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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen from Fort Jackson, S.C.

Presenters: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen from Fort Jackson, S.C.
February 28, 1997 11:00 AM EDT
Secretary Cohen: Thank you very much, General.

Eighty years ago Fort Jackson started turning civilians into soldiers for deployment to Europe during World War I. Today Fort Jackson is the largest base training facility in the Army. It creates soldiers who will protect America's interests all over the world.

I've mentioned this on several occasions, but I've addressed Congress on this as well, that my top priorities are people, readiness, and modernization -- and good training is key to all three. We have to recruit the best people we possibly can and to train them to be the best that they can possibly be. A well trained force is a ready force, so we have to equip our troops with modern weapons. But even the best weapons won't be good enough unless we have the people who are well trained to use them. So training helps make our military the best in the world, and Fort Jackson provides superb training for a cross-section of the Army. Recruits, recruiters, clerks, and chaplains, drill sergeants, and heavy vehicle mechanics. The people of South Carolina gave the Army the land for Fort Jackson because it was simply too sandy to grow crops, but the land is just right for growing great soldiers.

So it's been my pleasure to spend the morning here, to get a briefing, to see the quality of the young people who are coming into our service. I must say that I was enormously impressed with the people who were coming in, but more importantly, the people that we're producing -- those who are leaving. In just a very brief period of time they go from really raw recruits into mature, self-confident and brave and courageous young men and women. So this is something we can all be proud of, and I am very proud to be serving as Secretary of Defense so that I can help lead the country in restoring a consensus for the need for a strong, bipartisan military that will be fit to fight for the future.

With that, ladies and gentlemen, I'll entertain your questions.

Q: A new poll out by AP this morning indicated that 40 percent of the American people believe that sexual harassment can be weeded out from the military, and 55 percent think that it's deeply ingrained. What is your reaction to that?

A: I think the polls are good for the time in which they're taken. As a former politician and elevated -- by the general -- to statesman level, I can tell you my experience with polling is it, number one, depends on how you ask the question; number two, it depends upon the circumstances that are prevalent at the time; and if you have a series of bad headlines, that can have an immediate impact upon the questionnaire and how it's phrased and how it's going to be responded to. So polls are important, but they're only important for the day in which they're taken.

I think the Army has taken this issue on very aggressively. They are trying to get out in front of the issue. They are dealing with it, I think, in a very proactive fashion. I believe you'll see it turning around the polls. Those polls also indicate that the military still enjoys a very high reputation throughout our country. So if there's a problem, the best way to deal with the problem is to fix it. I believe, in talking to the leaders that I've been talking to in the past several weeks, and here again today, that we are, in fact, determined to fix the problem.

We had similar problems dealing with drug abuse in years past. We've had similar problems dealing with racial discrimination. We have fixed those problems as well. We will fix this problem, I'm confident of that.

Q: How well do you think integrated training is going?

A: How's that?

Q: How well do you think integrated training is working?

A: Well, again, my opportunity to observe this has been quite limited, but what I have witnessed today, it seems to be working quite well. I know that the issue has become controversial in Congress. Certainly people are raising a question as to whether we ought to continue. My position is I'm open to any suggestions, and always will try to keep an open mind on this, but I have to be persuaded there's compelling evidence as to why integrated training should not be continued. I think the Army has been dealing with this in an admirable fashion. I believe we should defer, certainly, to the military services in the first instance as to what their best judgment is, how they can produce the best force that this country is entitled to. In order to overrule that particular judgment, I'd have to have certainly some pretty compelling evidence that it's not working and needs to be changed. I'll keep an open mind, but I think what I've seen is it's working well here. In talking to some of the young recruits, they seem satisfied that they would like to see that continue. That separate or segregated training is not something they think will be beneficial to them.

So I think we can deal with the problem that has been raised as far as harassment is concerned. Harassment is totally inconsistent with the values that our military is promoting, and that is of integrity and equality, and it contravenes every notion that we have about those principles.

So the Army's going to deal with this, and we will deal with it in other services as well. Harassment has no place in our military, and we will deal with it effectively.


Q: What concerns you most about the state of gender relations in the military right now?

A: Well, I think the issue that has been raised as far as gender relations has been promoted, or I would say raised intensely by the harassment charges. We need to find out how deeply ingrained -- if it is deeply ingrained -- it is. We need to find out whether or not it is confined to specific installations or facilities or whether it's more endemic. I don't think we know the answers to that yet. So if it's a problem, we want to know how deep that problem goes, and if we find it is deeply ingrained, then we have to take a lot of very aggressive measures to correct it.

But I'm satisfied that the Army has responded in the appropriate fashion. Namely, we don't know the answer to how serious the problem is. It may be isolated. It may be a generic problem. We don't know at this point. But we are determined to deal with it, and I think that is the approach that the Army has taken; and with that kind of leadership, I am confident that we can deal with the problem.

Q: You mentioned the quality of recruits. It came out a couple of days ago that the quality was actually down, more recruits that have not graduated high school, and are doing worse on some of the tests. Any plan to address that? Do you see that as a serious problem?

A: It's a problem, certainly, to look at. It is not a serious problem at this point. There is some decrease in the level of high school graduates who are now coming into the Army, but nothing that would certainly reach crisis proportions by any means. I think there is a way to reverse that. The factors involved have to do with a wide variety of opportunities for young people today, and the greater those opportunities, then obviously it becomes that much harder to get the best and the brightest people into the services.

So with the Army being aware that there's been a slight decrease in the numbers of high school graduates coming into the service, they will make recommendations in terms of ways in which we can try to increase opportunities, be they in the way of enlistment bonuses or other types of specialties, and graduate school opportunities or college opportunities that we can provide more funding for.

So I think as long as you recognize there is a problem, that there are ways to fix it, and given the kind of leadership we have here, I'm satisfied we will.

Q: When will you meet with the President about what you found in your initial visits to the different installations?

A: Well I meet with the President periodically. I was with him just two nights ago, as a matter of fact. We didn't discuss this issue, but I plan to meet at least twice a month with the President one-on-one to discuss issues that I think are important. I also provide him with a briefing of my activities for the week. Each and every week I give him a briefing in writing. He reads those briefings, in fact called me last week on issues that I raised with him. So this will be included in the report that I will file... Well, late tonight or early tomorrow he'll have it in his hands about the benefit of what I've observed here today. I expect to stay in close touch with him on these issues.

Thank you very much.

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