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Secretary Panetta Remarks at a Roundtable on Veteran Employment Hosted by Goldman Sachs Foundation

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
November 07, 2011

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Thank you very much.  I really appreciate your being here -- coming to the roundtable to talk about ways to try to assist our veterans.  I -- first of all, I appreciate the opportunity to come back to New York.  New York in many ways is a second home for me.  I had -- I had the chance to serve on the board of the New York Stock Exchange with Larry for a number of years and --

            MR LARRY FINK:  Fun times.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Really fun.  Those were the good old days, right?  (Laughter.)

            And -- but more importantly, I saw, within the corporate community, is dedication to really helping out their fellow human beings.  I think the charitable work, the giving that was part of that community was something that deeply impressed me.  I've never forgotten that. 

            And also, for those of you that have a long memory, I think I -- a long time ago I was an executive assistant to John Lindsay when he was mayor of New York City.  So I've spent a lot of time in this city, and that's why I appreciate the chance to come back.

            This is -- this is an important time, and it's important for a number of reasons.  I mean, first of all, you know, we're -- we are probably at a turning point after 10 years of war.  And as you -- as you know, you know, we have achieved some tremendous successes at going after terrorism.  We've decimated their leadership, and I think we've really undermined their capability in trying to come together to plan another 9/11 attack.  I think we have made the country safer.  A lot of people have been working on it, but, frankly, a lot of efforts by the intelligence community and by the military community I think have impacted on terrorism.  Still -- they're still out there.  (Inaudible) increase the pressure but we've made some success.

            In Iraq, we're in the process of bringing back our combat forces by the end of this year.  And the mission there was to establish an Iraq that was independent and could govern itself and secure itself. 

            And they are in the process of being able to do that.  We will -- you know, we'll continue to work with them because this is a long-term relationship there.  But those forces are on their way back.  We've got about another 45,000 that are coming out between now and the end of the year.

            In Afghanistan, we are in the process of doing the same thing between now and 2014 under the Lisbon agreement with NATO.  We'll be drawing down our forces there.  We've got good impact on the Taliban.  We've weakened the Taliban.  The Afghan army is developing some good capabilities.  So we at least feel that we're on the right path right now.

            But you know, we're going to be bringing 10,000 troops home as part of the surge by the end of this year.  We'll bring back another 20,000 by the end of the fighting season next year, and that will leave us 68,000 that we'll gradually bring back through 2014.

            We just completed a successful NATO mission in Libya.  And that too will involve transitioning of some of our forces.

            So the bottom line is that as we go through this turning point, we're going to have a lot of forces coming back.  Add to that the budget situation, which we will see some force structure reductions as part of the budget constraints that I'm confronting there, and we could have -- I think it's estimated that we could have anywhere from 12 to 15,000 troops coming back over these -- in each year for these next five years.  And that would be added to what is already a backlog of soldiers.  I think there's some 18, 20,000 that are in the process now that are trying to get through that process.  So you can see that we are facing a tremendous responsibility to try to provide the jobs, to try to provide the education, to try to provide the opportunity so that when they come back, they'll have -- they'll have something to look forward to.

            Now, you know, these are -- for those of you that haven't had the chance to visit the wounded or to talk to the soldiers who put their lives on the line, this is, in many ways, the next "greatest generation."  These are men and women in uniform that have really dedicated themselves to serving this country.

            And they've been deployed time and time again, have gone to the battle areas time and time again. 

            We have paid a heavy price:  6,200 died in combat; over 40,000 have been wounded -- probably some of the most horrendous wounds that that you can -- that anyone can imagine.  And yet, having gone to Dover, having gone to Bethesda, having gone to Arlington, the families and those that are wounded warriors all are committed to what this country is all about.  And they put -- they put their lives on the line.

            And one of the things that I've been saying is if they can put their lives on the line to sacrifice for this country, there's no reason, A, why the leadership in Washington can't also sacrifice a little bit to find the solutions that this country needs, but more importantly that the rest of this country can't sacrifice a little bit in order to give them the opportunity that they fought and died for.

            And so to do that is going to be a challenge.  It's going to require, obviously, a partnership between government, the private sector, the nonprofit community to try to provide the jobs and opportunities that are there.  I'm convinced it can happen.  We've already seen some great operations trying to develop jobs.  The president has provided some incentives.  He also announces today establishing a website to try to also provide some 500,000 possible jobs for veterans over these next few years.

            So it is -- it's a responsibility that we all have, and whatever I can do to help you, to be able to get your support and your partnership in this effort, I'm willing to do, because, in the end, the best thing we could do to honor those that have served is to make sure that when they come back, they have some opportunity to be able to become a part of our society and not just wind up on the unemployment rolls.

            Today we've got about 11 -- over 11 percent of returning veterans are unemployed.  If you look at the ages between 18 and 24, almost 22 percent are unemployed.  We just -- that is no way to repay the sacrifice that all of them have made.

            So I look forward to being able to work with you, to listen to your views, to listen to your thoughts.  But in the end, I just -- I want to encourage you to do whatever you can to try to help provide those jobs.  The best way to do it -- you know, we just can't talk about it; we've got to do something about it.  And the best way to do it is to obviously, you know, working through the nonprofit arena, working through those organizations that you trust, making sure that whatever you contribute goes to helping people get the jobs that are needed.

            So that's why I'm here.  I appreciate your efforts.  And I'm happy to hear the discussion that you get into.