SEC. GATES: (Applause.) Thank you all for being here today, and for coming in on a Saturday. I have just a few remarks, and then I want to spend most of my time hearing your questions and your concerns. And then at the end, if it's all right with you, we'll do some individual pictures. And I want to give each of you a coin, and one for your spouse as well. And that'll give me an opportunity to thank each of you individually.
When we go to the Q&A, please feel free to speak your mind -- although in my experience in many meetings with military spouses, they don't need much encouragement to do that. (Laughter.)
And talking to military spouses has one thing in common with talking to my spouse of 43 years. And that is, I always come away from the conversation with a “to do” list. (Laughter.)
Most of all, I do want to say thank you. Thank you for all you do for your loved ones in uniform, the things -- (off mike). Many of you are running single-parent households while your spouse is deployed, or have done so in the past. And some of you have done it for many years. Families have served just as much -- families serve just as much as the soldier. And on the weekend after national spouse -- Military Spouses Day, I want you to know how much I understand and appreciate that.
I make it a priority to hear directly from military families, in part because I sometimes feel like I live in a parallel universe. I sit through these briefings at the Pentagon, where I learn all about these great things that the Department of Defense is doing when it comes to family programs. But when I visit a base or a post and actually talk to military families, I sometimes hear a different story.
As you know all too well, the U.S. military has been at war for nearly a decade -- the longest war with an all-volunteer force in the nation's history. With the strain put on America's soldiers and their families, we rely more than ever on the supportive communities that surround military posts. So I just also want to thank the people and civic leaders of Manhattan and the other nearby communities, for everything they do to help Fort Riley soldiers and families during these difficult times.
Now, before going to your questions, the question may arise in your mind: Do these things make any difference? And all I will tell you, I will give you one example. About two years ago, I was meeting with Army spouses at Fort Hood, and one of the spouses said to me, "Why can't a soldier share his VA education benefit with his spouse or children?" And I said, "You know, that sounds like a good idea." So I went back, and I told President Bush; he put it in his State of the Union Address; and it's now the law. And that's how you now have the ability for your soldier's VA benefit, education benefit, to be shared. It came from a spouse of an Army NCO. So, they do matter. And my to-do list has a way of getting done. (Laughter.)
So with that, I'll open it up and take whatever questions or concerns you have. Who will be the first intrepid soul? (Laughter.)
Q Back early in June we had the MyCAA program for spouses, which is a great -- great organization for spouses wanting to get education. We had problems with it -- shutting it down and not notifying us. They did make a commitment for us spouses that were already into that system. But my question is, have they opened it up for the rest of the spouses that have not been able to use it yet?
SEC. GATES: This is one of those programs that exceeded beyond our -- succeeded beyond our wildest imagination. And we had budgeted -- I can't remember -- either $61 (million dollars) or $65 million for it. And frankly, we just ran out of money. And we didn't handle the notifications very well but, as you say, we have reopened it.
What I will tell you is, we've been working on it, and it is my expectation -- as you say, those who are already in the program, it's been reactivated for them already. But for new applicants, we will -- we also think this is a great program. And for those of you who aren't familiar with it, it is -- it is funding provided for military spouses who go to college, or community college, or whatever is required in order to be licensed or get a certificate, whether it's as a realtor or a nurse or anything like that -- physical therapist, assistant -- jobs that are easily -- and professions that are in such demand that, as you move from post to post, your chances of getting a job are significant -- a good job -- are significantly enhanced.
So we've been looking at the program. And I would tell you that I'm going to have a couple more meetings on it this week, this coming week. But within the next week or two, I expect we will be able to reopen the program to new applicants. And we are looking at a budget somewhere on the order of $500 million to -- and we're going -- we're going to have to do some things in terms of some caps and some limits, to be able to help as many people as possible. But I expect within the next two weeks we'll reopen the program, with a substantial increase in the funding.
Q Mr. Secretary, first of all, I have to say how happy we are to have you in our midst.
Want to know, do we know yet, because this is definitely a new topic of things -- of changes that are in store for our country as far as health care is concerned, and we have a new health-care program that has just been passed. How is that going to affect both active duty but, more importantly, our retirees, as we get into that -- those ranks, as far as how is our health-care benefit going to change? Do we know yet, as far as that's concerned?
SEC. GATES: I'm pretty confident that there will be no change, in terms of active duty. And I think there's very little change for retirees, but I have to admit I'm not a hundred-percent sure on that one. But my understanding is very little change.
I think the one change that we -- that we make -- will make -- and again, don't hold me to this -- but I think one of the things that I've heard we may have to do, coming to conformity with the law, is the extension of the parents' benefit to a child until they're 26. So until -- and that's part of the health-care bill. And I think we're at that. But other than that, I don't think there's significant change.
Q Hi, Mr. Secretary. My name is Crystal Davis. And first I'd like to thank you for coming. It's definitely an honor to be here today.
I have a question about deployments. There's a rumor circulating that on September 1st, 2010, when Operation Iraqi Freedom changes to Operation New Dawn, that there will be a change in the pay structure and there will no longer be combat pays or hazard duty pay. I was just wondering if that's true.
SEC. GATES: That's the first I've heard of it. (Soft laughter.)
Q (Laughs.) Okay. (Off mike) – to hear that that is not true. (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: There may be somebody working on that, but it hasn't reached my level. And I will keep my eye out for it.
Q Okay. Thank you.
SEC. GATES: Yes, ma'am.
Q Mr. Secretary, first I'd like to thank you for your service. My question has to do more with behavioral health care. Is there any plans in the future to incorporate LPCs into practice along posts along with the LCSWs and licensed psychologists?
SEC. GATES: Now can you tell me what all those letters stand for? (Laughter.)
Q An LPC is a Masters-level licensed professional counselor. An LCSW is a Masters-level licensed clinical social worker. And then fully licensed psychologists are your Ph.D.-level people.
SEC. GATES: The honest answer to your question is, I don't know. I do know that the Army is working very hard to hire additional mental-health-care professionals and get them available as quickly as possible. And I would tell you that I don't think that General (George W.) Casey and General (Peter) Chiarelli spend more time on any issue than they do on this issue of mental health care, post-traumatic stress, PBI and the care of wounded warriors.
And part of the problem that we have is that there frankly aren't enough -- we have the money to hire more mental-health-care professionals, but they're not out there. And they are often not where our military posts are. And so figuring out how to get around those two obstacles is a challenge.
One of the things that I've asked our people to look into -- you know, we have this military medical program where we will pay for somebody to go to med school, and then they have an obligation to serve as a doctor in the military for a period of time after their -- after they get their degrees. And I've said, can we expand that to include mental-health-care professionals, and not necessarily people who go on to be psychiatrists, but people who are licensed counselors and therapists and so on.
And so we're looking into that, because we have a -- we have a huge demand problem, and we have a huge supply problem. And I think if we can feed into the supply -- and then I think that ends up being a huge benefit for the country, as a whole, over the long term, because we provide a lot more mental-health-care professionals to the country, then.
Q Thank you.
SEC. GATES: Yes, ma'am.
Q Thank you, sir. My question is kind of along the same lines. Three years ago, there was a movement in the Army to go over soldiers' records that had been chaptered out for misbehavior to see if it was actually related to traumatic brain injury or PTSD. Do you know if that is ongoing?
SEC. GATES: I -- again, I don't know. I will find out, then we'll get the answer back to you.
Q Good afternoon, sir. My name is Katie, and my son will begin kindergarten this August. And I'm very concerned that the schools around Fort Riley are both grossly overpopulated and under-resourced, and that my son and his classmates may not receive the attention that they need to succeed. Is there anything that your office can do to help us with that?
SEC. GATES: Actually, yes. I have some good news for you all. I was briefed on this problem of the schools here on post in preparation for this visit. And I've looked into it. And what I am about to say requires the approval of Congress, so, you know -- (laughter) -- get your e-mails ready. (Laughter.)
I have the money to fund an additional elementary school and to upgrade two elementary schools and the middle school here on post. I need to transfer it to the Education Department so that they can then spend it, and that requires congressional approval. But we will put that proposal forward on Monday in the hope we can get quick action and that, as soon as possible, work can begin to remedy one of the very unfortunate and bad situations here.
So thanks for your question. And I was prepared to answer that one. (Laughter, applause.)
Q Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My name is Sergeant Pergin, and I'm a dual-military spouse. And my -- it's not a question, more of a thank you. Since my husband and I have been both in, I've noticed that the dual-military side of the world, that it isn't really -- it's now being addressed more often and in better conditions. And I just wanted to say thank you.
SEC. GATES: I met -- well, thank you for saying that. I met with the parents of -- at Fort Belvoir, of the parent -- dual-military parents of a number of children. And they described to me some of the problems associated with that, and that when one parent gets transferred, then sometimes there's a challenge of whether -- of going from what might be a good school district into a poor school district, and does one parent stay behind to keep the child in the better school, and a variety of the other problems associated with that.
So we have been taking a look at all these problems associated with dual-soldier couples to see if we can't address some of those challenges.
Q Thanks. My question has to do with impact aid for the school districts. A lot of the states, and Kansas is one of them, do not distribute the impact aid directly back to the school district that has the military children in it. Is there something -- I know it's the state's decision, but is there something that you can do from Washington to encourage the states to give the impact aid directly back to the school districts that are affected?
SEC. GATES: Well, it sounds so logical, I'm certain that we can't get it fixed. (Laughter.) After all, it is Washington. (Laughter.) But let me look into it. I mean, it makes all kinds of sense. I mean, the impact aid is because we have soldiers and airmen and sailors and Marines in specific places. And the impact aid, it seems to me, ought to go back to -- go to where those -- where those children are.
Q (Off mike) -- 70 percent is being kept by the state -- (off mike) -- 30 percent goes back to the school district. So it's a huge -- (off mike)
SEC. GATES: I got the message. (Laughter.)
Q On that -- along the same lines, would it be possible to bring all the schools on all military posts back -- (off mike)? Some military posts have -- some military posts have DOD schools, and some do not, and we're a huge burden on the local economy. It would create a uniformity of experience and ease the transition for our children if they just were all DOD schools. (Applause.)
SEC. GATES: I've asked about this. And it's for more reasons than you just described. My interest in this was sparked at a -- at a meeting with military spouses where we were talking about the DODEA (Department of Defense Education Activity) schools and the difference between those and the local communities'.
And there were two things that stuck with me. One is the highly uneven quality of public school systems around the country. So some posts are fortunate enough to be in a place where they've got terrific public schools, and others have relatively poor public schools. So evening out the quality would be one reason.
But there's another, and that is that in a -- in an on-post school, the children are being taught by teachers who understand that the children they're teaching have a different set of pressures and a different set of stresses and different challenges than non-military children in community schools. And the children also have the benefit of being around other children who are going through the same thing they are and have some understanding themselves of what can be done -- or how these children ought to be treated and what their friends are going through.
The cost to move -- to recreate all of these schools on posts frankly is just completely prohibitive. I know that when I was president of Texas A&M, Houston owned -- built a new high school. It was a hundred-million-dollar high school.
And -- but what we have done is we do have money in the FY '11 budget to rebuild or refurbish virtually all of the existing DODEA schools. So we have several hundred million dollars in the budget. A lot of these schools don't meet standards of a variety of kinds. And so what we've done is, some of them we'll tear down and replace, and some of them we'll refurbish. But -- so the first step, I would say, in this is to -- is to get the schools we already have back in decent shape.
The other thing I've asked people to look at and to cost out and frankly haven't gotten an answer back yet is, at a minimum, whether we could provide elementary schools in the DODEA system on posts and bases -- at least the bigger posts and bases -- so that at least the kids get a good, strong start. And, as I say, I have no idea what the cost of that would be, but I have -- I do have some folks looking at it.
I understand the desire for this, and for all the reasons you've mentioned and that I've mentioned. And I think we're just going to have to take it a step at a time. The first step will be to fix the schools we've got, and the next is to explore this possibility, at least on some posts, of having elementary schools that would take care of all the children. And then we could maybe look at the next steps after that, but that's probably several years in the future.
Back in the corner.
Q Mr. Secretary, thank you for coming today to talk to our spouses. I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that we all understand that our schools are over-capacity and old schools here on post. But we have school districts in our area that have embraced our children and are Blue Ribbon awards schools, with everything else that's been going on. So I just wanted you to know that we do have the local community working with us. But the funding for these additional elementary and the additions and updates to the schools would be very helpful. But without that, those teachers and administrators are doing what they can to help our children.
SEC. GATES: Well, my hope in making that announcement was that it would give encouragement and hope to those teachers, and also to parents.
Q Mr. Secretary, I was wondering, what is the likelihood of the Army to adopt the policies of “courageous restraint”? Or will it continue to have the faith in the soldiers to go out and make the appropriate decision in -- some tough situations?
SEC. GATES: Tell me about courageous restraint.
Q It's my understanding that courageous restraint is to become a program where the soldiers are asked to think twice before taking that shot, to basically -- in my opinion, to second-guess a spur of the moment decision, and that there will be -- "courageous restraint" will be attached to an existing medal, currently.
SEC. GATES: I will tell you the first thing I heard about this was reading about it in the newspaper yesterday or the day before.
The first thing I'll tell you is that it is clear to every soldier in Afghanistan that he has every right to do whatever is necessary to protect himself. So if a soldier is under threat, he can do the appropriate thing.
Part of the -- part of the challenge is that -- and in Afghanistan is the -- is the problem of civilian casualties. And if we kill an innocent civilian, we recruit a family for the Taliban.
And there still will be accidents, and we are very cognizant -- General (Stanley) McChrystal more than anybody -- that the Taliban use civilians and put them in harm's way, to shield them and so on.
But it's one of these cases where frankly we've probably gone too far in the other direction and particularly for those who have served in Iraq. And so because of the nature of this counterinsurgency, it is just essential to limit the number of innocent civilians we kill as much as we possibly can if we're going to be successful in this fight.
And I think General McChrystal would tell you that while there is some additional risks at the front end of a counterinsurgency campaign, it actually reduces the risk over time, as you become more successful in winning over the local population, so that over time the soldiers are actually safer.
But there should be no mistake that every American soldier has the right to defend himself.
Q Hi. I -- (inaudible) -- you said before that we've been fighting this for a decade. Are we looking at Afghanistan as being another decade or -- I mean, is this ever going to end? I mean, I understand I signed up for the military, just as well as my husband, and I'm not complaining. I just would -- you know – maybe plan now every other year seeing him for the rest of our marriage? I mean, I don’t know -- (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I'd tell you that we're -- the first thing for us to do is to try and get the active force back to the one year deployed, two years at home. And with the drawdown going on in Iraq, I think General Casey believes that the Army will be able to get close to that sometime in 2011, mid-to the latter part of 2011.
That's -- that's for units. And the problem that we wrestle with are the individual soldiers who are in high-demand, low-density jobs, some of those whose skill sets are in short supply and they're needed so badly. And so trying to figure out how to give those guys, men and women, relief is obviously important for us as well as the units. So the first thing is to get to where we need to be on dwell time.
In terms of the wars, you know, I think: Who would have thought -- I became secretary in December 2006, when things were in pretty bad shape in Iraq. And who would have thought that a little over three years later we'd be on our way out, and with our heads held high?
The president has announced -- and he doesn't want the country to be engaged in Afghanistan forever either. And frankly one of the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan is that the Iraqis want us out as quickly as possible.
There are certain elements in Afghanistan who probably would like for us to stay there forever. They live in a rough neighborhood, and it's a lot better to have the American Army protecting you than rely on your own army, which is one of the reasons why I agreed with the president's decision to announce that beginning in July of '11, we would begin bringing some troops home and that it would be conditions-based in terms of the pacing and so on.
But I would say that we are going to be engaged in Afghanistan, probably for several more years.
And I would tell you that the world is different, and different than any we have ever experienced. One of the things that we talk about is the -- is the likelihood that, as we look into the future and the different kinds of security challenges we're going to face, we think that it's likely that there will be somewhere between five and 10 brigade combat teams deployed more or less regularly for as far into the future as we can see. Now that's out of 70-some BCTs.
So -- I mean, General Casey, if he had his way, would get to one year at home, three years -- I mean one year deployed, three years at home. (Soft laughter.) The cost of that -- the cost of that is pretty high, but you need to know where his head is on that issue.
But if we -- right now we have the equivalent of about 25 brigades deployed, and so what I'm talking about is something -- a fifth or so, like that. So that obviously would mean a great deal more time at home for soldiers.
But I think we'll -- the numbers will start coming down in Afghanistan the middle of next year. I think it will not -- they will not come down really fast, at least initially. But there are all kinds of things going on, and who knows? It could be a lot sooner, because if -- let me tell you, nobody's more tired of fighting and killing than the Afghans. They've been at this for 30 years, and they just want to live in peace.
And they hate the Taliban. Every poll we have shows the Taliban have support of maybe 10 percent of the population, but they're incredibly ruthless. And you step out and you accept the farm aid to start growing wheat instead of poppies, the Taliban come in and kill you and your family and so on.
So it's still going to be a tough fight, but I think in terms of the time of your soldiers at home and time in between deployments is only going to grow beginning probably in early 2011.
Q This question or comment involves adolescents in -- so -- regarding behavior; you mentioned health-care for them. I have a son who has Asperger Syndrome and about one in 110 children across the U.S. are now on the autistic spectrum, and one of the things that I found that's been challenging is providing for their -- getting medical support for them. A lot of it comes out of your own pocket as well as getting on a health plan. We were in the D.C. area in '07 to '08 and I was not able to find a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist in the whole D.C. area that was -- that TRICARE would cover that my son could see, so we ended up paying for a counselor -- (inaudible) -- service off-base or -- away, and we were waiting about six to eight weeks to have a GTC with a pediatric psychiatrist at Walter Reed.
So my comment would be to see if we could have greater awareness among the medical professionals in the military as well as greater support in services, particularly for the adolescents. We do have a program called -- (inaudible) -- and that really focuses a lot on younger children and providing the ability to diagnose different forms of autism, as well as providing -- (inaudible) -- service so that when they get into high school -- as we all know, the challenges are so great for military kids with their dads and moms away a lot, that is an extra burden and challenge for both the parent at home, as well as the child to try to fit in, but also to figure out life.
And if we could increase, I guess, the support that we would have on the actual locations, as well as the funding that we would help them with and mental health-care as well, we think that that would be something that could help Army families see more results.
SEC. GATES: Thank you. We can certainly look into the funding issue under TRICARE. We have a new under secretary for personnel and readiness. And one of the reasons we do is that I would receive these briefings at the Pentagon about the extraordinarily high level of customer satisfaction with TRICARE and I would get, shall we say, a different picture talking to real people, people who have actually used TRICARE. (Laughter.) And so one of the things -- this is one of the -- the quality of service from TRICARE is something we need to need address.
I remember two or three years ago there was an article in The Wall Street Journal, front page article about a doctor in Ohio who had been a TRICARE doctor for 10 years and was quitting TRICARE, was not going to have TRICARE patients anymore. And he said it was because of the incredible bureaucracy involved and all the paperwork and the delays in getting reimbursed and various other things.
So I sent that article down to the PNR and I said, what about this? And the briefers came back and said, well, we had a lot of online tools that would provide the doctor with a lot of shortcuts and that would allow him to cut through a lot of that. And I said doesn't it seem a little strange to you that a doctor who has been working with TRICARE for 10 years hasn't got a clue that you have those tools?
So this goes back to a point that I made earlier about military families in my remark at the beginning. We have a lot of great programs, I'm just not satisfied we have enough programs to inform people of what's available and to keep it current and to make it easily accessible.
One of the military spouses -- and I can't remember what post it was at -- said, you know, every soldier when they sign up they have to take their spouse to get an ID card for medical care and everything else. He said that would be the place to provide a pamphlet or something that shows all the programs that are available. And what's more, when a soldier signs into a new post, he or she doesn't have take their spouse at that point, but if you required them to do so, then they would find out what exactly was available at that post that might be better or have something different from elsewhere.
So we're still working on that. But the second problem that you've identified is one that is, I think, a real issue for us and particularly in places like Fort Riley and Fort Campbell and some others that are some distance from a big city, and that is the availability of specialists and, frankly, doctors who are willing to take TRICARE. And a lot of doctors even around military posts will limit their practice to 10 (percent) or 15 percent on TRICARE. And so once they reach that level, they'll say, okay, no more new patients under TRICARE.
And so one of the things we've got to address and figure out is how do we make through TRICARE and through our own facilities and everything else, how do we make some of the specialists that aren't necessarily in the military medical system more available to our parents who have kids that have specialized problems and those are the kinds of issues that I want the new under secretary to pay attention to.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Just to touch on TRICARE itself. I had surgery back in November and suffered from chronic pain due to the surgery. And under TRICARE, certain things that would be helpful are not covered as far as chiropractics and acupuncture.
I had tried everything that the doctors had told me as far as medications, injections and everything, and those don't work, but that is all that TRICARE covers. TRICARE only covers medications, injections and they're very painful. But nothing that would be helpful that has been helpful in the past as far as the chiropractics, the acupuncture and the massage is covered under TRICARE and all those are extremely expensive especially in this area where those kind of specialists are not readily available. And I was just wondering if there's anything in the future that can be done about incorporating those into TRICARE, at least chiropractics because chiropractics are starting to become more accepted in the medical community.
SEC. GATES: I'll ask. I don't know. I will tell you, you're talking about acupuncture, for example. We have an experimental unit, and I can't remember whether it was at Fort Bliss or Fort Hood, treating soldiers with PTS and using a number of unorthodox approaches, including aromatherapy, acupuncture, things like that, that really are getting some serious results and so maybe we can throw that into the hopper as well.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I've been married 17 years to my soldier who is presently deployed and I got my U.S. citizenship five years ago. When my husband was first deployed, my daughter -- (inaudible). She applied for a green card. She has been there four years and there's still a waiting list from July '03 for her to get her green card. Now, although she has a 10-year passport, will she get a green card before her passport runs out?
SEC. GATES: I don't know. That's all done under the Department of Homeland Security, but give one of my colleagues at the back of the room your name and contact information, and we'll see what we can find out.
Q Good afternoon. I appreciate you taking the time to visit with us.
First of all, I want to say thank you for any part you had in Executive Order 13473, the military spouse hiring preference. I work in civilian resources here on post, I'm a DOD employee also. We have been trying to get the word out to spouses about this program, but we don't have any jobs. (Laughter.) We have a lot of people come in and they're like, you know, I can't get an interview for the mailroom, let alone, you know, my education degree and things like that.
Do you foresee the civilian side of DOD starting to hire again so we can get these spouses jobs? I mean, we travel the country with our soldiers and a lot of us want to be working and there just aren't jobs on post available.
SEC. GATES: One of the things that we're trying to do is convert contractor jobs into full-time DOD jobs. In the acquisition world we'll do over the next two or three years, we will convert 10,000 contractor jobs to full-time DOD jobs and we will hire another 10,000 acquisition people.
We're also in the process of converting a lot of professional services and management support jobs from contractors to civilians. And those, we are -- the acquisition side is mostly in Washington, but not entirely. But the management support and that sort of thing I think is probably spread all over the country and as we go through that, there may be some additional jobs made available.
But that converging process is probably the primary area of where there might be some additional jobs, but I can't honestly promise that there will be a lot of new jobs on various different posts. Probably depends a lot on the location.
You get the last question.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary for coming to Kansas today to meet with us.
I have a follow-on question, I think Ms. Wesley's question, as it pertains to travel regulation for reimbursement for medical travel. As you mentioned, we are somewhat geographically separated from the largest cities that would provide some of the specialty medical care that we have, but the limit for the rule is that you have to be outside about a 50-mile radius for your medical care. And I understand that except for the fact that when you may have to go to Topeka, you know, five days out of the week and the current drugs are -- (inaudible) -- come to Manhattan often enough to keep up with the schedule that you need.
So your total miles far exceed the trip to Kansas City for one doctor's appointment, but you get no reimbursement for that medical trip.
SEC. GATES: Let me ask our folks to look into it and see what's going on. They're making a number of -- there are a number of changes in the wind in terms of spouse support. One of those, for example, is -- that is being worked on is if your soldier is wounded and needs long-term care for the spouse who is to be the primary caregiver and be paid as the primary caregiver rather than having them quit a job and then take care of the soldier.
So we are looking at a number of these different areas to see where we might be able to give greater support. I've heard this concern before and I heard it at Fort Campbell from a woman who had to take her child a great distance to see a specialist -- that goes back to the question that was asked over here. So let's look into it.
Thank you all very much. Let's get some pictures. (Applause.)
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