said: no one anticipated that U.S. forces would be in Iraq, fighting this kind of war for this long.
“He gave decisive answers,” Knight said. “He actually talked to (us and) … helped us understand what was going on with Iran, with Pakistan, Korea, Iraq in general.”
Knight said the secretary helped the Marines understand some of the funding issues facing the military and gave them a “broader picture.”
“I thought it went really well. All the questions that the secretary was asked, he was very knowledgeable about,” he said. “I think it’s incredible. Nobody would ever think that as young enlisted Marines we’d be able to talk to one of the senior members of our chain of command. I think it shows a lot about our nation caring about the opinions of the younger military forces -- not just looking at us as numbers, but wanting to hear our point of views on world matters.”
Gates visited the southern California bases after spending the holidays at his home in Washington state. Morrell said officials try to fit in stops to bases in the United States as the defense secretary travels. Gates “derives a great deal of sustenance” from his meetings with servicemembers and goes back to the Pentagon “rejuvenated and confident” from the conversations, Morrell told reporters.
Gates started the morning touring the Naval Special Warfare Group 1 at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, where he met with sailors and SEALs. He viewed the latest in robotic devices that help detect and dismantle roadside bombs in Iraq. He also pinned Bronze Stars on the chests of about 20 sailors just coming back from combat in Iraq, and he meritoriously promoted two of them.
He met with the sailors in closed-door sessions, and publicly thanked them for their service and that of their families.
The secretary had awards and special praise for members of a mobile explosive ordnance detachment who set up an EOD compound in southern Baghdad and performed 400 missions, disabling more than 90 improvised explosive devices.
“One of my great honors as the secretary of defense is to participate in ceremonies like these,” he said. “I am always humbled and inspired by what our troops accomplish under the most demanding and challenging conditions.”
Others receiving awards were SEALs who had just returned from secret duties against what Gates called “some of the most ruthless killers” in Iraq. He noted most of the SEALs’ duties are performed in the shadows and are rarely recognized.
“That’s why I’m particularly grateful to be here today -- to have the opportunity to look them in the eye, and say ‘thank you’ from the bottom of my heart,” Gates said.
A small group of families sat on the sidelines during the ceremonies, holding babies and toddlers who fidgeted as their fathers received the awards. Gates acknowledged that the secrecy and imminent danger of the SEALs’ missions sometimes make the life especially hard for their families.
“Your loved ones are deployed most often to the most hostile places. You may know next to nothing about where your husband or son is serving, and when or whether he will return,” Gates said. “To the families, to all of you here today, you have my deepest personal appreciation and respect.”
As he was leaving, a small group of SEAL first-week recruits issued a customary greeting to the secretary. “Hoo-yah, Secretary Gates,” they shouted in unison.
Gates went on to tour the latest San Antonio-class vessel, the USS New Orleans, docked in San Diego. Commissioned in March, it’s an amphibious transport ship made to accommodate the latest in Marine equipment. It holds a crew of about 350 and can accommodate 800 Marines with gear and vehicles. It also has a complete hospital and can perform humanitarian aid missions. The ship is scheduled for its first deployment next year.
Gates lunched with sailors, again hearing concerns and fielding questions. In the afternoon, he went to Camp Pendleton for more meetings, and a quick stop to talk to some recruits in their 11th week of training, readying for their final field exercise before becoming full-fledged Marines.
He then boarded a flight to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where he’s scheduled to talk with commanders today about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance needs in the combat theater and how to field more unmanned aerial vehicles there, Morrell said.