GROUP: (In unison.) Hoo-ah!
STAFF: Outstanding. Outstanding. Hey, we’ve got a great opportunity today. We’ve got a great guest who has honored us here for us today that’s visiting us.
I’m looking forward to this event for a while just because you have the opportunity to recognize what you have done from one of our senior leaders. For 20 years our guest speaker has served our nation honorably. He’s done some great things for our military - (inaudible) - for our military family. He’s recognized throughout the world. You know, and there’s a lot of wonderful things that he’s done for each and every one of us.
And every one of us in this formation right now and everyone in this country right now serving has been able to feel the great things that our guest speaker has done for us today, for us in his career for 20 years.
And I would say that the strength of our division is our soldiers and what they do for us, their vigor, their discipline, their commitment. We can also say the same thing about our guest speaker on being the strength of our nation and giving that same vigor and commitment to all of us.
It’s wonderful to have the leadership that we have up at the senior levels. And I appreciate everything that they do. And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce the 22nd Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, the Honorable Robert M. Gates.
Group, attention! On the command of fall out, muster around me.
SEC. GATES: This is the high point of my trip. I appreciate you all taking the time. I realize that it probability wasn’t necessarily voluntary. And I hopefully didn’t have you standing out here in the sun too long. But it is good to be with the 2-1 Advise and Assist Brigade, the Dagger Brigade, deployed from my own state of Kansas five months ago.
This is the brigade’s fifth deployment to Iraq - or the fourth deployment, I’m sorry. And I met you during your first one in the spring of 2007 during the surge. This brigade lost 100 soldiers during the surge.
But the difference that you and those like you have made in this country is evident around you every single day, going from establishing the joint security sections, which I visited in Baghdad in 2007, to now the advise and assist role marks the progress that you and those who have sacrificed so much have brought about. This has been an extraordinary success story for the United States’ military and all of the services, but clearly the Army and the Marine Corps have done the most.
It’s almost five years since I came to Iraq the first time in September, 2006. And when I first came here as secretary in late December 2006, and gave my first press conference in front of the JVB [joint visitors’ bureau], there was a firefight going on in the background. And so the difference that you have made is just night and day and I thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
My highest priority in the nearly four and a half years I’ve had this job is to get you what you need to complete your mission and come home safely - from MRAPs [mine resistant ambush protected vehicle], to ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and medevac and more. But you’re the ones that have actually done the job.
I don’t know how many trips I’ve made to Iraq. It’s maybe 14, something like that. And this will probably be my last one and I just wanted to come and say thank you and tell you that working with you all has been the greatest privilege and the greatest honor of my life.
So, with that, we’ll get on to the serious business which is if any of you have any questions, we’ll do a little Q&A here, see which intrepid souls are willing to actually venture forth and ask a question. And then the most important thing and my main reason for coming here is to get a picture with each and every one of you and be able to tell you individually thanks and to give you a coin.
So, with that, anybody got a question? Yes?
Q: Sir, Specialist - (off mic.). How do you see the possible government shutdown affecting military pay?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, let me say you will be paid.
TROOPS: (In unison.) Hoo-ah!
SEC. GATES: I always - as a historian, it always occurred to me that the smart thing for government was always to pay the guys with guns first. But in all seriousness, if the - based on some stuff I read this morning, if the government shutdown starts on the 8th and goes for a week, you’d get a half a check. If it goes from the 15th to the 30th, you wouldn’t get a paycheck on the 30th, but you would be back paid for all of it. So that’s the deal.
And, frankly, I remember when I was your age I did a lot of living from paycheck to paycheck. And so, I hope this thing doesn’t happen because I know it will be an inconvenience for a lot of troops.
Q: Sir, Specialist (off mic), 25th ID [infantry division]. There’s a lot of regional unrest in the area and there’s concerns that it opens up the door for Sunni extremists and Shi’a militants to create governments that are sympathetic to their causes - (inaudible) - to train and operate there in their country to possibly conduct attacks on America. What are we doing to aid those governments to prevent the spread of extremism, sir?
SEC. GATES: Well, a good example of that is the unrest in Yemen which has really eased up the pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And it’s also a concern that the internal security services in many of these countries have turned to their internal problems rather than the broader CT [counterterrorism] mission.
We will continue our efforts to work with these guys. We have all of our assets at work on the CT problem. I think our government is pulling together as well as we ever have in the CT mission. There’s still a lot of important partners in the CT mission here in the region and we are continuing to work very closely with them.
I will tell you from my conversations with Field Marshal Tantawi in Egypt and my talks elsewhere, they are very mindful of the risks of extremists taking advantage of these circumstances and are determined to avoid allowing extremists to take advantage of these revolutionary changes that are underway in a number of these countries.
But we have to keep our eye on it very closely because I think it is a period, while all these changes are taking place, where extremists probably will try and take advantage, including Iran. And we just have to keep our eyes open and continue working closely with our partners here in the region to make sure these guys don’t get a free ride.
Q: (Inaudible) - a few weeks ago, sir, I read that our contract might be extended past 2011. Any word on that, sir?
SEC. GATES: In terms of our military presence here?
Q: Yes, sir.
SEC. GATES: That’s basically a decision for the Iraqi government to make. We are willing to have a presence beyond that time, but we’ve got a lot of commitments around the world. You may be aware of what’s going on in Libya, but very few people are aware we’ve got 19 ships and about 18,000 service men and women helping on the Japanese relief effort.
So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we’re going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning and our ability to figure out where we get the forces and what kind of forces we need here and what specifically the mission they want us to do is.
I think there is interest in having a continuing presence, but the politics are such we’ll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis.
Q: Sir - Capt. Wrigley, 25th ID. Probably the most promising thing I’ve seen you paying attention to recently was re-looking the way we evaluate some of our leaders, but also seeing that you’ve said that it may be the Army’s greatest challenge. What obstacles do we face and when can we start seeing a change effected there?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that - what you’re referring to is I gave a speech at West Point and I talked about both this war and the war in Afghanistan essentially being the captains’ wars - that these are fundamentally small-unit wars. We’re not dealing with hordes in the field or divisions in the field but at the largest, the brigade, and a lot of things at the battalion, the company and the platoon level.
And so a lot of younger officers, company grade officers, and NCOs for that matter, have been given a lot of responsibility, a lot of independence, a lot of freedom to innovate, to do new things, to do things differently, to deal with a whole range of issues, whether it’s everything from shooting the enemy to holding village shuras or building moats or 100 other thing like that.
And what I talked about at West Point was my worry about what happens when guys and women who have been given that kind of freedom and that kind of opportunity come back and end up in a closet in the Pentagon preparing PowerPoint slides. And how is the Army going to challenge people who have had that kind of experience to stay in the Army? And some of the things that I talked about is increased opportunities to go back to school, to get a degree or a graduate degree - maybe to teach at one of the service schools, but give you a variety of experiences so that you’re just not plopped back down into a cubbyhole somewhere in the Pentagon where you don’t know whether it’s night or day.
And so that’s my concern and, frankly, I said in that speech that that prospect terrified me because we have now the most battle-hardened - the senior military guys would tell you the best military we have ever had, and I’d hate to see us squander it after we’re out of active combat by not having innovative, open-minded personnel policies that take advantage of the experiences that you all have had in places like Iraq.
Q: Hello, sir. First off, thanks for coming. I’m Spec. Bennett of Bravo Troop, 2nd 116th. With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” when will that take effect and what role do you see that playing in the United States military?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all we’re in the process of training all of the services. We’re basically doing it in three phases. The first is getting the regulations right and the policies written right. The second, preparing the training materials. And then third, carrying out the training itself.
The training itself is divided into three parts. First, training the experts - the personnel people, the human resources people, the chaplains and folks like that - counselors. Second is training the commanders. And then third, training the force. Virtually everybody has completed the first two of these phases, so we are now in the process of beginning to train the force.
And my guess is, you won’t see much change at all because the whole thrust of the training is you’re supposed to go on treating everybody like you’re supposed to be treating everybody now - with dignity, respect, and discipline. And the same kind of military discipline that applies to - and regulations that apply to heterosexual relationships will apply in terms of homosexual relationships. Same thing in terms of uniforms. In terms of benefits, there are no special benefits. There won’t be a protected class, if you will.
So the responsibility is basically going to be to treat each other the way you ought to be treating each other right now. I mean, the truth is we’ve made a lot of change in the military over the years and admitted women into the military a long time ago and we still have a big problem in the military with sexual assault. So as I say, the same rules you’re supposed to be living by now, will be the same rules you’ll be living by in the future. And that’s the way it ought to be.
STAFF: We probably have time for one more, two more.
SEC. GATES: Okay. Yes.
Q: Thank you for coming, Mr. Secretary. Staff Sgt. Minnow, Bravo Troop, 2-116. My question is kind of a follow-on to that. As women have been filling a more active role in combat situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, do you see a likelihood in the next possibly five, 10, 15 years of women actually serving combat MOS's [military occupational specialty]?
SEC. GATES: I think you’ve put your finger on something that’s key, and that’s combat MOS's, because the truth is women have been serving in combat already. And I had some women complain to me in Afghanistan that because of the rules in terms of searching Afghan women and so on, a lot of combat patrols would take women soldiers along with them. And their complaint was because they’re not in a combat MOS, they haven’t had combat training, but they’re on a combat patrol.
So, you know, there’s a certain contradiction there and frankly the policy hasn’t caught up to the reality in some respects. I’m confident that this is an area that is going to change. Time scale of the change, I have no idea. We’re just starting out with putting women on submarines. That will be a learning process. I think they’re doing it smart and cleverly and carefully, and my guess is we’ll do the same thing with respect to women in combat. But I think the first place it has to start is with the reality that in a lot of places we’re already there.
One more. Yes?
Q: (Inaudible) - 299. You mentioned earlier the situation in Libya. Do you see any repercussions coming here from the situation in Libya, or just the unrest that’s been in the Middle East with the protests in these other countries?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that I don’t see any repercussions from Libya coming here, partly because there’s such broad Arab support for what’s being done in Libya. I do think that the situation in Bahrain has created some stress here in Iraq because of sympathy for their fellow Shi’a. And we’ll be talking about that with the prime minister and president, I am sure, in meetings later today.
But I think in terms of the broader disputes and turmoil going on around the region, in a way it’s a measure of what you and the Iraqis have achieved that Iraq is already where a lot of these other countries want to be. And that is having elections - having fair elections where anybody can run, having people from multiple sectarian groups run, and then having a pretty good democratic government with political and human rights.
So Iraq, in their respects, thanks to the efforts of a lot of people and a lot of blood and treasure, in some respects is a model in terms of where the rest of these guys want to go. And Iraq can be a help to them, I think, in that respect. But in terms of blowback from Libya and so on, I don’t see much.
So let’s get some pictures and hand out some coins.