MODERATOR: ... Veteran, Secretary Chuck Hagel.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.
Colonel, thank you and thank you for your leadership.
First, let me thank each of you for your service and what you're doing here for our country and for the people of Afghanistan.
It is a, as you know, an immense responsibility for each of you to be part of something so important at an important time in the world, certainly an important time for this country, for the United States of America. And to each of you and your families, thank you for your sacrifices and your service.
It is true, I was in the United States Army in 1968 in Vietnam. I was with the 9th Infantry Division. I wasn't smart enough to be in 101st, but worked with 101st on two different occasions and have many friends who served with the Screaming Eagles for many years, some even led this much decorated and distinguished division and I always have appreciated this service that this division has given to our country.
I'm going to ask each of you if you've got any questions or more importantly, advice for me here in a minute, but let me make a couple of comments.
First, I am much honored to serve as secretary of defense. It, of course, is a personal privilege but more than that, it is a … opportunity to serve with America's finest men and women who render as selfless service as I know. And to be part of your team is indeed a great privilege and I want you to know how proud I am to be part of your team and working with you.
And I want you to also know that I will always do my best for you, for your families, our country. I will always put our men and women in uniform first and do everything I can to ensure your safety or success and everything that you're entitled to.
These are not easy times for our country, for the world and certainly these are not easy times to be part of our armed forces. But they are times that give us each a rare opportunity to participate in something that, that doesn't come along every day.
We are seeing a world in great transition just like the transition underway here in Afghanistan. That presents great possibilities for all of us. Yes, dangers; yes, uncertainty; yes, complicated challenges, but I think the way we always look at challenges is that we see through those challenges, define the opportunity to help make a better world. And if there is one thing that defines your service, your sacrifices, it is to help make a better world.
I thank you for that and I remind you of that opportunity that we all have working together to accomplish something that not all generations have an opportunity to accomplish.
So thank you. Again, I’m very proud to be part of your team and I look forward to working with you as we go forward on all the big issues that face all of us.
Now, what do you want to talk about? What advice do you have? Who wants to start?
Q: Mr. Secretary, with the high unemployment rate facings our veterans of our Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operating Enduring Freedom, what is -- what are we doing to help veterans as they transition out of the military and back into the civil sector to be successful?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I appreciate, (inaudible), your question. It is a fundamental question for each of you and your families.
There is no higher priority that I have than to assist our -- our men and women as they transition out into a different life whenever that transition comes, and that includes employment opportunities, that includes benefits, that includes all of the commitments that our nation makes to each of you when you agree to make a commitment to our country.
We have, as you know, many ongoing programs in place. We need to implement new programs, we will. I will do everything I possibly can to assure those commitments are fulfilled at every level, in every program.
In fact, when I get back next week, I'm going to be meeting with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki, to reconnect with General Shinseki who I've known for many years, as committed and dedicated American as I know of -- you know of distinguished military career and that's one area of cooperation, working closer with the VA in assuring that some of those programs are carried forward.
We have other programs specifically focused on employment, a new G.I. bill which I hope many of you and your families are either taking advantage of some -- at some point, or will. I was a leading co-sponsor of that legislation back in 2008, which I'm very proud of. That, I think, gives our military men and women and their families for the first time ever, more options and more benefits than ever.
So many of the programs that we need to continue to work on, work through, the funding for those is critically important, and I will do everything within my power to assure that the funding is there and the commitments that we’ve made to you are fulfilled.
Q: Mr. Secretary, how will sequestration affect military PCS movements?
SEC. HAGEL: The question is on sequestration and PCS movements, but larger questions abound on sequestration as you know. I think you all are aware of what's going on in Washington with sequestration and essentially what that means is what is happening to the Department of Defense as one of the federal agencies in Washington, we are required to take a cut in our budget. We are managing that. We are dealing with it. We will continue to manage with those realities.
Further complicating that is a -- a continuing resolution that is funding our departments, funding the government. That continuing resolution comes due March 27 so the -- the Congress is going to have to make a decision as to what happens after the 27th. Many of you have been following this. The House of Representatives passed legislation here this week.
But that being the landscape which most of you know, yes, it affects everything. It -- it affects all of our programs, but what I'm committed to do and our leaders are committed to do -- I've met with the chiefs of each service and the secretaries of each service a number of times, met with them two days ago before I left Washington -- is to assure that our men and women in uniform are not affected on any of the pay, benefits. Our readiness continues to stay as active and alert and essential as any -- at any time. And so we are adjusting in training, steaming time, flight time, areas that don't affect directly our men and women in uniform and -- and our readiness.
But it's a problem, it's serious, if -- if it continues, it -- it will make our jobs more difficult. Our jobs are more difficult now but if it continues it'll -- it'll be more and more difficult for us to do what we are required to do and that is to assure the security of America around the world.
We will manage it; we will work through it and we'll continue to work with the Congress on ways to make sure that that certainty of security is -- is there and will continue to be there.
Q: Sir, some of the benefits for same sex partners are already in the works. Do you plan on pushing so that the same sex partners get all the benefits as other spouses?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, the -- the quick answer to the question is yes, absolutely. I made that commitment to the Congress. I made that commitment to the president. It's the right thing to do. Every member who serves their country deserves the same benefits, that's right. It's -- it's the right thing to do.
As many of you know, before Secretary Panetta left office, he issued a statement which addresses even more of -- of those issues. We still have more to address. We will. But I'm absolutely committed to fulfill the commitments that were made by the president, the same commitments that I made to the Congress and the men and women and their families of the armed forces.
Q: Mr. Secretary, with budget cuts and the downsizing of the military, how will that change what our main focus as soldiers in the military will be when we get back stateside, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. HAGEL: Well a general question about, with the sequestration and the budget limitations how it would affect our focus on our military men and women as they transition back to the United States.
As I said earlier, if the sequestration continues and we see this for a long period of time, it is going to affect our ability to have flexibility and certainty in assignments and other areas that will affect some of our people.
So, I think in the meantime, we must continue to work with the Congress and work with our people and -- and manage the realities that we have in front of us to assure the readiness and the capabilities of our -- of our forces.
I'll take one more.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I just had one question. How is this about -- how is this -- everything going on in Congress right now -- going to affect us that are about to retire?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think the retirement benefits and all the commitments that have been made to all of you will continue to be assured and we will protect those -- those -- those benefits. And I have every confidence that -- that Congress has every intention in continuing to work with us on assuring that all of our retirement benefits and other benefits continue to be funded and the commitments fulfilled.
Again, thank you very, very much for your service to our country. Give my regards to your families. I have some appreciation for what your families go through. I think the families are always in a position where it's, you know, almost every case most difficult for them, not that it's easy for you.
But the -- the families have to always kind of be behind and worry and deal with the day to day rigors of -- of in many cases, a one parent families and other responsibilities while you're doing your job for our country. And I want you to know as secretary of defense, I have some appreciation of that, I recognize that and we very much appreciate that.
Thank you very much. Take care of yourselves.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.