SEC. GATES: Well, I know you all haven't necessarily volunteered to be here this afternoon. I appreciate your standing out in the sun. And I want to recognize the Fourth of the 10th. You guys have put in an amazing record over the last five years; 2006 in Afghanistan, 2007 to 09 in Iraq, and then last October coming back here; had a tough deployment. Last information I have, you've lost 27 of your comrades, had about 255 wounded. So you've been in the thick of the fight. I want to stress my appreciation to you for that. 54th Engineering Battalion, thank you for what you do in supporting all these FOBs and COPs and all the efforts that you put in. The 2nd and the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Nighthawk, I appreciate what you all do too.
The main purpose for my visit here is to just visit you and say thank you for everything you've done, give you a chance to ask a few questions. I have a feeling that will be abbreviated, since everybody's enjoying standing out in the sun. And then we'll get some -- I'll say something else, and then I'd like to get a picture and shake the hand of everybody individually and get a photograph; give each of you a coin, just a small token of my appreciation for what you've done.
But -- and by the way, when we take the pictures, because I want to look you in the eye and thank you, if, as you come up to get your picture taken, you'd shed the shades, I'd appreciate that too. And I'll take mine off. I promise.
So with that, do we have an intrepid soul that would like to ask a question? Yes, sir.
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: First of all, I think that -- first of all, my judgment would be that any change in military retirement is not going to happen until after we've drawn down here in Afghanistan. I think nobody's going to take any actions that are seen by the troops as a negative action while we're still heavily in the fight.
I would also tell you that I think any effort to change the retirement will be politically very controversial and be a protracted fight. I think -- I would wager a lot of money that the only way they could ever get it passed would be to grandfather it so that nobody who is now in the active force would be affected.
But I would tell you, there are two things that we need to fix as I look ahead over the next few years about the retirement system. Between 70 (percent) and 80 percent of the force doesn't stay in long enough to retire. And so if you leave with five years or 10 years, you get nothing. And that doesn't seem right to me. So figuring out a way, whether it's adapting some kind of a civilian 401k or something that you and the government would contribute to that you could roll over when you go into civilian life so you have something when you leave after five or 10 or a dozen years seems to me an inequity that needs to be addressed.
The second is we give somebody who approaches 20 years -- so let's say a sergeant first class or a lieutenant colonel -- they're at the peak of their capability, we've invested a huge amount in bringing them to the level of capability that they have, and then we make it financially silly for them not to retire. And so it seems to me that ought to figure out a way to incentivize people to stay beyond 20 and particularly in those areas where we have needs.
And let's just take my 401k idea. So maybe the application of that -- by the way, this is all off the top of my head, so I fundamentally don't know what I'm talking about -- (laughter) -- but since I only have three and a half weeks to go, I don't really care. (Laughter.) But let's just say it's some kind of 401k thing. So maybe at 20 years, the government puts all the contribution in; or maybe after 15 years, the percentage of the government contribution compared to the soldier's contribution begins to grow every single year so there's a significant financial incentive for staying beyond 20.
So I don't know how -- what the right answer is to all of this, but those are a couple of problems that I think need to be addressed long term. And I told our people doing this budget stuff not to count on any savings from things like retirement for at least two or three years, because I think this is going -- any change at all will be a long and protracted battle in the Congress.
Q: Good afternoon, sir. Sergeant -- (name inaudible) -- from the -- (inaudible) -- Battalion. One of my soldiers explained that he had aspirations to be secretary of defense. I just want to know what advice you would give him -- (off mic).
SEC. GATES: Don't. (Laughter.) Or if he is, move his office somewhere outside of Washington. (Laughter.)
Q: Yes, sir -- (name inaudible). You are retiring. My question is, what do you think the greater impact on the will be (inaudible) coming out of the war in Iraq or -- (off mic)?
SEC. GATES: Well, I'll tell you, the thing that -- the thing that matters the most to me, frankly, and the thing that I'd like to be remembered for is -- are the things that I tried to do to help you all accomplish your mission, come home safely; and if you're hurt, to be taken care of, be rescued quickly, medevaced quickly, and get the best possible care and taking care of your families.
So the MRAPs, MRAP ATVs; the golden hour here on medevacs here in Afghanistan, which is now an average of about 40 minutes; the amount ISR we've been able to push out for the last few years -- those are the things that at least mean the most to me, because I think they had the most impact on you.
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: Yeah, there's very little doubt in my mind that most of our troops will be out of here by the end of 2014. We may have come -- if we have a longer-term agreement with the Afghans, we may have some residual presence to help with training and logistics and counterterrorism and things like that. But the agreement made in Lisbon is that we will turn over full responsibility for security to the Afghans by the end of December 2014. So I would expect that our presence here after that time would be a small fraction of what it is today and not really in a combat mission but helping the -- continuing to help the Afghans.
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: This going to be on YouTube? (Laughter.)
Q: (Off mic.) Are you going to write a memoir (inaudible)
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I am. I've got a couple of books I'd like to write. And the first one will be about this job and these two wars and also the wars in Washington.
Q: Mr. Secretary, my name is -- (name inaudible). My question is, what is the -- (off mic) -- the Army as a superpower in regards to personnel and defense system technology due to downsizing of military and our defense budget -- (off mic)?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that, first of all, there's been no -- with one exception, there's been no decision in terms of downsizing the Army. What we're looking at now is, in 2015 and 2016, reducing the size of the active Army by about 27,000. Now, when I took this job, the permanent end strength of the Army was 482,000. The first month I was on the job, January 2007, I approved an increase in the end strength by 65,000 and two years ago approved a temporary increase in end strength of another 22,000, mainly to get rid of stop-loss. And I can tell you that today, there are no soldiers on stop-loss.
So even if 27,000 are cut in '15 and '16, the size of the Army would still be 40,000 bigger than when I took this office. So we'll just have to wait and see. And one of the things that I'm -- we're working on in the Pentagon is to lay out a series of options for the president and the Congress in terms of if they want to reduce the level of investment in defense, here are your options and here are the things that the military won't be able to do if a certain level of -- if the investment level is dropped by certain amounts.
The last thing I want to do -- the worst thing in the world would be what was done in the '70s and '90s which is a same -- give everybody in the military a same percentage cut across the board. That's the way you hollow out the military. That's the way you don't have enough ammunition to use at firing ranges, you don't have enough money for exercising or training, you don't have enough money for tank miles or steaming days or flight hours. And so we have to make -- I think that is managerial cowardice. And so I think people have to make the tough decisions, first in the Department of Defense and then the president and the Congress, in terms of making choices what don't they want us to do in the future, because if we have to reduce the size of the military in some way, I want the level of excellence when we're done to be at the same standard it is today.
And so these involve tough choices and tough decisions. And I think there will be a big political debate going forward over the next year or so about it. But I have a feeling that -- I'm fairly confident that people will make the right decisions, and that while we may have to make some reductions in force structure that this is still going to be by far the most powerful and best military in the world.
Last question. Yes, sir -- yes, ma'am.
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: I am not aware of any changes planned in General Order Number 1. I've got General Rodriguez here with me somewhere, and --
LT. GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, sir. No, sir. (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: (Chuckles.) Not going to happen, sounds like.
LT. GEN. RODRIGUEZ: There's a difference between visitation and cohabitation. Talk to your chain of command about that. And if they don't give you a clear answer, then you come find me and I will give them the (off mic) answer, OK?
LT. GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.
SEC. GATES: Now, I'd like to end on a question I can answer. (Laughter.)
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: No need for what?
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think that's not accurate. The truth is, we have spent a huge amount of money, and the Army has put a huge amount of effort into dealing with PTS and behavioral health problems, and not just for troops but also for their families.
Now, one of the problems -- and what I've done is take all the money for family programs and for behavioral health and PTS and TBI and all of that and moved all of that out of the supplementals into the base budget of the Department of Defense so that when these wars are over, we've still got the money to continue all of those programs, because these are going to be enduring problems.
But the Army in particular has hired a huge number of mental health professionals and has really, I think, done an outstanding job of trying to establish an infrastructure for behavioral health and to provide the training that ensures that NCOs and officers identify people, including among their own number, who need to seek help and then go get it by getting rid of the stigma associated with seeking help.
So let me just conclude by again thanking you, because this will be the last time I can thank you for your services and for your sacrifice. More than anybody other than the president, I'm responsible for you being here. I'm the guy that signed the deployment orders that brought you here. And that has weighed on me for four and a half years. And I -- and that's one of the reasons why I have taken a sense of personal responsibility, as I suggested earlier, for making sure you have what you need to succeed in the mission, to come home safe; and if you get hurt, that we get you the best possible care. I think about you all every day. I feel your hardship and your sacrifice and your burdens more, I think, than you can possibly imagine; and those of your families as well.
I think you are the best that America has to offer. My affection and my admiration for you has no limit. And I will pray for each and every one of you every day for the rest of my life. So thanks for your service. Now let's get some pictures.