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Gates Addresses Nation’s Challenges in Chicago

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

CHICAGO, July 17, 2009 – The nation is facing multiple, complex challenges, but none so pressing as the situation in Iran, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday following a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago here.

“The president is the eighth president that I’ve worked for, and I do not recall a single time in my entire professional career when I felt that the country faced complex and, in many respects, as dangerous a time as we do now,” Gates told club members during a question-and-answer session. “We face a multiplicity of threats.”

When asked which countries’ situations most worried him -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea – Gates first opted for “E, all of the above.”

“All of these countries are a concern, but I would say that the one that I think is the most difficult … is the problem of Iran,” he said.

The “problem of Iran” stems from its determination to seek nuclear weapons, the inability of the national community to affect Iran’s determination to do it, and how to deal with it when all of the outcomes are negative, he said.

“If they achieve [a nuclear weapon], the possibility of a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East is very, very real,” Gates said. “And if some action is taken to prevent them from getting one, the consequences of that are completely unpredictable and probably very bad.”

Turning to issues closer to home, Gates discussed the closure of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“The president, as you well know, has signed an executive order that would close Guantanamo on Jan. 22, 2010,” Gates said. “The line of states and communities that are willing to have the folks at Guantanamo come to their area seems to be a very short one, like nonexistent.”

The closure of Guantanamo will be complex, he said, but necessary.

“As I said during the Bush administration, interestingly enough, Guantanamo is probably one of the best prisons in the world today because of all the things that have been done to change it and improve it,” Gates said. “Nonetheless, it will, I believe, forever be tainted, and it is something that can be used against us by our adversaries. Therefore, I certainly agree with the president … that it needs to be closed.”

Gates also touched on defense officials’ work to quell suicides and treat post-traumatic stress in the military.

“Every day we lose somebody in the Department of Defense is a tragic day, but we had a particularly tragic day around the middle of June,” Gates said. “At that point we had lost 87 of our young men and women, killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

It also marked another unhappy milestone, he said. At that point this year, the military had lost 87 servicemembers to suicides.

Defense officials are working to prevent further incidents. “This is a problem that every person in the Pentagon is taking very seriously, none more so than the leadership of the Army,” Gates said.

“The truth of the matter of is, I believe the suicides are a reflection of the stress on the force, and we will do everything in our power to try and have commanders and [noncommissioned officers] and various others recognize people who are in distress and seek help for them,” he said.

Defense officials have taken measures to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress, he said. They have allocated resources to it and conducted educational activities throughout the military. Virtually every soldier has been exposed to training about how to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and the military has taken measures to try to remove the stigma of reporting and of seeking help.

The department is making great progress in those areas, Gates noted.

“But my guess is, ultimately, the solution to this problem is where our soldiers have more time at home, where there is less stress, and we’re not putting people through four and five rotations in incredibly stressful situations, whether it’s in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said.

Gates also spoke briefly about cyber security, saying it was one of the “worlds” in which the Defense Department needs to make additional investments.

The secretary’s address to members of the Economic Club of Chicago concluded the first day of a two-day trip, which started with a visit to Fort Drum, N.Y. Today, he’ll speak at a recruit graduation at Naval Station Great Lakes before returning to Washington to bid farewell to Army Secretary Pete Geren, who is leaving his post after two years.

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Robert M. Gates
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