Secretary Cohen: [Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness] Dr. [Bernard] Rostker, thank you very much, and thank you for all that you do on behalf of the men and women who are serving us. [Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs] Charlie Cragin, as well. Charlie Cragin and I go back at least 25 years, and it's been a real privilege for me to have this opportunity to work with Charlie, who does so much work on behalf of personnel and readiness.
My wife should be joining us shortly. She's anxious to meet all of you and to have a little bit of time this afternoon to spend some time with you. She has been instrumental in helping to put this together and working with Dr. Rostker and his staff. As Dr. Rostker has indicated this is the second forum [1st Annual Family Forum was held May 31, 2000] for us to reach out and listen to what you're saying.
While you were traveling, I was hosting a dinner for the King of Morocco, and it occurred to me that we do so much of that. The leaders of other countries come here, be they Ministers of Defense, Foreign Ministers or Heads of State, and we host them. We have what we call plenary sessions downstairs, and we sit down and talk about the security issues that are very much involved in diplomacy.
I'll tell you that one of the great joys of my life is to be able to travel around the world, and to meet with the Heads of State and my counterparts. And the first thing they ask me is, "How do we get to be like you? How do we get to have the kind of people that you have in your military, not only at the officer level, but at the NCO Corps that you have? How are you able to attract them, to keep them, to make the force that is a premier force in the world?" And we look at the young people coming into our military and what you do with them. You turn them into not only warriors, but also great diplomats. That's really the essence of what we try to do.
[Mrs. Cohen arrives] Talk about a grand entrance! [Laughter.]
Mrs. Cohen: At ease, Mr. Secretary. [Laughter and applause.]
Secretary Cohen: I have been at ease because we have so many wonderful people here. But without making a long speech, what we're hoping to do and we're trying to do through this type of a meeting -- and hopefully we can institutionalize it so it becomes an annual or perhaps even a semi-annual event -- is for us to listen.
When I was on Capitol Hill, I felt that people at the grass roots level, the people who are out there doing the day-to-day work, felt that people at the higher levels weren’t always listening to what their needs were, that they are in some kind of an esoteric realm in which they just sign off on documents but never really get to deal with the issues that you have to contend with on a day-to-day basis.
What Mrs. Cohen and I have tried to do is say that we're here to help. We are from the government and we're here to help. [Laughter.] We need to understand exactly what it is that you need. What are the key issues that affect quality of life? We know about the pay, and we've tried to address that this past year. Dr. Rostker pointed out we have the largest pay raise in a generation. We changed the way in which we compute the retirement benefits now; we're back up to 50 percent. We had pay table reform. Now we're trying to address the housing and also the healthcare issues that I think are of premier interest for most families.
So this is an opportunity for us to sit and to listen to you. You're the ones who have to deal with these challenges—they're not problems, but challenges—on a daily basis. We want you to really feel and to understand that we need to hear from you.
It's too easy for us to engage in the type of seminars or policy discussions that we have and never have the opportunity to meet with you to find out really what's going on. What can we do to make our force better? What can we do to make their lives better? How can we respond? Do we do something internally? Through regulation? Through legislation? What does it take to make sure that we're the best fighting force in the world and we stay that way? Because as long as we are the premier fighting force in the world, we have a better chance to maintain peace without ever going into conflict.
That's why I always say that what you're doing is not only training warriors, but training diplomats. Every time a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman walks out into another country or into our communities, they are carrying the Stars and Stripes and they are out there as representatives of our country. How they conduct themselves and what signals they send to the communities in which they're living at the time, or to the countries in which they're deployed, makes a big difference. So countries look at us, they evaluate us, they look at the people we have, how they conduct themselves, and they make judgments about us. They make judgments as to whether or not this is a country whose side they want to be on or if this is a country for which they have little regard and are prepared to challenge.
So by being out there, being forward deployed, being the best that we can be, we help to promote stability. And when there's stability there's an opportunity to promote investment, and where there's investment there will hopefully be profits. Those get plowed back into countries. You help lift up all the other peoples of the world in a way that's democratic, that fulfills our ideals. So we are out there fulfilling a diplomatic mission as well as a military mission.
So Janet and I wanted to be here today. She will spend a little more time with you this afternoon, and we will have some panels up here discussing these issues, then you'll report back to me later this afternoon at four o’clock. Then there will be a press conference, so to speak. We tried not to make these press events and to convey to the press who are here in the building that we're not trying to exclude anybody. We're not trying to hide anything, but we want to have the opportunity to have you tell us exactly what you think needs to be done. That can best be achieved when there isn't the pressure of having to measure your words [in an open forum].
Following these closed sessions, then of course your representatives will have a chance to talk to the press and tell them what you have learned, what you have heard, what you have recommended so that the press will be fully briefed and informed on what has transpired during these meetings.
So we want to make this as intimate as possible, as candid as you can possibly be. There's not much sense in traveling all the way here, through the thunderstorms, arriving here five minutes before you come up to this auditorium, and then simply go through the motions. You have to feel free to tell us exactly what's on your mind so that we can take and absorb that, analyze it, and see what can be done, what's realistic, what we can in fact do without making false promises. Rather, we want to try to fulfill our responsibilities as leaders at this level. So enough said.
Janet, welcome. I am fully at ease. [Laughter.] Thank you very much, and good luck this afternoon. [Applause.]
Mrs. Cohen: Thank you all. I hadn't planned on saying anything, but when asked I didn't want to pass up an opportunity. I just want to welcome you all, and say that every day wherever our military is, extraordinary things happen. And something extraordinary and significant is happening today with this very Senior Enlisted Advisor Forum with our senior leadership.
Forums like this, and dialogues like these, make a great military, the finest military in the world. The best. Hooah! [Cheers.] I just want to add too, that not long ago Bill and I were in New Orleans at the dedication of the D-Day Museum and yesterday we were in rarified air at the White House when we honored the Asian American Medal of Honor recipients. On Sunday we go to Arlington and Bill will lay a wreath and we will honor the Korean War veterans. Each time we do these honors, we think of you and those who sacrificed and serve with them.
And I must say, I remember the last part of the movie "Saving Private Ryan" when the elder Ryan asked a question about those sacrifices. He said, "Have we earned them?" Well, you have. And the rest of us are grateful beneficiaries. Thank you very much for coming, and I hope you have an enjoyable and fruitful meeting. Thank you. [Applause.]