Hamre Reflects on his Defense Service, Praises Troops
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 22, 2000 Looking back on seven years with DoD, Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre said he is "absolutely awed at the quality and professionalism" of American military personnel.
Hamre will step down March 31 after nearly three years in the position and another four as DoD comptroller. He will immediately take up duties as president and chief executive officer for the Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"There's a level of sophistication, professionalism and commitment [in the military] that people just don't find very much out there," Hamre said in a recent interview with American Forces Press Service. "If you were to go out to the average factory floor in America and talk to workers, you wouldn't find anything close to the quality and enthusiasm that you find in the military."
These qualities are brought out in people by "pride in the outfit," he said. "They know their work is important, and they're proud of how well they do it."
Hamre said he knows the military isn't perfect, but when service members and their families point out potential problems their leaders listen.
Several years ago defense leaders started hearing complaints about the Redux retirement system. "We got the message loud and clear," he said. "We knew we were going to have to change if we wanted people to reenlist. And we did." This year, healthcare is the issue they're hearing about the most.
Hamre thinks it's great when service members say what they think. "You just have to get used to taking feedback," he said. "And believe me, we get a lot of feedback."
Not everyone agrees with him, however. "Some people ask, 'Why do we get so much complaining?' and I tell them, 'It's because we have smart people. If you want dummies in your military you won't get nearly so much complaining, but then you'll have other massive problems,'" he said. "This way we've got a fine force, and they tell you what they need. That's the way it should be."
Hamre said his memories of American service members are what he'll cherish the most as he leaves the department. They're innumerable, he said, but a few stand out.
One memory is of watching soldiers training in Hohenfels, Germany, prior to moving out for duty in Bosnia. Hamre observed a group of soldiers practicing checkpoint operations and training on how to "pat down" someone for weapons. The group's first sergeant was explaining how to search someone without offending them.
"This is a very sensitive issue in Bosnia because it's a Muslim country," he said. "Having Muslim women being patted down by a male soldier from another country could be a very explosive situation."
He said the first sergeant gave several suggestions, including using the backs of hands instead of the fronts, and then told his troops, "If you follow these techniques, you'll be able to protect the dignity of the individual you're searching and still be able to protect your buddies, too."
"I thought to myself, 'What military in the world thinks about protecting the dignity of people that they are watching over?' Most militaries would say, 'These people are out there; they're going to try to kill you, and you've got to watch them like a hawk.' And they treat them like that, too," Hamre said. "Here was a military that said, 'These are people. You're going to treat them with dignity, and you're still going to make sure you can protect yourself.'
"There's not another military in the world that could do that," he said. "I was so darn proud of them I couldn't stand it. I'll never forget that."
Another unforgettable experience was in Dili, East Timor, on Thanksgiving Day 1999. Hamre and his wife, Julie, were visiting a school run by a nun named Sister Marlene, who had stood up to rampaging militias and kept them from burning her school.
"She told us the kids wanted to sing us a song," he said. "She blew a whistle, and all of a sudden 300 of the most adorable little kids came pouring out of these buildings, and they sang a little Bible-school song. I thought to myself it was just so heartbreaking because these beautiful kids were all going to go home to houses that didn't have roofs or running water.
"They sang a song about the hope that was in their hearts now that the United States military was there to help. My wife and I sat there and cried," Hamre said, blinking back tears in the retelling. "It was heartbreaking, but it was heartwarming as well to see the amount of good that's being done now."
But when he really got choked up was in trying to come up with the words to say goodbye to the troops.
"It's been an unbelievable privilege for me to be deputy secretary of defense, not because of the exciting things I've gotten to do and the decisions I've gotten to make, but because of the people I've gotten to work with. They're just spectacular, and they're so dedicated to doing a good job," he said. "Every day in the morning I tell myself I've got to do better today because of them, and every night the last prayer on my lips is that they get safely through the night. I'm just very grateful, and you tell them that for me."