SEC. GATES: It somehow seems fitting that here on June 6th, on D Day because of the role, the historic role that the 101st played then and has played ever since. The Fourth of 101st has made as big a contribution and sacrificed as much, I think, as any unit around. A 15-month tour in Iraq; here in 2008; coming here last August, 17 of your comrades paid the ultimate tribute, made the ultimate sacrifice. And I just wanted to come out here and thank you personally for what you've done, for what you've endured. I'll say more about that in a minute.
I know how much you enjoy standing around in the sun, so let's go directly to see if there are a handful of questions I can answer, and then we'll get on with this.
The main purpose here is to shake hands with each and every one of you, get a photograph and give you a coin so that I can thank each of you personally. And with any luck, as we take the pictures, you'll take your sunglasses off so I can, in fact, look you in the eye.
So with that, does any intrepid soul want to ask the first question? Yes, ma'am?
Q: (Inaudible.) As you know, the 101st is the first -- (inaudible) -- female engagement team. You know, we've been very successful out on the battlefield. My question to you, sir, is what is the female engagement team hold -- (inaudible) -- as far as training and funding for further training for female engagement teams?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- actually, I heard a complaint about this from one of the female soldiers a couple of years ago that they were going out with regular foot patrols to engage with Afghan women and so on. But because women weren't allowed in combat, they weren't getting combat training even though they were as much in the fight on those engagement teams as they can be.
So I think -- I can't say we've made a lot of progress in that respect, but I think your question reminds me to push the issue when I get back because it doesn't seem right -- I mean, we have a difference between the doctrine and the reality. And the reality is we've got a lot of women going out with our foot patrols, and they need to have the proper training when they're going to do that.
Q: Sir -- (inaudible). Since the death of Osama bin Laden, has the military strategy changed at all? And if so, how do the changes affect -- (inaudible)?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that it's too early to tell what the impact of bin Laden's death is on the situation here in Afghanistan. I think we'll have a better idea of that by the end of the year. I think the one potential benefit is that bin Laden and Mullah Omar were very close personally.
If I were Taliban, I would often be asking what did al-Qaida ever do for me except get me kicked out of Afghanistan? So my hope is that, if we can keep the military pressure on through the remainder of this year, keep what we've captured from these guys in the south, keep disrupting them as you are up here and they see that they are not going to win, that that then creates the opportunity for a political reconciliation in the future because one of the redlines for both the Afghan government and the coalition is that the Taliban have to renounce any connection or support for al-Qaida. That's not the only one, but it's an important one.
But I think, you know, it's a month since bin Laden was killed. So I think it's really just too early to know what the impact will be at this point. There is no change in the mission that was set forth by the president in December of 2009. We are still on track and, frankly, making a lot of progress in breaking the momentum of the Taliban, denying them control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities, enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces and going after al-Qaida.
I think we've made tremendous strides in all of those areas in the last 15 to 18 months, but my view is we've got to keep the pressure on. We're not quite there yet.
SEC. GATES: I don't know the answer to that, but we'll get you an answer. It sounds like a reasonable question.
Q: (Inaudible) -- 112th Engineer Battalion. Going forward, sir, looking at the reserve and National Guard, what do you see for future missions?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that one of the things that I actually talked to President Bush about when he interviewed me for this job at the end of October 2006 was my concern that we'd, after 9/11, pulled kind of a bait-and-switch on the Guard and Reserve; that what had always been a strategic reserve quickly had become an operational reserve.
So people who signed up thinking they would do monthly meetings and summer training and be called up for national disasters or great national crises found themselves being deployed, ultimately, for 15 months in the field.
So I mean, the reality is everybody who's joined the Guard and reserve since 9/11 has known they were going into the fight. I think one of the questions going forward -- this is one of the big issues we're looking at as we look to the '12, '13 budgets and beyond is what is the right role of the Guard and Reserve going forward.
Do we divide the Guard and Reserve and have a strategic reserve, and the people who are in the strategic reserve are trained and paid and equipped in one way, and those who are in the operational Guard or Reserve are trained, equipped and paid in a different way? Do we take more of our heavy infantry battalions, brigades, and move those into the Guard?
So these are all questions that we're looking at, but I think we need to do some hard thinking because we could not have done what we did in Iraq and do what we're doing here in Afghanistan without the operational engagement of the Guard. So I think whatever happens going forward, the Guard is going to continue to have an operational role. How much of the Guard that involves and how we situate the Guard and reserve going forward, I think, is still a question that everybody is looking at.
Anybody else? Yes?
Q: (Inaudible) -- anything we can do to get you to sign up for another hitch? (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: I'm sorry. I didn't hear that. (Laughter.)
Q: (Inaudible) -- we'd love to have you stick around.
SEC. GATES: Well, that kind of cues me for the one thing I wanted to say before we do the coins and stuff. First of all, thanks for that. But I really did want to come out here and thank you one last time for your service and your sacrifice. Probably more than anybody accept the president himself, I'm responsible for you being here. I'm the guy that signed the deployment orders that sent you here.
That has weighed on me every day that I've had this job for four and a half years. And so I've taken it as my personal responsibility to make sure that you had what you need to accomplish your mission, to come home safe and, if you get hurt, to be medevaced as quickly as possible and get the best possible care.
I think about all of you every moment of every day. I feel your hardship, your sacrifice and your burden more than you can possibly imagine -- and that of your families as well. I think you're the best America has to offer. My admiration and affection for you is without limit. And each and every one of you will be in my prayers every day for the rest of my life.
Thank you. (Applause.)
Moderator : Let's do some photos.