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1st Annual Military Family Forum, Opening Session
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Mrs. Janet Langhart Cohen, The Pentagon, Washington, DC, Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Secretary Cohen: Under Secretary [for Personnel and Readiness, Dr. Bernard] Rostker and Mrs. Rostker, thank you very much. I should point out very quickly that the reason he has so many jobs is because he's so talented. It's not that he can't keep a job, it's just that there's so much work to be done and he's the person we always turn to to get it done. So thank you for hosting this event this morning and all day. You've been deeply involved in quality of life issues your entire tenure here, and we are truly grateful

[U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe] General [Joseph] and Dede Ralston, thank you for coming all the way from Europe to be here. It's great to see you after your [applause] taking over in that wonderful change of command ceremony that we had a chance to witness. We appreciate your taking a little time to come here and spend a day with all the great folks who are here this morning.

[Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic Commander in Chief, U.S. Joint Forces Command] Admiral [Harold] and Janet Gehman. I think Patty Shinseki is going to be here if she's not here already. Enlisted leaders, Janet [Cohen], distinguished panelists up here this morning.

I'm going to be quite brief this morning. As I was thinking what I might say to you, Janet reminded me that there is the Ranger mantra that she has heard, "be sincere, be brief, and then be gone." We've had a bit of a reversal in the program because she was going to speak first and then introduce me. I decided I didn't want to follow her. [Laughter.] I thought I would go first and talk a little bit about the things we want to discuss today and then turn it over to her for a few comments.

But I want you to know how historic this day is going to be. It's never been done before. We think it is so vitally important to hear from you. Perhaps you have seen on the Internet or from time to time some television coverage that the two of us get up and say that we have the finest fighting force in the world, and we do. And the reason we do is because of you.

We have a giant bureaucracy, as you're familiar with, and we have several million people altogether, Active, Guard and Reserve. When you have that many people you have a large bureaucracy. I'm sure many of you must feel some level of frustration as things that you have to endure on a day-to-day basis, and perhaps you have some things in mind which could make things work more efficiently or better.

The one thing that I've had in my career is a lot of experience in dealing with people's issues. I spent 24 years on Capitol Hill representing the people of Maine, and one thing I tried to do was to get back almost every weekend to my constituents, and to listen to what they had to say so I could be a better congressman and then a senator.

I have found the same thing is true in this job. I have a magnificent office. If you haven't seen it perhaps during the course of the day you'll have a chance to see it. I can sit behind that huge desk that I have and I can sign all those deployment orders and all the issues that I have to sign off on. But the most important thing for me is to do what's best for you, because you're doing what's best for the country.

So when we talk about issues of pay, as Dr. Rostker has just mentioned, about pay and retirement benefits and health care and housing and how we can help, we need to know from you what it is that we can do better.

As I've said before, we can't pay you enough, but we can pay you more, and we're doing that. We've had the largest pay raise in a generation. We've gone and increased retirement benefits from 40 to 50 percent, back up to where it was back in 1986. We're changing some of the housing programs and projects now and we are focusing on health care needs in the TriCare program. We're doing all of that.

But what I have found during my life time is that you really don't get innovative change from the top down. You have to go out into the field where people are living on a day-to-day basis and find out what it is they need and what you need and how we can make it better.

So this really is not a program we're going to lay out for you. Many of the programs we have in existence, but what we want to do is really to hear from you, whether you think it's right or wrong, if it can be improved, and how it can be improved.

I think it was Yogi Berra, at least I can paraphrase him, who said that you can hear a lot just by listening. That's what we want to do today. We want to listen to you to find out what we can do to make your lives and the quality of your lives better. If you don't have a good quality of life you're not going to be happy. If you're not happy, then we're not going to have the superior force in the world that we do.

So this is an opportunity for us to listen to you. And again, as Under Secretary Rostker has pointed out, the cameras will be shut off. This is not going to be a media event. This is an opportunity for you to tell us exactly what you think and find ways that we can improve our programs. So thank you for coming.

Now I'd like to turn the podium over to the better half of our partnership. Janet has been a tireless advocate, a passionate advocate for our men and women in uniform. She can't go to a base with me, a facility, anywhere, without becoming deeply involved in the issues affecting the families. This has largely been her initiative to say we've got to do something, to listen and learn and to do better by our troops. They're what make us great. So she is what makes me as good as I can be in this job, and now I'd like to turn it over to you, Janet. [Applause.]

Janet Langhart Cohen: Good morning again, and welcome to the Pentagon. Thank you all for agreeing to participate in our first annual Military Family Forum. This is something that the Secretary and all of us here at the Department of Defense have wanted to do for a very long time.

I also want to encourage you, as everyone else has, to be open and candid about your ideas and your concerns and your needs. This is your forum. This is our opportunity to hear you. And hopefully, it's an opportunity for you to share jointly some of your programs and ideas that you are already working on in your respective services.

I want to take a personal note here to thank the men and women who serve in our military. Thank you for your commitment, your courage, for coming forward for us and for this country. Thank you for all you do to keep us strong and free. To the military families, we want to thank you for your support and your many, many, sometimes painful, sacrifices. We all know that you, our military families, are the heart of our armed forces. Your support is critical to the morale and readiness of our forces, and we are all grateful.

I also want to say that for Bill and me to have served you and continue serving you has probably been the greatest thing we'll ever do. Thank you. We're so proud of you. Have an enjoyable day, and we'll all talk later. Thank you. [Applause.]