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Remarks to the Army Sergeants Major Academy (Fort Bliss, TX)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates , Fort Bliss, Texas, Thursday, May 01, 2008

Thank you, Colonel Gentry, for that kind introduction.

I’d also like to thank the members of the foreign militaries who are with us, including some who took a year of English language-training in order to attend this course.  Your presence demonstrates underscores the strength of our ties with allies and partners around the world.

It is an honor to be with you all as you finish up the United States Army Sergeants Major course, the pinnacle of our NCO education system.

My first encounter with NCOs came back in 1967, as Colonel Gentry mentioned, when I was a second lieutenant at Whiteman Air Force Base.  It took me about a day-and-a-half before I figured out who really made the military run, or who certainly made us junior officers run: the noncommissioned officers.  So I did what my sergeant suggested and the two of us did my job pretty well.

Since taking over as secretary of defense a year-and-a-half ago, I have developed an even greater appreciation of the importance of NCOs to our military.  In February, when I made a visit to Iraq, and to our military, I had the chance to say a few words about the three Corps Command Sergeant Major Neil Ciotola. For 14 months he was the Corps’ steel spine, the eyes and ears of its command.  Without his leadership, and the leadership provided by all the other NCOs on the ground, none of the recent progress in Iraq would have been possible.

Whenever I travel – which is all too often – I make a point of meeting with NCOs of all ranks – for there is little doubt that they are the backbone of our military.  You know what issues our men and women in uniform are thinking about, and you know, on a very personal level, what challenges the military faces.  As I told the cadets at West Point a couple weeks ago, all in senior positions would be well-advised to listen to enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and company and field-grade officers.  They are the ones on the front line, and they know the real story.  I’m sure also that none of you is exactly shy about speaking your minds – and so I expect to find out in the Q&A session.

Today our nation faces great challenges, and much of the burden of facing them has fallen to our men and women who have volunteered to put on the uniform.  Our country has in recent years asked a tremendous amount of you and those who serve with and under you – and everyone has risen to the occasion.

Multiple and sometimes extended deployments, the stresses of battle, the wounds of war, both seen and unseen – all of this has taken its toll on our troops and on their families.  And yet, morale remains high – a testament to the extraordinary honor, courage, and resilience of those who serve, as well as the leadership and mentoring provided by the senior NCO corps.

That morale, however, is not something we can take for granted.  I know I am preaching to the choir when I tell you that, as senior leaders, we must all be ever cognizant of stress on the force – stress that has been greatly increased in recent years.  So, for the next few minutes, I want to tell you what the Department of Defense is trying to do to reduce this stress, and also what we are doing to improve quality of life for our men and women in the service.

Let me first start with the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As you know, we have seen significant gains in Iraq.  Our troops have fought courageously and now we are, I believe, in a very different place than a year ago.  It is a much better place, but one with many challenges and perils still remaining.  Still, the changes on the ground have allowed us to begin an initial drawdown of forces – and also allowed us to begin to move from 15-month deployments back to 12-month deployments.  My hope is that conditions on the ground will allow us to have additional drawdowns at the end of this year.  In Afghanistan, we have seen that the enemy we are facing has not given up; there is little doubt that it will be a long fight.

Looking to the future, we would like to try to get back to a more sustainable deployment rotation of one year abroad and two at home for the active force.  From my perspective, we are trying to strike a balance: to reduce the tempo of deployment without compromising our strategic objectives or national security.  

At the same time, we are growing our nation’s ground forces.  This year we will add about 7,000 troops to the Army as part of a five-year, 65,000-person expansion.  The Marine Corps is also getting larger.  In fact, they will complete their expansion of 27,000 in 2009, two years ahead of schedule.  Over time, with a larger pool of soldiers and forces available, individual soldiers and their units should be deployed less frequently, with more dwell time at home.

At this point, I think it is safe to say that no one expected major combat operations in Iraq to go on this long.  One of the results of this, and much improved emergency care on the frontlines, has been a much greater number of wounded entering and staying in the Army medical system – men and women who have borne the brunt of battle and now need our help.  Last year, shortly after I started this job, The Washington Post broke a story about deplorable outpatient conditions at Walter Reed.  The situation was unacceptable – and so, too, was the response by some of the Army’s senior leadership, particularly one individual who indicated that the problems lie with a couple of NCOs not doing their job.  The secretary of the Army soon found himself out of a job.

Since then, I have focused much time and energy on the whole system of care for wounded warriors.  We have made great strides – but we know more remains to be done.

Perhaps the most important change has been the way our injured receive medical treatment and rehabilitation.  Military health centers have instituted warriors-in-transition campuses.  One of the problems with our previous approach is that wounded warriors were at times treated like they were permanently “broken.”  The reality is that these extraordinary young men and women are far from broken.  I have seen their determination in visits to Walter Reed, Bethesda, Tripler, BAMC, Landstuhl, and other hospitals – and I’m sure you have too.

Our new way of doing business is to give our wounded warriors a system they’re already used to – so that when they arrive, they are met at an airport by a platoon sergeant and assigned to a unit.  The NCO will be with the soldier throughout his recovery process, and there is a strict daily regimen – but one focused solely on the care, treatment, and recovery of the soldiers.  The campuses also have a full range of support for soldiers and their families – including military and personnel benefits, financial counseling, employment support, education counseling, childcare, and so forth.  Assigned coordinators make it easier for the troops and their families to understand and navigate the system.

The Department has also placed great emphasis on caring for those with post-traumatic stress disorder.  And I must say I visited the Restoration and Resilience Center here at Fort Bliss this morning and was awed by what has been done here and the local initiatives involved in setting up the program.  I look forward to seeing it replicated elsewhere.

But we all know not every soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is getting the treatment they need.  As a result, we have instituted a number of screening procedures to try to make sure no one slips through the cracks.  We are also actively working to eliminate any stigma associated with PTSD.  

A central element of that has been trying to change the question on the security-clearance application asking about mental-health treatment.  Too often, troops have avoided seeking help because they were worried it would affect their security clearance, and perhaps their career.  This morning, after touring the Fort Bliss Restoration and Resilience Center, I announced that the question about mental health on that form, as a general matter, will now exclude counseling related to service in combat stress – post-traumatic stress in particular.  In other words, mental-health treatment in and of itself will not be a reason to revoke or deny a clearance.  It only took us 8 months but we finally got it done.  We hope this will encourage more men and women in uniform to seek help.

All of you have a special role in encouraging troops to seek help for the unseen scars of war – to let them know that doing so is a sign of strength and maturity.  I urge you all to talk with those below you to find out where we can continue to improve.  Those who have sacrificed for our nation deserve the best care they can get.  As I have said before, there is no higher priority for the Department of Defense, apart from the wars themselves, than caring for our wounded warriors.  

Beyond the immediate conflict, we are making efforts to better the lives of all of our soldiers.  One of the greatest changes in the military since it became an all-volunteer force is the shift toward families.  Currently, 56 percent of active duty forces are married, and 44 percent have children.  It adds new meaning to the saying that you enlist the soldier, but reenlist his family.

The Department needs to be more family-friendly – to adjust to reality, but also because it’s the right thing to do.  Last October, Secretary Geren and General Casey announced the “Army Family Covenant,” which promised to deliver to our troops and their families “quality of life that is commensurate with their service.”

I’ll just highlight a few of the initiatives.

For instance, we are increasing educational opportunities.  There are a number of ways to pursue an education while on active duty, but we need to update the GI Bill.  You may have heard about some of the debates on this on Capitol Hill.  There is wide bipartisan support to increase the bill’s benefits.  I believe Congress will act before too long.  But, in the mean time, we have been working on some sort of transferability – so that if a service member did not use his or her benefits, they could be passed on to a family member.  This is an idea I first heard during a meeting with spouses at Fort Hood.  And the President listed it in his State of the Union Address as a major initiative we’re hoping to see acted on very soon.

In addition to educational benefits, the Army is investing around $18 billion over the next six years to make housing better and more modern across the service – especially for our enlisted troops.  The construction here is one of the largest projects in the Corps of Engineers’ history, and will accommodate an additional 30,000 soldiers as well as nearly 40,000 family members.  One of the reasons I delayed the movement of two Army brigades to Bliss from Germany is because the housing facilities weren’t going to be ready.  And I thought it would be unacceptable for soldiers and their families to live and work under those conditions.

While investing tens of billions of dollars in future facilities, we cannot neglect existing housing.  Earlier this week, I personally watched the “You-Tube” video of a barracks at Fort Bragg housing soldiers returning from Afghanistan.  The conditions were appalling – soldiers should never have to live in such squalor.  It is the duty of every commander, indeed everyone responsible for our men and women in uniform, to ensure our troops have decent living conditions.  And if the local resources aren’t available to make the necessary improvements, it is a leader’s responsibility to alert the chain of command. 

Current needs must not be sacrificed to future capabilities, whether the need is proper treatment of wounded warriors, or getting MRAPS or more ISR to the theater – or decent housing facilities back home. 

So let me close with two final points before taking some questions.  I’m sure you’re aware of some of the initiatives I’ve mentioned – as well as many others under way.  I know that the Department of Defense is not perfect and mistakes have been made, and will be made.  Things happen too slowly – it takes too long for decisions to get made at the Pentagon and then to get implemented on posts and bases.  I’m sure you’ve all dealt with red tape and bureaucratic delays.  I share your frustration – as I have made clear during my time as secretary of defense.

From my vantage point, you are in the best position of anybody to give a sense, up the chain of command, of how things are going – which programs are working, which aren’t, and what else can be done.  I hope you will continue to listen to your men and women, and advocate for them in the strongest possible manner.  I will continue to seek out the advice and counsel of enlisted troops at all levels, and will continue to value their candor.  And I will continue my regular lunches with the senior-most NCOs of each of the services.

You are also in the best position to make it clear, down the chain, that the Department of Defense is actively engaged in working to improve the quality of life for our servicemen and women.  This is a critical point that all of our troops need to know if we are to maintain the morale of the force in the years to come – and if we are to continue to recruit the best and brightest America has to offer.

I hope you will also express to them that I am aware of how much has been sacrificed – and I consider it my solemn and very personal duty to do right by the men and women who risk their lives for our country every day.

Again, I thank you all for your service.