SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: I'm here to first get a better understanding of the tremendous work that's done here and what this place represents, you, your families, everyone who's been through here, the future generations who will come through here.
I think it's probably as much hope as any one thing. The technology is cutting edge. The research, science is cutting edge. You're doing things really that no one else in the world is doing.
And it is about hope. It's about hope for a better life for you, your families, all our people.
It's also about inspiration. It's about how each of you are inspiring others who are with you now but will come after you. Families inspire you, inspire the people who work here. Doc and all of his team, they are inspirational.
So I want to acknowledge that because I think occasionally we tend to drift over that element of what's done in a tremendous facility like this. Yes, the medical advances, yes all the research and the technology, and yes all the dynamics that are part of that framework.
But it's the people. It really is the people who make the difference. And you know that better than anyone. And I want you to know that I know it. The president of the United States knows it. And I think the American people know it.
I want to also thank this community. This is a tremendous community, has been. It's important to our military, their families. Every element of our national security for so long has been supported by this community. Your congressional delegation who have been very important and continue to be important and it's important what we’re doing here, what we're all doing together here.
The Fisher House obviously what they continue to do, the Wounded Warrior Fund, and so many different groups that have been part of this, continue to be part of making this work. And of course the volunteers, some who are here today and some are in this room.
I've had an opportunity to meet with five individuals here about an hour ago who combined I think had something, 165 years of service to their country. That's pretty neat. And I think the junior -- the piker in the bunch had only been in 37. And he kind of shirked his duties at 37. (Laughter.) But the rest of them had been from I think 65 years down, which is pretty remarkable.
I also am here to get a better sense not just of the dimension that I just already described, the people, what you do, how you do it, what's it worth. But it allows me to do a better job of supporting you as secretary of Defense.
We've got budgets coming up. We'll be going before Congress to present our annual budget. We're having to make some tough choices on prioritizing our resources.
You know because you read all about this that our budgets are going down. And it's forcing us all to make some tough choices and make some decisions here in how we're going to prioritize those resources.
As we keep this country, our security, our national interests as strong as they have ever been. And that's as much the responsibility of all of us, our leadership, as any one responsibility is to prepare our country, prepare our institutions to defend our country as the strongest in the world. And we'll continue to do that.
When I have a chance to get out, and I'll be in a couple other places today and tomorrow, as I try to do often as secretary of defense, to better understand your priorities and better understand your needs. It helps me. It helps my team back at the Pentagon assure that we're giving you the kind of resources that you need.
Just an additional point and then we’re going to talk about anything you want to talk about. And that is we live in a world that is full of complication. I don’t need to tell any of you about that. It's a world that is growing closer together, more and more people, more and more demand, more and more interests.
Technology is driving a tremendous amount of this. As well as, I think a positive sign, and that is a break out for people wanting more rights. And wanting -- demanding more dignity as human beings. And that's a good sign in the world.
It causes turmoil. It causes great challenges. It causes new challenges. But it's a good sign for the world.
And how we manage through that and what we do about that and our role in that continues to be critical. It is a new world. It is a different time.
It does require new strategies and new tactics and new dimensions, just as the Center for the Intrepid, this facility, has shown the way in a remarkable historic way in your own areas. But you have changed things in your world. You have made a different world in so many different ways for the better. And we can apply what you're doing here and have been doing and will continue to do to the larger context of these great global challenges.
So I wanted to just note that because we are living in that world. We are living at this unpredictable, uncertain, complicated, interconnected, and yes, dangerous time in the world. But we also are living in a world with great, great opportunities and possibilities and great hope, just as this center represents that great hope and that great inventory of possibilities.
So thank you for what you're doing, what you continue to do. And I want you to know that I will support you in every way I can support you. So thank you for giving me a privilege to be with you today.
Okay. Questions? Advice? Anything you want to talk about.
Last time I was in San Antonio it was a happy occasion. I was here for the Alamo Bowl when Nebraska played Michigan. And I was allowed the privilege of flipping the coin at center field. And my son was in grade school at the time so he got to come out onto the field. He keeps a picture of that time.
I got the -- second time in my career I got to flip a coin was at the Army-Navy game. The weather was really different, Philadelphia versus San Antonio. But it was a great privilege, it was great fun.
So I have been to San Antonio many times, American Legion conventions and other opportunities. So you've got a great community here, and your community's leadership has been tremendous.
Q: Mr. Secretary, (inaudible) here.
SEC. HAGEL: Hi.
Q: My question is from a Department of Defense standpoint what's the position going to be within the department as far as taking care of veterans in their retired status, taking care of those like in this room for the next however many years that we persevere?
Because OMB comes out with some recommendations I picked up on that were kind of scary. And so you sort of wonder where we're going to be.
Now, I'm pretty senior so probably I'm okay. But a lot of folks in this room would fall into another category. And they're at risk.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, your question is an important one and it's a relevant one. First, thank you for your service. Thank you for what you've done for our country.
First let's start with the Commander-in-Chief President Obama. He has said -- I have said as secretary of defense, the Congress has made it pretty clear that we're going to take care of our people. We're going to take care of our veterans. We're going to take care of the men and women who served this country and are serving this country. So that's where we start.
Now, when we get down into the issues, and I understand it GAO, Compensation Committee was out here this week on the specifics of retirement benefits, on health care compensation, pay, the entire package. That is being reviewed. It needs to be reviewed. And we are taking a very thoughtful look at everything.
Our chiefs, all the services are part of this, senior enlisted of every service are part of this. It isn’t OMB driving it. OMB is a numbers operation out of the White House, Office of Management and Budget. It's an important institution. We need it.
But the recommendations that will be made down the road will come from the Congress, will come from the partnership that we all have. And we do know that the current set of obligations we have based on what the projections are out into the future is most likely unsustainable.
When we're now talking about half of our entire Pentagon budget goes to pay compensation, retirement, health care. And those numbers continue to grow every year by significant percentages.
Now, if we come at this the smart way, the wise way, and I believe we will -- we could make some adjustments that really won't hurt anybody here. It won't violate any commitments that this country has made to the men and women and their families who sacrifice for this country. We won't let that happen.
But we've got to be honest with the reality that we can't sustain the glide path that we're on with the current programs. The chiefs of all the staffs have said this. Senior enlisted have said it. Most members of Congress have said it.
But we'll make it work. We'll fix it. And we'll do it so that it won't hurt -- it won't hurt our troops.
Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My name is Sergeant Major Lovejoy and I've had the honor to serve in America's Army now for over 38 years with multiple combat tours.
And having been here in San Antonio for about five years I just have a personal request for you that what they do here is absolutely fabulous, both at the hospital, at this center, at the Fisher House. And the secret that actually exists there is they're keeping families together.
It's very difficult for a young boy to see how life is without his father loving his mother. And so we have the teens working. It's important for a young girl to see her mother work with her father and love him in the environment that we have here.
And so having talked to many of the family members, and an active duty sergeant major myself, sir I just ask as you take a look at those tough cuts, make sure that, please, sir, that we continue to do what we're doing here. Because what we do here is saving lives. And it's a center of gravity for all of the medical things that are taking place.
And you won't find a better place to send our service members than right here. And I just want to thank you for what you're doing for us every day, sir. Hooah.
SEC. HAGEL: Lovejoy, you said it all. We're not going to do anything that would inhibit the continued progress of this institution. What it means, for all the reasons you clearly, eloquently articulated. You said it as well as anyone can say it.
We're not going to violate that. We're not going to let that erode. We're going to continue to make the kinds of resource commitments that are required to do what we need to do and continue to do in this facility.
SEC. HAGEL: Yes?
Q: My name's Victor Rivera, I’m a retired U.S. sergeant, U.S. Army. I'm also a patient here. I was a wounded warrior four years here and now I'm back. I'm retired, I live off my retirement pay.
I was blessed to land a job that right now because of my injury, I don't think I'll be able to continue. So I'm going to be really living off my retirement.
I just want to stress out the fact that -- what this gentleman was saying. I'm one of those younger -- not so younger -- generations who will be affected if a cut was imposed on our pay. And I just have to ask you, please…
SEC. HAGEL: Sure.
Q: … if you can consider guys like me.
I didn’t ask to get shot. I didn’t ask. I signed a contract, I gave up my life because I wanted to make a commitment to my country and to my brothers.
And I don’t think it's fair to me or to any guys who are worse off than me to have to even stress over the fact that hey, there might be a possibility where you know our mortgage can't get paid or our car payment can't get paid or we can't buy some food for our family one day because of someone up there can't make a decision correctly enough to keep it going.
I just want to stress the fact that you know, please don’t take our money. Please fix it. I believe you can fix it. I believe in our system. Just don’t take it.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, sergeant, thank you, what you have done for our country. Let me assure you that all disabled families, all in the situation that you're in and the people in this room would be exempted from any adjustments in the rate of growth of anything.
The current bipartisan Budget Act was agreed to right before the Congress went home, and signed by the president, has an element in it which you I'm sure are aware of called COLA [Cost of Living Allowance] minus 1. And it does not exempt the disabled and others.
That will be fixed. Senator Carl Levin, who's chairman of the Armed Services Committee has said that he would be holding hearings this year. Other committees in the Congress of oversight responsibility will be holding hearings on the larger area of COLA reform.
That part of the budget agreement wouldn’t go into effect until December of 2015. So we've got two years to fix that particular problem. It will get fixed.
We need to come at what whatever decisions we may arrive at in a very full, complete and honest way. You can't come at the entire package of retirement, health care, pay, allowances in pieces. It has to be a complete package.
And that requires very careful thinking and analysis. And that's why the Congress, like always in these things because they appropriate the money, they pass the laws, is important. They have thoughtful hearings. How do we do this? But we will exempt the disabled and there will be exemptions.
I think a number of members of Congress in both parties in both houses have made that -- have made that very clear. So I get what you're saying and I agree with what you said.
PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Folks, we’ve got time for just one more question.
SEC. HAGEL: Yes?
Q: I'm Sig Christenson with the San Antonio Express News. You followed the stories out of Fallujah and Ramadi this week.
Can you tell the soldiers that have fought there and the Marines that fought there that what they did was not in vain, it was not for nothing? Because when you see the comments on Facebook and social media there's a lot of angst going on about this.
SEC. HAGEL: I know. And I followed it very, very closely.
I was in Iraq and Afghanistan many times as a United States senator. I didn’t go through what you all went through. But as a United States senator I paid a lot of attention to both of those wars.
To your question, my answer would be this. That the reason that we went into Iraq and the reason we went into Afghanistan and both by the way are different situations. They are very different.
But we went in not to stay forever, not to be occupiers, but to give the people of each of those countries an opportunity to govern themselves, to give the people of each of those countries an opportunity to defend themselves, to support themselves.
In the case of Iraq we invested eight years and many lives and many wounded. I don’t need to tell this group that. We're in our 13th year in Afghanistan. We've invested lives there as well, and limbs. And a lot of heartache and a lot of sadness.
But the intent was never to stay forever and defend the country forever. I think in Iraq's case that after eight years we did accomplish what we set out to do.
Let's not forget, yes Iraq's going through a very difficult period, but this is a very difficult time. This is a very challenging time. What they have been able to do is have elections, elections scheduled this year. They have been able to form a new responsible army that's done pretty well, imperfect.
Are there threats? Yes. Are there serious threats? Yes. But I think when we analyze what Iraq is today versus what Iraq was when we went into Iraq, it's a different country.
It's imperfect, I get that. But you know, let's go back to 1776. We didn’t have all the answers exactly right either when we started our republic. We had to have 27 amendments to the Constitution to make some changes and we're still perfecting our country.
So we've got to continue to support Iraq. We are. And you know that. We have a huge embassy there. We have huge support relationships with them. We have been supplying them equipment and weapons.
But I think we did -- you all did what you were asked to do. And I think you did it as well as it could have been done. And I think there's some proof in the pudding on this. I don’t agree with an analysis that lives were wasted on this at all. I just -- I don’t think that's true.
And I think it's unfortunate that there are people out there saying that. That's just not true. You can -- everyone who served there can be very proud of that service, the contributions you’ve made. And it is a different country today. It has hope. It has possibilities. It has elections.
Yes, it's going to work its way through some of these. It's dangerous, what's going on in Syria, what's going on in the Middle East. We don’t live in an insulated, pristine world. These threats are everywhere. And Iraq is going to handle it. And we're going to continue to help them and support them. We're not walking away from that alliance.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you all very much. Thank you.