DOD Nominees Pledge to Advocate for Troops, Families
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 29, 2012 The nominee for the Pentagon’s top personnel and readiness post told Congress today she will champion the men and women in uniform and their families while tackling budgetary challenges.
Erin C. Conaton told the Senate Armed Services Committee that her greatest challenge, if confirmed as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, will be to sustain the quality and readiness of the all-volunteer force as the centerpiece of the new defense strategy.
“The new strategy calls for an agile force ready for a broad variety of missions,” Conaton said in her prepared remarks. The services will face challenges in maintaining readiness as the military completes its transition out of Afghanistan, she said, and decisions made today will impact their ability to face future security threats.
“We must also ensure appropriate compensation, health care and personnel policies that recognize both the service and sacrifice undertaken by our troops and their families and the new budgetary realities,” she said.
If confirmed, Conaton will be the senior DOD official responsible for total force management, military personnel policy, military family programs, health care, compensation, DOD civilian personnel policy and a broad range of other related activities.
Her portfolio will include challenges ranging from end-strength reductions to transition assistance for separating service members to retirement reform and the rising cost of military health care.
Conaton noted planned force reductions and workforce-shaping initiatives in the Defense Department’s civilian workforce, emphasizing that retaining the best military and civilian force will be a top priority.
Meanwhile, she promised to press for a more robust transition assistance program for military members to hang up their uniforms for good. “For those that will leave the service, we have an obligation to ensure each service member is as prepared as possible to succeed in civilian life,” she said.
Conaton also emphasized the priority she will place on physical and mental health care and transition assistance for wounded, ill and injured warriors.
DOD’s Personnel and Readiness office “must have a strong role with the military departments in continuing to address issues of mental health and suicide that plague too many,” she told the committee.
Conaton said she also will share Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s focus on the problem of sexual assault. “Even one sexual assault is one too many, and out of step with the core values of the American military,” she said.
If confirmed to her post, Conaton said she will work closely with other Defense Department and interagency officials and Congress to tackle these and other issues. “I fully recognize that this is a team sport, and that substantial progress on these issues cannot be made without leadership and without close partnerships,” she said.
“There would be no greater honor than to represent our outstanding service members -- active, Guard, Reserve and civilian -- and their families,” she told the panel. “It would be a privilege to be their advocate and to continue to advocate for the strength of the all-volunteer force and its readiness.”
Conaton, a former staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, has served as undersecretary of the Air Force since March 2010.
Also at today’s hearing, Jessica L. Wright, the president’s nominee as assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs, said she will strive to sustain the reserve component as an integral part of the all-volunteer force while protecting and enhancing the capabilities they have gained during a decade of conflict.
She noted that unemployment and underemployment among returning Guard and reserve forces is a growing concern and said she will strive to address this and encourage new ways to build strength and resiliency in reserve-component families.
Wright said she will promote the “continuum of service” model that provides more flexible service options for service members and helps provide more predictability to them, their families and their employers.
Wright currently serves as the acting principal staff adviser and assistant to the secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs. She spent more than 35 years in uniform, holding key leadership positions both as an Active Guard Reserve and as a traditional reserve-component member. In her last assignment, which she held for seven years, she was the Pennsylvania adjutant general and commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard.