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Town Hall with Secretary Panetta with Soldiers and Family Members of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
January 12, 2012

            MAJOR GENERAL DANA J.H. PITTARD:  This work? Alright. Welcome Team Bliss!  How are we doing? 

            SOLDIERS:  (In unison.)  Hoo-ah!

            MAJOR GENERAL PITTARD:  Thank you all for coming today for this very special town hall meeting.  And a special welcome to our congressman, Congressman Silvestre Reyes, who’s done so much for our soldiers, families, and civilians here on Fort Bliss, as well as the citizens of El Paso. 

             (Inaudible) -- and construction in East Bliss you had a lot to do with, so, sir, thank you for being here today. 

            We’re very fortunate to have our secretary of defense with us today and he’ll be here to listen to us, to you, to answer your questions that you may have.  And as some of you know, Secretary Panetta has really dedicated most of his life serving the American people.  He started out much like us -- as a soldier.  He was an Army soldier--hooah!  (Applause)  Now, he was military intelligence, but that’s okay, 1960s ok.  He later served as a congressman, 17th Congressional District in California for 16 years and then still later was White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.  And probably most of you remember his most recent job as the director of the CIA prior to becoming or being appointed to secretary of defense. 

            Now, there are nearly 5,000 Department of Defense installations worldwide, but he has chosen to come here--on one of his first visits to any Army installation. 

            And, sir, we’re honored to have you here.  (Applause.) 

            And as we often say here, the future of the Army is right here at Fort Bliss.  Hoo-ah!  So please give -- please give a warm Team Bliss El Paso welcome to our 23rd secretary of defense--the Honorable Leon Panetta.  (Applause.) 

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Thank you very much, General.  It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to come to Fort Bliss, the premier post that we have in this country.  This is one of the best and it’s a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to come here to meet with all of the troops, to meet with your families and to thank you for your great service to the country. 

            I want to say--how do you do--to my pal, the congressman from this area.  Sil (Reyes) is a dear friend.  We’ve known each other for a long time.  And he has been a great supporter of Fort Bliss.  More importantly, he’s been a great supporter of everything we do in Washington.  When I was CIA director, he was head of the Intelligence Committee, and I have to tell you, he was -- he was someone that was very supportive of all the things that we were doing and in particular was very supportive of the effort to go after bin Laden.  And I want to thank you for your support for that raid.  It was something it was very helpful to us.  And I want to thank him for the support that he’s provided here at Fort Bliss. 

            This is -- this is an important installation.  It’s the home for some of the best troops that we have, some of the best units that we have.  It’s also -- it’s also home for a lot of the brigades that have rotated in and out of both Afghanistan, as well as Iraq.  And I want to personally thank all of you for I’m sure the multiple deployments that you’ve been involved with and I want to thank your families for the support that they provided during that multitude of deployments that all of you have been part of. 

            Our families, families that stick by us, when we serve this country, are the most important support-system we have.  Their love, their partnership, their understanding for the absences, their understanding for places that we have to go, their willingness to be there is just the most important support system we have, and I want to thank the families because you are part of our family and you are the ones that we can’t say thank you enough for all you do, for all the sacrifice that you’ve been part of.  Thank you for being there when we needed you. 

            In addition, I just -- I want to say thank you in particular obviously to the troops.  Public service in this country and in our democracy is what makes America what it is.  Our forefathers, when they brought this country together, understood that the essence of our democracy rested with those individuals, those citizens who are willing to give something back to this country, who are willing to serve, who are willing to say I owe this country my service and my duty for what we get back. 

            I am, as many of you know, the son of immigrants.  My parents came to this country like millions of others.  They came in the early ’30s, no language ability, no skills, no money, but they came because they really believed in the opportunity that America was all about.  I can remember as a kid asking my dad, why would you travel all of that distance.  In those days, no internet, you didn’t know where the hell you were going.  And my question was why would you travel all of that distance to a strange land.  And although it was poor part of Italy, the fact was they had to comfort the family.  Why would you suddenly pick up and leave and go to a strange land? 

            My father said the reason was because your mother and I believed that we could give you, our children, a better life in this country.  And that is the American dream.  That’s what all of us want for our children, and hopefully that’s what our children will want for their children.  It is that dream -- making sure that our children have a better life -- that is the foundation of what America is all about.  It goes to the heart and soul of what this country’s all about, and it goes to heart and soul of the service that all of you provide because your willingness to serve, your willingness to put your lives in the line, your willingness to fight for what this country is all about is what makes America the country that it is, what makes us strong, and what gives us the ability to say to the rest of the world the United States is the strongest military power in the world and our goal is to make sure that we protect our country and hopefully bring peace to the world.  That’s what this is all about, and that’s what you’re all about.

            You’ve done everything this country has asked you to do and more and because of that, I thank you.  Thank you for your service.  Thank you for your willingness to be there.  Thank you for your willingness to give something back to this country.  Thank you for your willingness to be good Americans.

            The toughest job I have -- the toughest job I have is having to write condolence letters to those families who have lost a loved one, reflecting, obviously, the sorrow that we all share in that situation.  And I extend my deepest condolences on the behalf -- on behalf of all of us, but in each note, I make the point that their loved one is a hero and a patriot because they were willing to put their life on the line and to die for this country, and that is what patriotism -- that’s what heroism is all about.  And for that reason, we will never forget them and we will never forget you for what you do.  So my thanks to all of you.  It’s an honor to be here and an honor to have a chance to be able to meet with you and talk with each one of you and be able to tell you personally how thankful I am as secretary of defense for what you do. 

            This is an historic time.  It’s an historic time to be part of the military.  It’s an historic time to be part of this country.  You have performed, as I said, above and beyond the call of duty during the last 10 years of war.  And as I said, you’ve done everything you’ve been asked to do.  And as a result of that, we’re at an historic moment, an historic turning point for the United States.  We’ve come to the end of the mission in Iraq.  And hopefully that mission was to establish a country that could secure and govern itself.  And that -- that is something that we have struggled for and hopefully the Iraqi people understand now that it is up to them to be able to take their country and make it a viable democracy and a very important part and region of the world.  We’ve given them that opportunity. 

            In Afghanistan, this has been -- 2011 was a pivotal year.  We’ve seen the weakening of the Taliban.  The Taliban was not able throughout 2011 to conduct an organized attack to regain territory that they lost.  For the first time in five years, the level of violence was down.  We’ve seen Afghan army units become operational, get involved in the battle, being able to provide security.  We’re now beginning to transition areas to Afghan control.  We just completed, under General Allen’s tremendous leadership, the last tranche -- the second tranche really of areas that we are transitioning.  And when we complete that, over 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan will be under Afghan control and security.

            So we are headed in the right direction and we’ve got to stick to it.  And if we do that, then we, too, can give the Afghans the opportunity to be able to take control of their country and provide the control and security that they need to provide to their people. 

            In Libya, we completed a successful NATO mission.  I had a chance to go to Naples and see the operations area there for NATO.  This was a complicated mission to be able to handle that many countries, find the targets, direct the planes, go after those targets, and do a great job.  And as a result of that, we brought down Gadhafi and have given Libya back to the Libyan people. 

            And on terrorism, a principal enemy coming out of 9/11 was al Qaeda and al Qaeda terrorist allies.  And our mission has to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat them.  We have taken down bin Laden.  We have taken down most of their leadership.  We have them on the run.  We have significantly weakened their capability to put together any kind of command and control or to put together any plan of attack that is comparable to what we saw on 9/11.  And it’s because we have kept the pressure up.  We have kept the commitment up.  We’ve gone after them. 

            So we have made progress.  We have made significant gains in area after area.  This is a turning point.  And it comes at a time when this country, obviously, is facing tremendous pressures on the budget front because of the deficits we’re running.  USA Today the other day had a headline that said that our debt is now comparable to our GDP, $15 trillion -- $15 trillion debt in this country, an annual deficit that exceeds $1 trillion.  And so this country is facing a crisis that it has to address.  And for that reason, the Congress enacted legislation that said we have the responsibility to come up $489 billion in savings over these next 10 years.  Half a trillion dollars. 

            My approach to this, having worked on budgets, is that we don’t have to choose between fiscal security and national security.  We can do this and we can do it in a way that will give us a strong defense for the future. 

            So I met with the service chiefs and I met with the other secretaries of the departments and said this is an opportunity, as tough as this is, it’s an opportunity to try to fashion the defense system of this country for the future. 

            There are four basic guidelines that we use.  Number one, we must remain the strongest military power in the world.  You are part of the strongest military power in the history of the world.  And we have to maintain that strength. 

            Secondly, we cannot hollow out this force.  Every time we’ve come out of a war, every time we come out -- when we came out of World War II, when we came out of Korea, when we came out of Vietnam, when we came out of the Cold War, cuts were made across the board and it hollowed out the force.  It weakened our military.  And I said we cannot make that same mistake, particularly at a time when we face a series of threats that are still out there. 

            We face the continuing challenge of terrorism.  We face the threat of Iran.  We face the threat of North Korea.  We face the threat of nuclear proliferation.  We face the threat of growing powers in Asia.  We face the threat of turmoil in the Middle East.  So there continue to be threats that we have to confront.  The United States has to maintain the strongest military force in order to deal with that. 

            Thirdly, if we’re not going to hollow out the force by cutting across the board, then we got to put everything on the table and look at every area of the Defense Department.  And we did that.  But most importantly, the only way you could do that is by tying it to a strategy.  What is the defense system we want for the future?  And base our decisions on that. 

            And lastly, I said the most important thing is we cannot break faith with those that have served, with the troops and the families that time and time again were called upon to go to war.  We cannot break faith with you in terms of the commitments we made to you. 

            And so recognizing that, we sat down.  We worked through every area.  And what we came up with was a strategy for the kind of military we need not just now, but in the future, and to build that force for the future.  And so the basic elements we announced last week, the key elements of these, number one, we know that we’re going to be dealing with a smaller force.  We were going to be dealing with a smaller force coming out of these wars.  So there’s no question it will be smaller, but it will agile.  It’ll be flexible.  It’ll be capable of deploying quickly.  And it will have a technological edge.  It’ll be fast moving.  But that’s the kind of force we need for the future:  The ability to move quickly when we face threats, the ability to be agile, the ability to adapt.  So that’s number one. 

            Number two, we recognize that we have to focus on those areas where we’re likely to confront wars in the future, where we’re likely to confront problems in the future, focus on the Pacific, focus on the Middle East because that’s where the problems are likely to arise. 

            Thirdly, that in terms of the rest of the world, we have to develop partnerships, but more importantly we have to develop innovative ways to retain a presence, whether it’s Europe, whether it’s Africa, whether it’s Latin America, whether it’s other parts of the Southeast Asia -- the ability to have a rotational presence, where we go in, we do exercises, we provide advice, we provide guidance, we provide assistance, and we provide a presence that is there.  It’s an innovative approach to the future and it gives real meaning to our ground forces in terms of their ability to be places and develop the kind of partnerships that we’re developing now with other capabilities that we have.  Ray Odierno thinks that this is an innovative way to be able to develop the force we need for the future. 

            In addition, we’ve got to have the capability to confront and defeat more than one enemy at one time.  So whether they come at us in Korea and at the same time come at us in the Straits of Hormuz, we’ve got to have the ability to confront those enemies -- not only confront them, but defeat them. 

            And lastly, we’ve got to invest in that -- that future.  And so we’re going to be investing in more technology.  We’re going to invest in unmanned systems.  We’re going to invest in better targeting.  We’re going to invest in cyber.  We’re going to invest in space.  We’re going to invest in Special Forces.  And we’re going to invest in the ability to mobilize if we have to, and that means maintaining a strong National Guard and a strong Reserve at the same time. 

            So those are the key elements to this strategy for a defense system in the future.  And based on that strategy, we’re going to be doing our budget and making the decisions about what we do.  But it’s going to be based on a strategy.  It’s not just going to be based on cutting things across the board.  Places like this, places like Fort Bliss are important to that strategy.  The investment here is important to our future, and we’re going to maintain it because of that.  But it fits the strategy that we want for the future. 

            So those are some of the key elements that we’re going to be confronting.  And yes, are going to be looking at areas across the board?  You bet.  We’re looking at efficiencies in the Department of Defense, the ability to do away with duplication, the ability to try to streamline areas, the ability to try to deal with some of the inherent bureaucracy that’s part of the Pentagon, make it more efficient, make it better. 

            Secondly, we’re probably going to be dealing with the procurement area, trying to implement reforms, trying to deal with -- what are the weapons we need and what are the weapons that we won’t need for the future. 

            And thirdly, in the area of compensation, let me mention this because a lot of -- a lot of concern about the impact there.  We are committed, as I said, to maintaining the quality of benefits and the quality of care that go to the troops and the families.  That’s -- that’s a red line for us. 

            At the same time, I’ve got to tell you that compensation itself is an area that’s grown by 80 percent, and so for that reason we have got to look at ways as to how we can try to limit the growth in the future.  How can we try to provide some cost control?  But we need to do it fairly and we need to do it in a way, as I said, that doesn’t break faith with those that have served, and we will do that. 

            And lastly, we’re going to have some force structure reductions.  We’re probably headed in that direction in any event.  But the reality is we’re going to be able to do it in a way that makes sense for you and your families and that makes sense in terms of the defense system we need for the future. 

            This is a historic time.  This is a time when we can build the defense system for the future.  This is a time when we can develop the kind of defense this country needs to deal with the challenges and the threats that are out there.  But it can’t happen without you and it can’t happen without those that are willing to serve and to put their lives on the line. 

            And so for that reason, you are, in the end, the heart and soul of what makes up our military force for the future.  And because of you and because of what you are -- I know we’ve talked about the greatest generation in World War II, let me tell you, we have the greatest generation of Americans serving today, and that’s you.  So my thanks to all of you.  Keep up the fight.  Keep up your service.  Keep up your dedication.  And together we can fulfill that American dream that my parents were all about: improving the lives for our children in the future.  That’s what we do best of all and the way we do it is because of you. 

            Thank you very much for having me.  (Applause.)

            Okay, I’m happy to answer your questions.  Back of the room. 

            Q:  Sir, I’m with the 1st Cav.  My question, you said that there won’t be any major cuts to compensation, but I’ve heard the whispering that there’s going to be some overhaul with the post-9/11 GI Bill.  Can you comment on that for me, sir? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  No.  I mean, we’re not -- we’re not changing the GI Bill at all. 

            And also let me just mention on the retirement issue because that’s always one that I get concerns from people on.  We have discussed the possibility of looking at -- providing a commission that looks at retirement reforms for the future because it has been a costly side of compensation, but we have made very clear that we will make no reforms that affect those that are serving now.  We will grandfather all of the retirement benefits for all of those that are serving today.  We made a promise to you on retirement.  We’re going to stick with it.  But in terms of looking to the future, that’s something frankly we have to do if we’re going to at hopefully some savings that we can achieve, some cost controls that we can achieve for the future. 

            Other questions. 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, two years ago in Iraq, I had the opportunity to ask former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates what action we as a nation would take to discourage Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions if sanctions did not work, which appears that they are not.  He stated that military action may be required.  At what point do you think that a military strike will be absolutely necessary to prevent a nuclear armed Iran? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  As I mentioned, obviously Iran is one of those areas that we are concerned about, and they do represent a threat.  They sponsor efforts to support terrorism.  They try to undermine governments in the Middle East, and obviously they continue to try to develop a nuclear capability. 

            The world community has said that we’re not going to let that happen.  And as a result of that, the world community has come together with regards to a series of sanctions that have been put in place.  And very frankly, those sanctions are having an impact.  They’re impacting on the economy there.  They’re impacting on the business sector.  They’re impacting on the governance situation in Iran.  All of those things are having a significant impact.  And more important, the world community is unified.  As a matter of fact, the Europeans soon are going to support additional sanctions with regards to the energy area on Iran.  So continuing that pressure, continuing that unity makes good sense now. 

            At the same time, we got to make sure that we are ready for any situation that may develop there.  And that means we have to keep all options on the table -- all options on the table.  And clearly there are those areas that for us are red lines.  Number one, we cannot allow them to develop a nuclear weapon.  That’s a red line.  Number two, we cannot tolerate Iran blocking the Straits of Hormuz.  And that’s a red line. 

            So continue to put pressure on them, continue to keep the world community together in implementing the sanctions and the pressure on Iran, and always keep all of our capabilities ready in the event that those red lines are crossed.  That’s our approach to Iran. 

            Other questions.  Yes, sir.   

            Q:  Yes, sir, what is your reaction to Iran blaming the United States and our allies for the assassination of one of their nuclear scientists, sir? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yes, on the nuclear scientist -- let me -- let me state what secretary of state made clear and I will state it as firmly.  We were not involved in any way -- in any way -- with regards to the assassination that took place there.  I’m not sure who was involved.  We have some ideas as to who might be involved, but we don’t know exactly who was involved, but I can tell you one thing:  The United States was not involved in that kind of effort.  That’s not what the United States does. 

            Other questions.  Come on guys.  You have your chance.  (Laughter.)  Go ahead, right there. 

            Q:  (Off mic.) 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yes, the question was on North Korea, changing the succession that’s taken place there, what does that mean for us.  Frankly, it doesn’t change anything that we’re doing with regards to our approach to Korea at this point.  We work closely with the Republic of Korea.  We have a great relationship with them.  There’s great communication there between our forces and the ROK forces.  And we are -- we are unified in terms of our approach to North Korea. 

            Obviously, everyone is watching it closely to see what the young boy is like there.  He’s -- he’s obviously new.  He’s young.  We’re not quite sure just exactly, you know, what model he’s going to follow.  The likelihood is that he’ll follow the model we’ve seen in the past with his father, which was to kind of take some time, reestablish his presence, reestablish his authority.  There’s some likelihood in that situation that they might engage in some provocation in order to strengthen his credibility.  We’re not quite sure whether that will be the case or not, so we’re watching things very closely to see exactly what turn might take place. 

            I was interested at least that there was some indication that they did want to continue some negotiations that we’ve been involved with with regards to seeing whether or not food supplies could be provided in exchange for their doing something on the nuclear side.  We’re continuing to try to pursue that to see whether that will lead anywhere.  But I think the fundamental answer to your question is that at this stage of the game it’s not changing a damn thing in terms of how we are continuing to ensure that every step is taken to make clear that they ought not to engage in any provocation, that they ought not to engage in any effort to further their nuclear proliferation. 

            Way back of the room. 

            Q:  Sir, I am a civilian logistician with the Directorate of Emergency Services.  I’m just curious what kind of changes can federal employees expect to see with the drawdown? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think again, you know, our approach is that -- with regards to the civilian force, which is a great force and do a great job for the Defense Department, that in those areas that I outline, the civilian force, just like the military force is going to be retained when it comes to some of those key missions that I’ve outlined.  Are we going to -- in terms of efficiencies, are there areas with regards to the civilian workforce, particularly in the Pentagon, where we can achieve some better efficiencies?  We think there are.  Are there places where we think we can achieve some cost controls in that area?  We think there are.  But with regards to the benefits, with regards to civilian employees, we consider them an important element in supporting the mission of the Pentagon.  And for that reason, what I said about maintaining our faith to the troops and maintaining our faith to the families, we want to try to maintain our commitments with regards to the civilian workforce as well. 

            Q:  (Off mic.) 

            SEC. PANETTA:  On the situation in Iraq, the fundamental mission outlined by President Bush and outlined by President Obama was to be able to establish an Iraq that could govern and secure and sustain itself.  That was the fundamental goal and the fundamental mission.  And what we’ve seen in each of the key areas is that, you know, as crude as it has been, as tough as it has been, they have put together a democracy.  They are able to try to work their way through some of the challenges that confront that country.  It’s not always easy, but after all this is the first time they’ve tried to implement a democratic approach to dealing with these kinds of challenges. 

            In addition to that, their economy is beginning to be back on track.  They’re a strong oil country.  They have a tremendous resource, so they have an economic basis on which to be able to continue to move forward. 

            On the security side, the levels of violence, while we get the attacks that take place, the high-profile attacks that occur, when you look at the level of violence, it has remained -- it has remained low during the last few years, and particularly the last year, it has remained historically low in terms of being able to maintain better security. 

            Having said of all that, we have made clear that we will continue to be there to support Iraq.  This is not -- we have a long-term commitment to Iraq.  This is not a country that we’re going to suddenly pull out of.  We’re going to continue to provide assistance, military assistance.  We’re going to continue to provide training.  We will continue to be open to work with them in developing whatever other assistance they need, whatever training they need.  We’re going to be providing F-16s to them.  We’ll be providing training for their pilots.  We’ll be providing support systems.  Our State Department is present there.  They’ll continue to provide developmental support as well in Iraq. 

            So the United States is going to be there.  We’ll have a presence there, just as we have a presence in other countries in the Middle East.  And I’ve indicated that the United States is going to maintain our presence in that part of the world.  We have over 40,000 troops in the Middle East.  We are going to maintain that presence.  And the reason we’re going to maintain that presence is to make very clear to Iran we’re not going anyplace.  We’re not going anyplace and they need to know that. 

            One more question back here.

            Q:  Yes, Mr. Secretary.  Moving on to family issues, my husband is a vet.  And he is a disabled vet.  He was at the Pentagon on September 11.  And as I understand it, with the preponderance of evidence being positive towards the soldier, the VA is supposed to go ahead and give them their benefits if there’s no negative evidence, but we had to fight for three years all the way through the federal system for him to get any money at all.  And we actually wrote a letter to the White House and got a letter back from the Oval Office that it would be looked into and we’re still fighting to get the rest of his benefits.  And I’m wondering if that’s something that can be fixed for -- not just for us, because I know there’re a lot of people in that situation, so is there anything that can be done about that? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Listen, I really appreciate what you’ve just talked to.  This is frankly one son of a bitch of a problem.  The fact is we have guys who come out of the defense area and have a disability.  And we have to begin to move them towards the Veterans Administration.  Frankly, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.  You’ve been through it.  And the problem is it should work seamlessly.  It should work seamlessly.  It shouldn’t be that tough to come out of the Defense Department, come out of military duty and be able to immediately transition into the Veterans Administration.  But because there are different requirements, because there’s different bookkeeping, because there’s different bureaucracies, because there’s different requirements, it becomes incredibly complicated. 

            We’ve been working on that.  I can give you at least some home.  I sat down with Secretary Shinseki in the Veterans Department.  It actually began with my predecessor, Bob Gates.  And I’m continuing the effort to try to make sure that we do everything possible to try to eliminate the BS that’s involved in this transition and try to make it more seamless and try to make it smoother, so that others can go through it in a reasonable way.  We’ve been able to improve some of the systems.  There’s more to be done.  We’re going to announce, hopefully, an approach between the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration to try to ensure that that happens. 

            In addition to that, obviously we want to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to provide employment opportunities for those that have to go through that transition, that they get the support system they need. 

            One of my concerns, frankly, as we go through the transition I just talked about is -- and we go through the force structure reductions, we could get 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 troops coming back.  We need to give them support.  We need to give them their education benefits.  We need to give them their health care benefits.  We need to make sure they have a job that they can get involved with.  We need to have that support system to make it work. 

            It’s going to take some real work because it involves a number of agencies to make it happen.  Private sector is willing to come forward.  I’ve been talking to the private sector in New York and everywhere I go.  I’m going to talk to the Chamber of Commerce here at Fort -- in El Paso to try to encourage them to do exactly the same thing. 

            This is going to take a lot of people working together to make sure that we can accomplish that.  But you, you are an example of what we simply cannot afford to happen, which is that after somebody has served, after they put their lives on the line, they’re entitled to the benefits that were promised.  They’re entitled to the support system that was promised and we ought to damn well deliver on that.  So thank you for bringing that up.