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SecDef William S. Cohen Media Availability at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware

Presenter: Secretary Of Defense William S. Cohen
December 15, 1999 10:40 AM EDT

Wednesday, December 15, 1999 10:45 A.M. EST

Media Availability at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware

SEC. COHEN: (Applause.) Actually -- (inaudible) -- (applause) -- I thought he was going to call me either Congressman Cohen or Mayor Cohen, which I used to be. (Laughter.) But, Joe, thank you very much, and Congressman Castle.

And let me say what a pleasure it is for me to be here at the invitation of a former colleague, Joe Biden. In fact my -- and I also go back to 1972, when I first met him -- actually it was '71, when I first met Joe and Mike.

And we both went to Congress at roughly the same time. He was bit younger at that, about two years younger as I recall, maybe three. But we have served together during those years. And I must say that I always looked to Senator Biden as one of the true internationalists in the United States Senate. And I will tell you a story about his commitment, not only to foreign policy and to America's place in the world, but also to his concern about his constituents here in Delaware.

Back in 1984, I had come up with an idea and helped to originate an idea, called the Guaranteed Nuclear Build-Down. And it was a fairly controversial concept at the time. And I was on my way to Moscow. And I needed help. I needed a strong Democrat to come with a Republican to help try to convince the Soviets at that time that this is something in their interests and ours.

And so I turned to Joe Biden. He said "absolutely." And I said, "We have got to spend a couple days over there." He said: "No. I'll come over. I'll fly over with you, but I have got to get back tonight to speak to a Chamber of Commerce dinner."

And so he flew all the way with me to Moscow. We spent the day with Russian leadership, Soviet leadership at that time. And then that evening he turned around, and he came back in time to make the Chamber of Commerce meeting. And that's the kind of dedication that he has brought to public service over the years. And so when he asked me to come here for a visit, it was not a hard call, number one.

Number two, I wanted to come here to express my deep appreciation to all of the men and women who are serving here. This is an incredibly difficult task that they have.

Airlift is really the backbone for our forces. Without airlift, we can't get all the fighting equipment that we need to the theater.

Dover played an instrumental role during Bosnia, during the operation in Kosovo, during the humanitarian types of missions, going to Taiwan and to Kuwait, to Central America during the hurricane relief efforts. And Dover has played a critical role.

And so I wanted to come here to see firsthand the kind of problems that the men and women who are here, have to contend with on a daily basis and to see what it is I can do, what kind of recommendations I can make during the budgetary process to be sure, working with Congressman Castle and also with Senator Biden and Senator Roth, your fine congressional delegation, to see what we can do to make sure that we provide the best that we have in the military with the best that we can, as far as giving them the tools they need to do their job.

So I wanted to be here for two very important reasons, and now I will be happy to take any questions you have. And what I can't answer, I'll turn to Mike Castle and also to Joe Biden. But I'll be happy to try to answer your questions.

Yes, sir?

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: I didn't hear the first part.

SEN. BIDEN (?): What steps you're taking to address the problems of anthrax -- (inaudible).

SEC. COHEN: Oh. Well, as you know, we will suspend phase two and three of the anthrax vaccination program until we are fully satisfied that all of the standards that FDA insists upon are fully met. And so we are working with the management of the new company that has taken over. They're starting a new facility. And we will work with them in terms of the managerial aspect of managing the program to be sure that everything that is required will, in fact, be carried out. But the program will continue, phase one. We have now administered over a million vaccination shots, to some 380,000 individuals, and we have enough safe, reliable and effective vaccine to continue this program for another year, and vaccinating those who are most likely -- who will, in fact, be assigned to the very difficult trouble spots in the world, particularly in the Middle and in the Korean theater.

As I've indicated in the past, I would never ask any of the men and women to do something that I wasn't prepared to do as well, and I was first in line to receive my anthrax shots. I have completed the six-shot series and will continue to have the annual booster.

But this is a program that's working well. And it's important that any time we send men and women into a theater where they could be exposed to a biological agent, that they have whatever protection we can provide to them that's safe and effective. And that's clearly the situation we have now.

Yes, sir?

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: Well, I think it's important that this program be mandatory. The notion that we would send anyone into a field of battle without a helmet, without armor protection or without a rifle would strike most people as being irresponsible. The same thing is true if we know that there are countries who are developing biological weapons -- and there are some 10 countries who have developed that capacity today -- and that we were to put our servicemen and -women into range of their missiles and capability of inflicting harm upon them through the use of biological agents, the notion that we would say it's either voluntary or you don't have to take it and there's no consequence to it, it seems to me that's not maintaining not only good order and discipline; it's putting the entire unit at risk. That's something that no secretary of Defense could responsibly do, in my judgment.

Sir?

QWill the C-5 modernization -- (off mike)?

SEC. COHEN: If we have the full modernization project, it will mean less man hours devoted to repairs. It will be a major boost in efficiency. It will mean a major boost in morale.

I am absolutely enthused when I see the young people, the people who are working on these aircraft, the kind of conditions they must endure in terms of waiting for parts and cannibalizing other aircraft, in order to complete their mission. I am always enthused when I walk away and see the kind of talent that we have in the military and their level of enthusiasm for the job. This is enormously frustrating. The frustration factor is being managed by great leadership. But if we can get the modernization package fully implemented, then I think that morale will stay high, there will be great job satisfaction, our military will be safer and more secure, the pilots who fly the aircraft, the people who are the airmen and -women who service them and on board, all of that will be greatly improved.

Yes, sir? I'll come to you. Either way.

QThe "don't ask, don't tell policy" -- (off mike).

SEC. COHEN: I do not expect the policy to be changed, certainly not during this administration. I have indicated that I want to see that the policy of "don't ask, don't tell, and don't harass" is effectively implemented, and that's the reason I called for the Department of Defense inspector general to go out to the field to make sure that the policy is being implemented and, if not, report back to me and tell me why not, so that we can effectively implement it.

Yes, ma'am?

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: Well, the C-17 will continue to play an important part in airlift. We will continue to acquire more C-17s. It's in our budgetary plans to acquire more. I believe that there will be other countries also looking at the C-17, who see this as a very modern and very capable aircraft. And so we will have a combination of the C-5 -- and hopefully this modernization program will work, so that we can continue to have that kind of a mixture with the C-5 and the C-17, plus the C-130s that we have. So it's managing the mix of the aircraft, but the modernization program should help to keep the C-5 going for many years to come.

Yes, ma'am?

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: Y2K -- we are in very good shape on Y2K. We have made an intensive effort during the past 18 months and two years to make sure that we were Y2K-compliant. All of our major strategic systems are fully compliant. We have taken enormous steps to have contingency plans for any work-arounds that might be necessary. And we have been sharing some of this information and how to do with many of our allies, encouraging them to make similar types of commitments. We will have to see how it all unfolds, in terms of our allies and some other countries, but we feel that we're in very good nationally.

There are bound to be some spot problems, where maybe some local communities haven't taken the steps that need to be taken to bring their systems into compliance, and we have contingency plans worked out with state and local communities to be helpful in that regard. But as far as DOD itself is concerned, we're in very good shape.

Yes, ma'am?

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: How do I see the role of the Reserves in the upcoming year? We have a total force. The Guard and the Reserves are playing an increasingly important role. If you look at the -- especially with the Air Force. If you look at the Air Force in terms of the Reserve components and the active, they're about equal. Maybe the Reserve is a little bit higher right now.

But we want to make sure we have a total force, and that's what we have really had our sights set on. We have achieved that. And the Guard and Reserve will continue to play a key role. So I would say that the Reserves are in great shape.

Yes, sir?

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: Well, I can only say that I'm very supportive of what Secretary of State Albright has been doing, and she has made a major commitment to helping to bring the parties together. And the fact that they are now, you know, apparently willing to discuss some arrangement with Syria participating in these talks -- that's a very positive sign. How it will, again, unfold remains to be seen. But the fact that Syria is now engaged in discussions, I think, is a very welcome and a very positive sign.

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: As a matter of fact, we just voted the biggest pay raise in a generation. "We" -- Congress just voted; we submitted, they voted --

SEN. BIDEN: You would have done it if you had been there. (Laughs.)

SEC. COHEN: But that's a 4.8 percent pay raise. It will become effective at the beginning of the year. We will then have pay raises that will be actually higher than those comparable in the private sector in succeeding years.

We changed what we call pay-table reform so that those at the mid-career level, who have demonstrated skills in leadership and expertise, will get up -- as much as a 5 percent increase on top of the pay raise. And we have increased the retirement benefits from 40 percent to 50 percent.

So all of that, I think, is designed to address quality-of-life issues. Namely, when we talk about the people who are serving us, it always is, again, a source of amazement and pride that we've had the kind of confidence and capability and professionalism that you see here on this base and throughout the military, and that they don't ask a lot. And they could do a lot better in the private sector. But they do it because of their commitment to their country, and we are deeply grateful for all that they do.

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. COHEN: What I tell the troops is to read all the information. They can click on to DefenseLINK. And there they will find -- on the Web page, they will find information about myth and fact.

They should rely upon the fact that we have had an FDA certification, that this anthrax vaccine has been used for the past 30 years. The option, really, is one of exposing themselves to something that is totally deadly. If you have anthrax spores that are inhaled, there is about an 80 (percent) or 90 percent lethality factor; you will die within a very short period of time.

And so we have administered -- as I indicated, some 1 million vaccine shots have been administered. There have been about 500, plus or minus, some reaction to that, usually soreness at the site of the injection. Had it myself. Maybe a small knot at might develop for a couple of weeks. Some might have an allergic reaction, as they might to any shot they would as a child, or a flu shot. But overall, this has been a remarkable demonstration of the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine itself. In fact, it was stated at the Pentagon recently by Dr. Bailey that we are surprised that the reactions have been so small, because you normally would expect in any kind of a vaccine that you would have some reactions in far greater numbers. And so the reactions have been very minor in terms of the overall program.

So we think that, given the choice -- and I have mandated this -- that we cannot afford to put them in harm's way without adequate protection. And that's the reason I called for the program.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you very much for being here. Appreciate it. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

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