SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Let me keep my remarks short. I'd like to hear from you.
This is -- as the new secretary of defense, I thought it was important for my first trip to be asked to come out to the war zone to meet with the men and women who are putting their lives on the line on behalf of our country.
I've had a chance to, obviously, talk with a lot of the service people, and since the time I've been in service, talked with some of the senior enlisted ranks. I've talked with some of the troops on the Fourth of July. But I thought it was really important to be able to come out here, where the rubber hits the road, and be able to see and talk to all of you personally.
When I was the director of the CIA, when visiting our stations around the world -- and as you know, there are a lot of bases here -- one of the first things I did was to say ‘thank you’ -- thank you for your service. And as secretary of defense, I'm here to say ‘thank you’ as well to all of you, for your service, for your sacrifice and for your duty, duty to the country.
I know you're sacrificing a great deal. You're away from your families. A lot of you have been on a number of tours coming back here, and I can't tell you how grateful the nation is for your service and for your sacrifice.
I'm a -- I'm a believer in public service. My whole life has been dedicated to public service, beginning as a first lieutenant during the Vietnam era, and then congressman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, chief of staff to the president, and now [sic: most recently] as director of the CIA.
But I think -- I think it's important for people to give something back to this country. I am a son of immigrants. My -- both of my parents came from Italy. And they made it clear to me that because of what this country was able to give them in terms of opportunity, that it was important for their two boys to give something back to the country.
I used to ask my father why he came all that distance to come to this country. With no money, no language skills -- didn't know anyone -- why would he travel all that distance to come to this country? And my father used to say that it was because my mother and I believed that they could give their children a better life.
And I think that's the American dream. That's what my wife and I want for our three sons. It's going to -- it's what you want for your children. It's what your children are going to want for their children, to be able to say we gave them a better life.
And so through public service I think we can make a difference, make a difference in trying to make sure that our -- the lives of our children are better.
You are making a difference. Everything I've seen here proves to me that you're making a hell of a difference in terms of the fight that we're conducting here. You've done everything that the president of the United States has asked you to do. We've disrupted, dismantled al-Qaida. One of the -- my proudest moments was the ability, as CIA director, to work with special forces in the plan to go after bin Laden. And we were able to get that done, and it was a major blow to al-Qaida. And every time you go out after targets here, you add to the effort to dismantle and disrupt al-Qaida and their militant allies.
You've been able to deal with the Taliban here and allow the Afghans to get their country back, so that they can govern it, not the Taliban, and that's been important. And we've been able to build up the security forces here, the army, the Afghan army, the Afghan police, so that ultimately we can provide a transition to them.
So you've been doing the job; you've been making a difference, and I thank you for that, because, in the end, this is the most important thing we can do, is to continue this fight. We're headed in the right direction. You have my commitment that we will continue to head in that right direction until we have accomplished this mission.
Too many people have given their lives, too much blood has been spilled, both on the Afghan side as well as on our side, not to start the effort to accomplish the mission for which they gave their lives. That's what it's all about.
So you have my commitment that we are going to stay on that track. We're going to -- we're going to continue to move forward. We're going to continue to try to accomplish the mission of transitioning to the Afghans, so that they ultimately can take control of the defense, security and government of their country.
You've helped accomplish that effort, and I thank you for that. The American people thank you for that.
The other thing I want to say to you, that there is no greater responsibility to the secretary of defense than to protect those who are protecting the country. So you have my commitment that I will do everything in my power to make sure that you have the best support possible, the best equipment, the best training and the best support for your families that we can provide.
You deserve no less. You're putting your lives on the line. Many have given their lives on this mission. The least we can do is to say to them that we will support them every step of the way. So you're conducting the fight. You're conducting the fight out there, and you're doing a hell of a job, and you have my commitment that I will fight for you, in Washington and wherever I am, to make sure that you get the support that you're entitled to.
There's a -- there's a great story I often tell of the rabbi and priest who decided they wanted to get to know each other, so they decided to go to a boxing match one night. They thought if they went to events and they talked, that they would get to learn about each other's religion. And while they were at the boxing match, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross, and the rabbi nudged the priest, and he said, what does that mean? The priest said, it doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight. (Laughter.)
We bless ourselves with things -- that things are going to be OK. But very frankly, it doesn't mean a damn thing unless we're willing to fight. You have proven to me and to our country that you are willing to fight, fight for that American dream, fight to give our kids a better life, but most of all, fight for a government of, by and for all people.
Thanks very much for what you do, and I'm happy to answer any of your questions.
Q: Yeah, what -- (inaudible) -- increase of Iranian weapons against us, Iraq and Afghanistan, used against U.S. forces?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, we're -- question was on the increase of Iranian weapons that are going to Iraq. We're seeing more of those weapons that are going in. They're -- the IRAMs have really hurt us, particularly in the last number of weeks, and it's raised tremendous concern. We are urging that the Iraqis go after the Shia extremists and the supply that Iran is providing within Iraq, that they have a responsibility to secure their country as partners with the United States.
But I can assure you this as well, that we have a responsibility to defend our troops and do whatever is necessary to defend our troops. And we will do that. The key right now is to make sure that we do everything possible to ensure that the Iraqis within their own country are doing what they can to stop the flow of those weapons and to stop the Shia from using them.
Other questions. Yes.
Q: Sir, with the validation of the Afghan national security forces on the way, how do you see the mission for the training teams -- for advanced training teams -- changing in the near future?
SEC. PANETTA: I -- you know, I think -- I think there's going to be a need for having trainers out there for a -- for a period of time here, that -- you know, we've been -- we've been training the Afghan military. We've been obviously training the Afghan police as well.
And they are improving. I just met with the minister of defense in Kabul and talked with the minister of interior as well. And both of them indicated, you know, that along with General Petraeus and General Caldwell, who's basically involved in a lot of that, that there is significant improvement.
I just saw a unit here that impressed me a great deal in terms of their abilities to -- you know, to go out there and be able to conduct operations.
But the key right now -- if this thing is going to work, the key is, we are going to -- we are going to have to be able to transition responsibility to the Iraqi [sic: Afghanistan] army and to the Iraqi [sic: Afghanistan] police, so that they can take control of these areas.
Now we're beginning that transition now, but it seems to me that in order to make this work, we're going to have to continue to provide training to them to make sure that they know what the hell they're supposed to do.
Q: Sir, are you advising the president on whether he should put Congress -- to request -- whether we should be continuing hostilities in Libya and declaring war there or continuing as we are at this time?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, the question is with regards to Libya. I mean, right now we are operating in Libya under the U.N. resolution and as a member of NATO, helping that mission. And the primary effort there is to bring down the regime of Gadhafi. That's the key.
We've been able to save lives. We've obviously had a humanitarian mission that we've been involved with. But more importantly, we have worked with NATO on helping conduct strikes that have assisted the rebel forces in that area to hold the line and have set back the regime forces as well.
But the president's made clear that -- that we are going to not put any boots on the ground there; we're going to operate as a member of NATO, and that that's a limited mission; and that the goal of that mission is to ultimately bring down Gadhafi. But we will do that not by ourselves but in conjunction with NATO forces.
Further questions? (Pause.) Everybody see Derek Jeter hit a home run? Three-thousandth hit, a home run. (Inaudible.)
All right. Any other questions? You got one more shot.
STAFF: All right. (Inaudible.) Could I have everybody take a big step back and --
SEC. PANETTA: Okay. Let me -- before you break up, let me just again say how much -- how thankful we are for what you're doing. You're a long way from home, and a lot of you -- a lot of you have been here for a long period of time. But I can't tell you how impressed I am by the troops that I've met and the operations that I've seen.
The fact is, you know, we have put this country on the right path. We are -- I mean, everybody I talk to tells me that we really have diminished the impact of the Taliban in this area. And it's largely due to units like this that are going out on operations every day getting rid of IEDs and conducting patrols. It's because of you that we've been able to get that done.
And the key for us now is to make sure we continue that mission so that ultimately we can give the responsibility to defend and secure themselves to the Afghans. You've made that a real possibility because of what you do, and I can't tell you how grateful America is.
And I just want to say God bless all of you, and we look forward to all of you getting home safely.