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Secretary Panetta Town Hall at Fort Benning, Ga.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
May 04, 2012

            COL. JOHNNIE JOHNSON, COMMANDER 3rd HEAVY BRIGADE COMBAT TEAM:  Take your seats, please. 

            Mr. Secretary, Congressman Bishop, Major General Brown, distinguished guests, good afternoon.  

            I have the distinct pleasure of introducing a staunch supporter of the armed forces here with us today, Congressman Sanford Bishop.  Sir, I was originally going to describe you as a frequent flyer here at Fort Benning, but my PAO told me that -- just stick with he's at this installation as often as he can. 

            Seriously, sir, on any given day, you can find Congressman Bishop on Fort Benning or in the Greater Columbus area meeting and talking to leaders, soldiers, Department of Army civilians and families. 

            Last August, he and his lovely wife, Vivian, graced us on Kelley Hill during our celebration of Women's Equality Day, and sir, it was great to have you on the hill that day. 

            Congressman Bishop's ties to Fort Benning go back to his previous Army service, completing basic training, advanced reserve officer training, right here at Fort Benning.  So he indeed has a unique understanding of what is needed to train, prepare and care for America's warriors. 

            He is -- he is serving in 10th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, which covers 32 southwest counties.  He is the top Democrat on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.  He is also a former member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. 

            Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a warm sledgehammer and dogface soldier welcome for Congressman Sanford Bishop.  (Applause.) 

            REPRESENTATIVE SANFORD BISHOP (D-GA):  Good afternoon. 

            AUDIENCE MEMBERS:  Hoo-ah! 

            REP. BISHOP:  Good afternoon. 

            Hoo-ah! 

            AUDIENCE MEMBERS:  Hoo-ah! 

            REP. BISHOP:  Secretary Panetta, General Brown, Colonel Fletcher, Colonel Johnson, members of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division -- 

            AUDIENCE MEMBERS:  Hoo-ah! 

            REP. BISHOP:  Ladies and gentlemen, freedom is not free. Somebody has to pay the price.  And I am so thankful that there are men and women like you who voluntarily joined up to be a part of that great fighting force, to pay the price for the freedoms that we enjoy, the price of our liberties.  You've taken upon yourselves that extraordinary duty of defending our nation.  And for that, we are so grateful.  The Scriptures tell us that greater love hath no man but that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are preparing for deployment.  You will be going into harm's way, and I want you to know that I, representing the American people, know and understand the sacrifices that you are making and that you are prepared to make.  And some indeed may make the ultimate sacrifice for the United States of America and the people and the values that we enjoy. 

            Your families also make a sacrifice because your service is their service.  And I want you to know that in behalf of the American people and the members of the United States Congress that we know and we will do everything that we can to make sure that your families are supported while you support the mission of the United States of America. 

            Though I could speak English, Spanish, German, Sanskrit, Arabic or any of the other of the thousands of languages spoken by the human race on the face of this earth, I would not have enough words combined to adequately thank you for the service and sacrifice of you and your family. 

            But today is a great day in the history of Fort Benning, the Maneuver Center of Excellence.  Today we have visiting with us a great leader, a great public servant, the highest official in the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Leon Panetta.  There is no stronger advocate for soldiers, for their families than Leon Panetta. There's no stronger advocate for veterans than Leon Panetta.   

            When President Obama made the appointment, he could not have selected a more appropriate person for the job.  He was an Army officer, having completed the Infantry School, the infantry officer course, right here at Fort Benning.   

            He was a congressman.  He was a member's member of Congress -- that is the one to whom other members go for advice and counsel -- and he held some of the most senior and responsible positions in the Congress, including chairman of the House Budget Committee. 

            He served as White House chief of staff to President Clinton, and he served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, bringing a kind of leadership and a refreshing air to the people who make sure that our war fighters and our policymakers have the best real-time information on which to base the decisions we face.   And now he is our secretary of defense extraordinaire.  

            So let's give him a great Georgia welcome, but more importantly, a great 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division welcome to Fort Benning.  Let's welcome Secretary Leon Panetta.  (Cheers, applause.) 

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Good afternoon, Hammer Brigade!  

            AUDIENCE MEMBERS:  Hoo-ah! 

            SEC. PANETTA:  It wakes me up. 

            Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Sandy.  It's always -- it's always a great pleasure to be able to -- to be with you, but in particular to be with you here at Fort Benning.  You have shown tremendous leadership in Congress in supporting Fort Benning and its soldiers and the families that are all part of our military family. 

            And I'd like to particularly recognize your work as co-chair of the Congressional Military Families Caucus.  That's an extremely important caucus in the Congress that tries to look out for the families that are so important to supporting those who serve in our military. 

            Twenty years of service -- we thank you for all you've done. 

            I also want to express my thanks to General Brown.  Thanks for your -- for hosting me here.  It's been a great treat to be able to be with you and to relive some old memories and to see a lot of the new things that make Fort Benning the best installation in the world. (Cheers, applause.) 

            It's an inspiring sight to be here and see so many dogface soldiers gathered in one place.  This is a big crowd.  But one thing I've learned in life, especially as a member of Congress, is that you never, never have enough sledgehammers. 

            AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Hoo-ah! 

            MR. PANETTA:  You never engage in a fair fight.  You always got to have a hell of a lot more power than the other guy. 

            When I heard that I was going to be here and see you, I asked someone who'd spent a little time on Kelley Hill, what should I expect?  And he said this brigade is not fancy, but they're tough.  He also told me a little about each of the units that make up this storied brigade. 

            And Colonel Johnson told me that you like to sound off.  So I'm going to -- I'm going to try it out, see whether that's true. 

            First we've got the queen of battle, the 1st of the 15th, the can-do battalion.  (Cheers.)  Present and accounted for.  Second, the 2nd of the 69th is here.  You remind all of us that armor equals speed and power.  (Cheers.)  The 3rd battalion, 1st Cav.  I know you are, like all cavalrymen, you're always courageous, and you're always faithful.  (Cheers.)  And the 1st of the 10th Field Artillery, the rock support.  (Cheers.) 

            AUDIENCE MEMBER:  The king of battle.  (Laughter.) 

            SEC. PANETTA:  And the king of battle.  (Cheers.)  And then there's the 3rd STB [Special Troops Battalion].  We count on you to execute the mission with vigilance and honor.  (Cheers.)  And finally, the mighty eagles of the 203rd BSB [Brigade Support Battalion].  (Cheers.)  It's an honor to be with all of you, and it's an honor to be here, as I said, at Fort Benning.  This is my first time at Fort Benning as secretary of defense, but it is not my first time here at Fort Benning as a soldier.  Like you, I had the opportunity to come here in a previous capacity, as a young Army lieutenant back in 1964, almost 50 years ago. 

            And at that time, I spent 10 weeks in basic training, here at Fort Benning; went through the drill; went through escape and evasion, which I understand they moved away from here -- thank God, for all of you -- (laughter) -- been through the swamps; been through the red mud; been through the humidity.  Yes, I have lots of warm memories of Fort Benning.  (Laughter.)  And like many of you, Fort Beginning was the first introduction to real Army life.  And it made me a soldier, and it made me understand what being a soldier was all about.   

            I've had a chance to be able to visit here, and I have to tell you that the treatment I'm getting today as secretary is a hell of a lot nicer than what I got here as a lieutenant -- (laughter) -- although the chow's about the same.  (Laughter.)  The main reason I'm here today -- the main reason I'm here today, and it's the main reason -- when I go to other posts and when I visit the battlefield, the main reason is to thank you, to thank you for making the decision to step forward and to serve this country.  

            Each of you has made a very courageous and important decision to serve this nation at a time of war, and I'm a big believer in public service.  Our democracy from its very founding depends on those who are willing to serve and make this country a better place for those that follow.   

            I'm the son of Italian immigrants, and my parents, like millions of other immigrants, came to this country in the early '30s.  I used to ask my dad:  Why would you do that?  Why would you travel all of that distance to a strange country?  They came from a poor area in Italy, but they had the comfort of family.  Why would you travel all that distance?  No money, no skills, no language ability.  Why would you do that?   

            And my father said the reason that he and my mother did it is because they believed they could give their children a better life. That is the American dream.  That's what all of us want for our children and hopefully what our children will want for their children -- a better life. 

            This country -- this country depends on men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to give our children a better and more secure life. 

            We depend on you to make sure that you protect this country, that we keep America safe, so that our kids can enjoy the opportunity this country has to offer. 

            So I thank you for your willingness to put your lives on the line.   

            And I also want to thank your families.  They have to sacrifice as well:  long periods of absence, long moments away on holidays, special events within the family.  On behalf of the American people, as your secretary of defense, I thank you and I thank them for their sacrifice, for their dedication and for their loyalty to this great country.  As far as I'm concerned, families -- all of your families -- are part and parcel of our fighting force. 

            This country has asked the soldiers of this brigade and the mighty 3rd Infantry Division to shoulder a heavy burden over a decade of war.  The Hammer Brigade deployed four times to Iraq, as much as any other BCT [brigade combat team].  From the initial march to Baghdad in 2003 to the worst days of the insurgency, to Operation New Dawn, soldiers of the Hammer Brigade fought and, yes, died to give Iraq the opportunity to secure and to govern itself. 

            Many of you deployed there.  

            Many of you lost brothers and sisters in that fight.  Seventy-seven heroes from the Hammer Brigade gave their last full measure of devotion in Iraq.  And we will never forget, never forget these brave men and women, nor we -- will we ever forget what they accomplished. They put their lives on the line to achieve an important mission. 

            Because of their sacrifice, the American people are safer today. Because of all that you've accomplished, we were able to bring Iraq and the Iraq War to a responsible and honorable conclusion last December.  And this week, as many of you know, the president made an important trip to Afghanistan.  And we are now working to try to bring that war to a responsible end as well. 

            Last year was in many ways a turning point in our effort in Afghanistan.  Violence levels decreased for the first time in years. Transition to Afghanistan, to their security responsibility so that they could secure their country, that began as well.  The Taliban has been weakened.  They've been unable to organize an effort to regain any of the territory that has been lost. 

            They've been weakened, and their momentum has been broken.  Al-Qaida's leadership, including bin Laden, has been decimated. 

            We recognized the first-year anniversary taking down bin Laden. Let me tell you, that was due to the military professionalism of soldiers who went in there and did a mission that they do time and time and time again in Afghanistan.  It was for that reason that I was confident that that mission would be accomplished.  (Applause.) 

            The Afghan national security forces have been growing steadily, and they are more and more and more capable of being able to engage in operations to provide security and to do the job that they have to do if their country is going to be able to be strong and sovereign and independent in the future. 

            We've accomplished transitions in areas.  We've now transitioned areas in Afghanistan that represent 50 percent of the population, and we will in May do another series of provinces that will be transitioned that by the end of summer will mean that 80 percent of the Afghan population will be under Afghanistan security and control. 

            The strategic partnership agreement that President Obama signed in Kabul this week affirmed that this transition plan is on track.  It sends a clear signal -- sends a clear signal to our enemies and to our partners that we will finish the job right in Afghanistan. (Applause.)   

            We have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan and to the Afghan people.  And if we keep our eye focused on this mission, as I know you all will, we will defeat al-Qaida; we will deny them the ability to rebuild; we will deny them the safe haven that they used to plan an attack on our country.  They may have attacked us once; they will not do it again.  (Applause.)  Too much precious blood has been spilled, too much progress has been made to lose sight of the mission now.   

            And there's no doubt that there will be considerable challenges ahead.  We will face a determined adversary.  We will face extremists who will continue to try and attack America.  The reality is that our enemies are losing on the battlefield and they will seek any opportunity to damage us.  

            In particular, they have sought to take advantage of a series of troubling incidents that involved misconduct on the part of a few, on the part of few who do not represent -- who do not represent the vast majority of those in uniform who serve this country. 

            And that brings me to the last point that I want to make.  I need every one of you, every one of you and all of your fellow service members to always display the strongest character, the greatest discipline and the utmost integrity in everything you do. 

            In visiting the Infantry Museum, you have a chance to see those Army values as you enter that museum:  loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, courage.  Those are the standards -- those are the standards that mark men and women who serve in our military.  And I know that you are proud, proud to wear the uniform of your country and that you strive to live up to the highest standards that we expect of you. 

            But the reality is that we are fighting a different kind of war and living in a different kind of world than when I was a lieutenant here at Fort Benning. 

            These days it takes only seconds -- seconds for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline.  And those headlines can impact the mission that we're engaged in.  They can put your fellow service members at risk.  They can hurt morale.  They can damage our standing in the world, and they can cost lives.   

            I know that none of you -- none of you deliberately acts to hurt your mission or to put your fellow soldiers at risk.  You are the best.  And that's why I'm here today: to tell you that I need you, that I need your leadership, that I need your courage, that I need your strength to make sure that we always abide by the highest standards.   

            I know that these incidents represent a very, very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do across this world.  I represent 3 million people, 2 million in uniform.  It's a very small percentage of people who sometimes make these terrible mistakes.  But these incidents concern me, and they have to concern you, and they do concern our service chiefs because a few, who lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership can hurt all of us and can hurt all of those men and women who serve this country with distinction. 

            They concern us because our enemies will seek to turn them -- these incidents in their favor at the very moment that they are losing the war. 

            So I want all of you to always remember -- always remember who you are and the great country that you serve and that we are all part of.  You are part of the best fighting force on the face of the earth. Never forget that.  (Cheers, applause.) 

            Its greatness lies in the quality of our people.  We've got great aircraft.  We've got great tanks.  We've got great technology.  But let me tell you something:  It is the character and the standards that each of you bring to the battle that makes us strong.  We can often be better than our word, but we can never be better than our actions. Our actions speak a lot for all of us. 

            Never forget that, and never forget that you have a responsibility to look after your fellow soldiers and to represent the American people that you are sworn to defend. 

            I know that all of you can meet this challenge.  You are the best, and I have the greatest confidence in your ability to make all Americans proud by demonstrating the very finest character, integrity and judgment and willingness to fight.  The bottom line is that all of us have to be willing to fight to make this country great. 

            There's a great story that I often tell, the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other and learn about each other's religion.  So they went to events together.  One night they went to a boxing match.  And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross.  The rabbi nudged the priest and said, what does that mean?  The priest said, it doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight.  (Laughter.) 

            Now, ladies and gentlemen, we often pray that our country will be OK and that somehow, we will be able to prevail.  But I got to tell you it doesn't mean a damn thing if we're not willing to fight for it. (Cheers, applause.) 

            The hammer brigade -- the hammer brigade has always been willing to fight, to keep America safe, to make sure our kids have that better life, but most importantly, to always make sure that we have a government of, by and for people. 

            God bless you. God bless this brigade.  And God bless the United States of America.  Thank you very much.  (Cheers, applause.) 

            Thank you.  Sit down.  I'm supposed to do some questions here. So if you have some questions, I'm happy to answer anything that you might want to ask about.  Go ahead. 

            Q:  Good afternoon, sir. I'm Lieutenant Walker with Cobra Company 269 Armor.  My question is, with the military transitioning to -- away from counterinsurgency and towards a hybrid threat like we trained against during our current -- recent rotation at the National Training Center, what will be the role of the armored force during and after this transition? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  We've been, as you know, going through the process of looking at strategy for the future, in part because we're at this turning point after 10 years of war, in part because we're facing a record deficit and a record debt, and in part because I think it's important to look at how do we protect the finest force, not only today but in the future. 

            So the service chiefs and I sat down and said, what do we need to look at?  What do we need in order to make sure we have the best military force in the world -- for now, for 2020 and beyond? 

            So we came up with a strategy that involves five basic elements. Number one, we know that we are going to be smaller because, as you draw down after these wars, regardless of budget constraints, we were likely to be much smaller and much leaner.  And we will be.  We need to be agile.  We need to be quickly deployable.  We need to be technologically advanced.  We need to be flexible.  So this has got to be a force that is able to move and move quickly and be able to engage quickly. 

            Secondly, we made the decision we have to focus our attention on two key areas of the world that involve the greatest threats to our country.  One is the Pacific, and to maintain a strong presence or strong force projection in the Pacific, and the other is the Middle East, and make sure that we are there and we are present and we are able to deal with potential conflicts in that part of the world as well. 

            Thirdly, that we also need to have a presence in the rest of the world. And to do that, what we talked about is developing a capability to have rotational presence in other areas, to be able to rotate brigades, other forces, so that whether it's Europe, whether it's Africa or whether it's Latin America, we can engage, we can do exercises, we can provide advice and assistance and develop the kind of partnerships that we need in the world of the future.  And that's a role that will be played not just by special forces, not just by the Marines, but by the Army as well. 

            Fourthly, we have to be able to engage and defeat more than one enemy at a time. 

            If we're fighting a war in Korea, we've got to be able to confront it -- a war or an enemy in the Middle East and be able to do that.  So that requires a strong fighting force, requires what you're training for, requires your ability to engage.  In the end, it is boots on the ground that make the difference, and that's what you represent.   

            Lastly, we've got to invest.  This can't just be about cutting; it's also about investing in the future.  And that means we have to invest in the technologies of the future.   

            We've got to invest in cyber.  Cyber's a whole new battlefront for the future.  I mean, we face cyber attacks now every day.  You could use cyber to basically paralyze this country.  You can break down the power grid.  You could bring down our financial systems, bring down our government systems.  We have got to invest in cyber for the future.   

            We've got to invest in space because there are new technologies being developed every day.  We've got to have that capability.  We've got to invest in unmanned systems, the ability to be able to have the very best to engage whatever enemy is out there.   

            We've got to invest in special forces operations because those are key operations that we are going to need for the future as well -- today and the future.   

            So investing is important. 

            And being able to mobilize quickly, if we need to, which means we've got to have a strong Guard and a strong Reserve in order to be able to do that.   

            So that's -- that, in a word, is a summary of the strategy that we put in place and built our budget around.  And that means that every branch of our military has to be prepared in the best way to engage whatever enemy we have to confront.   

            Let me tell you, as an Army -- an old Army guy, the Army is going to help lead the way in the future.  (Cheers, applause.) 

            STAFF:  Mr. Secretary, we have time for one more question. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  OK.  Go ahead. 

            Q:  Good evening, sir.  My name is Sergeant Carmen, 110-FA [Field Artillery]. My question was with the Army cutting back, what is the purpose of cutting brigades, sir? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I'm sorry, say that again? 

            Q:  What is the purpose of cutting brigades, sir? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  OK, on the -- on the Army, just specifically on that issue -- and obviously, General Odierno and I have discussed, you know, how we approach this in terms of the future.  As I said, as a result of 10 years of war and the drawdown that would take place both as a result of Iraq and ultimately in Afghanistan, the decision was that we would gradually have to reduce the number of brigades in the Army as well. 

            And the number we're looking at -- over 10 years, by the way. This is not going to happen next year or the year after.  This is going to be a long transition.  We'll go from about 580, which is the high point that we're at right now, and gradually reduce down to a 490, which is above the number we had before 9/11. 

            So we are going to still maintain brigades.  We are still going to maintain a strong Army in the future.  That's important.  And it's going to be an Army, as I said, that's going to have to engage in some of these missions that we talked about. 

            So while there'll be some transition down over 10 years and while that'll happen in the Marines and elsewhere, the key for us is going to be to maintain the finest military that we can for the future. 

            The other point I want to make is that we have also made a commitment -- I mean, the one thing we don't want to do -- every time we come to the -- these periods where, you know, we draw down after a war, we've made terrible mistakes in the past, terrible mistakes. Whether it was World War II, whether it was Korea, whether it was Vietnam, whether it's the fall of the Soviet Union, what happened in the past is that when that threat went away, we cut across the board, and we hollowed out the military.  We are not going to repeat that mistake.  I am not going to cut across the board.  (Applause.) 

            So whatever the Army units we have, the Army brigades we have, the Marine units that we have, the Navy, the Air Force, we're going to give them the best equipment, the best training, the best kind of benefits that they need in order to be the strongest military in the world.  So that's one of the things we've tried to do in our budget is to make very sure that as we make some reductions over the next 10 years, that we also invest and make sure that you have what you need in order to be able to fight the battle. 

            And the other thing that we made clear is we are not going to break faith with you in terms of the benefits we promised you.  We're committed to you and to your families.  (Applause.)  We asked you go to war.  We've asked you to deploy time and time again. 

            And for that reason, we said those who are serving today are going to get the benefits that were promised them, and we will do that.   

            So this is a -- you know, this is -- this is a challenging period.  It's not going to be easy.  We face a fight in the Congress, probably face a -- you know, some additional challenges as we go through this.  But, in the end, I am convinced that the service chiefs and that all of us have put together a strategy for the future that will do one thing:  It will keep America the strongest military in the world, it will protect this country, and it'll give our kids that better life that we all care about.  (Cheers, applause.) 

            Thanks very much.