Thank you for inviting me here this morning. It is nice to have this opportunity to be outside of the beltway – even if not by much.
Back in October, at a conference in Iowa, I passed along some insights from previous tours of duty in Washington D.C. – a place where so many people are lost in thought, because it’s such unfamiliar territory – a place where those who travel the high road of humility encounter little traffic. Little did I suspect I would be called back here a couple of weeks later! There is an adage, “Be careful of what you ask for, you might get it.” Perhaps there is a Washington corollary, “Be careful of what you don’t ask for, you might get it.”
It has truly been an honor to be called into service as Secretary of Defense – to serve our country, and to serve with men and women like you, during this time of great consequence. I want to thank you, personally, for what you are doing each and every day.
Before I began at CIA in the late 1960s, I served as an Air Force intelligence officer at Whiteman Air Force Base, where I briefed missile crews and the occasional General on international politics. Mercifully, this was in the age before Power Point. I served there for close to a year and a half. Of course, it only took about a day and a half to figure out who really made the military run – or at least who made us junior officers run – the Non-Commissioned Officers. So I did what my sergeant suggested and the two of us did my job pretty well. Now, as then, I greatly appreciate all that you are doing.
Your job is difficult. You spend many long hours at work. There is a natural pull to be out shoulder-to-shoulder with those standing watch on ships or at forward operating bases as many of you have been these past few years. Though you may be working thousands of miles away, your impact – and your positive leadership – is being felt in every fighting hole and on every front line. You also help ensure service members have the supplies and equipment they need and the quality of life they deserve. I have had the opportunity to visit with service members on two of those front lines – Afghanistan and Iraq. They are working in difficult conditions. When I visited Forward Operating Base Tillman along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it reminded many of us of a frontier town in the Old West. The area surrounding the base was desolate and forbidding. But morale among troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is high. They are focused on their mission.
And they are proud to be serving during this moment in history. I think everyone comes away inspired by the sheer determination and professionalism of those serving today. As a mentor and a motivator, you are largely responsible for setting those marks. You should be proud of this legacy.
As you probably know, we are in the heart of the budget testimony season. This year’s budget request continues to focus on improving the standard of living of service members.
For example, it includes nearly $3 billion to continue improving enlisted barracks and housing. We will privatize nearly 3,000 more new family units. I understand this base was the first to build a town center-like community as part of on-base housing. This year, the Department is building more child development centers and schools, so that we continue to take care of our families as well as our troops.
On another issue close to home, I am concerned by the reports of substandard conditions at Walter Reed hospital. Being in the military is like being part of a family. It appears that some of our family may not have been treated the way they should have been.
I suspect that each one of you here has taken the opportunity to meet with wounded troops at Walter Reed or other hospitals – likely many times. Those troops have given their all for our nation. They deserve the very best our nation can give them. The special, bipartisan review group I announced last Friday will ensure that Walter Reed and similar facilities are kept to that standard.
Let me be clear: Any individual, regardless of rank – be they officer or enlisted, military or civilian – will be held accountable for allowing this unacceptable situation to develop.
I want to mention one more thing before taking your questions.
For anyone working in this town, there is no escaping the debate taking place over the direction of this war. This should not surprise us, however. Such debates have taken place in our country since before we were even a country. If you can believe it, there were many northerners vehemently opposed to fighting the Civil War. President Lincoln nearly lost reelection because of them. I remember in 1982 when President Reagan pledged that the United States would support people fighting communism wherever they were. His words were labeled the “Reagan Doctrine” by some, and “ridiculous” by others.
But there are two important things to keep in mind. First, during our nation’s most difficult times, there have been folks like you willing to stand for what is right – no matter the challenges or consequences – until their missions were complete. They helped make our nation a force for good in the world. Second, President Bush, General Pace and I – along with millions of Americans – are determined to secure the equipment, supplies and support you need so that you can complete your missions – so that our nation will remain a force for good in the generations to come.
Thank you, and I would be happy to take some questions.