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Defense Secretary Affirms Commitment to Quality-of-Life Issues

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT BLISS, Texas, May 1, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he found revelations of substandard housing for returning combat troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., “appalling” and said he’s committing to ensuring servicemembers and their families get quality-of-life benefits they deserve.

Gates told senior noncommissioned officers attending the Army Sergeants Major Academy here that he watched a You-Tube video of a barracks at Fort Bragg where soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan were staying. “The conditions were appalling,” Gates said. “Soldiers should never have to live in such squalor.”

The defense secretary said leaders must approach the issue proactively. “It is the duty of every commander, indeed everyone responsible for our men and women in uniform, to ensure that our troops have decent living conditions,” Gates said. “And if the local resources aren’t available to make the necessary improvements, it is the leader’s responsibility to alert the chain of the command.”

Gates insisted that “current needs must not be sacrificed to future capabilities.” That applies, he said, whether the need is proper treatment of wounded warriors, or getting mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles or more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater, or decent housing at home.

Gates noted that the Army will spend some $18 billion over the next six years to improve housing, especially for enlisted troops. Much of that construction will take place here at Fort Bliss, which is expected to grow by an additional 30,000 soldiers and 40,000 family members.

The secretary delayed the movement of units from Germany because housing wasn’t yet ready for them and he wanted to avoid a duffle-bag shuffle in temporary facilities. “I thought it would be unacceptable for soldiers and their families to live and work under those conditions,” he said.

As the Army builds new facilities, Gates said, it can’t neglect existing ones.

Noting that 56 percent of active-duty forces are married and 44 percent have children, Gates said the Defense Department “needs to be more family-friendly -- to adjust to reality, but also because it is the right thing to do.”

He applauded sweeping initiatives being advanced in the Army Family Covenant that seek to give troops and their families “a quality of life that is commensurate with their service.”

Gates said he supports increased educational benefits, including an updated Montgomery GI Bill that will enable servicemembers who don’t use their benefits to pass them to a family member.

This idea, which Gates said he first heard while meeting with Army spouses at Fort Hood, Texas, was among initiatives President Bush advocated in his State of the Union address in January, the secretary noted.

The mission has wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. “I believe the Congress will act before too long,” Gates said.

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Robert M. Gates

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