Thank you for that warm welcome, Congressman Skelton, and special thanks to Whiteman’s Base Community Council for your invitation.
Let me say a word or two about my friend, Ike Skelton, probably nothing you don’t already know. A representative of Missouri’s fourth district since 1977, Ike Skelton has always defended the interests of our men and women in uniform and is a life-long champion of American military power. A strong advocate for Fort Leonard Wood, the Missouri National Guard Training Center, and of course Whiteman, the Congressman even has a picture of the B-2 on his homepage!
As Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he is the leader on a number of issues vital to our nation’s security, among them nuclear non-proliferation and reconstituting the Armed Forces. He has visited the Persian Gulf and met with leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan to assess the situation firsthand. The House Armed Services Committee has long been a source of support in meeting our nation's defense goals. Following my Senate confirmation as the new Secretary of Defense, the first committee that called me to testify was the House Armed Services Committee. The subject was “The Way Forward in Iraq” – not an easy pitch or an easy audience. I can assure you that your Congressman’s questions are tough; they are pointed – but they are always fair.
In a world of partisan politics, Ike has always placed the welfare of our service members at the forefront of his agenda. He has sat bed-side at Walter Reed and comforted those in the amputee wards. Last year, he visited troops in Iraq during the Thanksgiving holiday. All told, Ike Skelton is a friend of everyone in uniform. I deeply appreciate his efforts to safeguard this great nation and his enduring concern for our service members. Thank you.
Well, it is great to be here in the mid-west – it feels like coming home. As Congressman Skelton mentioned, I grew up just next door and got one degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. With reference to Ike’s first comment, I will remain silent about Saturday’s game. I will tell you that my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece all have degrees from Kansas [State] University – none of them from KU – all K-State. The only reaction I have to Saturday’s game is, as the former President of a university with a record so far this season of 6-5 and who is going to play the University of Texas on Friday, I’m simply envious of both team’s records so far this year.
There is a feeling of pride in America’s heartland that I have always admired and appreciated. You see examples of integrity, loyalty, and patriotism all around you. I learned firsthand about the importance of close neighbors and tight-knit communities like this one.
Being here and by the way, I should tell you my father was born and grew up in Missouri. In the 1920s, [he] sold typewriters, driving model Ts through the Ozarks. He had some interesting stories to tell. Being here in Missouri is coming full circle from Air Force second lieutenant to Secretary of Defense. I was commissioned on January 4, 1967. I married my wife, Becky, in Seattle on January 7, 1967 and a few days later reported for duty here at Whiteman. I would share with you that the largest fixed wing aircraft we had here at the time was a Cessna. I was assigned to the base plans and intelligence office. One of my duties was to brief missile crews on international political and military developments … I would tell you their lack of interest was awesome.
Because of my academic background and moderate Russian language skills, I frequently briefed high-ranking officers on our wing’s Minuteman targets in the Soviet Union. I recall one briefing in particular. I was explaining our target set to an Air Force Lieutenant General, the Commander of 8th Air Force at Westover – whom I would characterize as a cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed Curtis Lemay wannabe. When I told him that 120 of our 150 missiles were aimed at Soviet ICBMs, he blew up and, with many expletives I will delete, said it was an outrage that we would be hitting only empty silos. He wanted to kill Russians. He demanded that I, Second Lieutenant Gates, rewrite the nuclear targeting plan. That reminded me there was a four-star general in Omaha who felt he had some ownership of that problem.
That does remind me of another story about targeting. One day here at Whiteman, we told there was a problem with the war plans. SAC Headquarters in Omaha needed to change the launch sequencing for all the missiles immediately. So, we worked all night to fix the strike control documents, then – wrestling with large, unwieldy sheets of laminating material like working with fly paper. We laminated the documents and checklists. The next morning, we received a call from a major in one of the launch control capsules. He correctly guessed the kind of pizza we had eaten while working during the night … there seemed to be a piece of pepperoni laminated under a strike control sheet.
I still remember that, when I arrived at Whiteman, many Missouri farmers were unhappy about the missiles because two acres of their land had been taken for each of the silos. One story I heard here was that, as a way to smooth over relations, the Air Force flew some of the farmers to the ballistic missile staff officer course at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. There the farmers saw a video showing a silo door, about 80 tons of steel and concrete, being blown off the top of a silo. One of the farmers was convinced the silo door being blown aside like this would kill some of his cows. The Air Force tried to persuade him that if that silo door blew he had bigger problems to worry about than his cows, but to no avail. And so, to calm his fears, base personnel anchored two telephone poles outside the silo fence on his property – in theory – to stop the silo cap from hurting his cows.
On another occasion, we were told, one of the base helicopters, which were used to ferry crews and secret documents to the launch control capsules, was forced to land in an adjacent field because of high winds. A still resentful, no-nonsense Missouri farmer drove his tractor over, then chained and padlocked a strut of the helicopter to his tractor, and demanded $1,000 in rent for use of his field as a helo pad.
Relations between the base and community presumably have improved so much since then. I’m delighted to hear about the ways that you, members of the Base Community Council, have embraced our service men and women. With representatives from over 20 surrounding cities and towns – both large and small – the BCC has:
- Helped fund nearly two dozen squadron Christmas parties on base each year;
- Rented caps and gowns for Airmen graduating from the Community College of the Air Force; and
- Volunteered at air shows and other base-wide community events.
I travel to Afghanistan and Iraq fairly regularly and I am routinely asked by troops whether the people back home support them. I tell them ‘yes’ because of organizations like yours. To everyone here from the BCC, please accept my heart-felt thanks for all the wonderful ways you have volunteered to help this military community.
We are the most powerful military in the world today because of the service members who have volunteered to answer the nation’s call. The men and women stationed here fly or support B-2s, A-10s, T-38s and Apaches – awesome instruments in the arsenal of freedom. When Harry Truman said, “carry the battle to them; don’t let them bring it to you,” he did not envision 44-hour round trip missions by B-2s made from this base to targets on the other side of the globe.
Just as Whiteman provided strategic depth and deterrence during the Cold War, so too do its platforms and its people safeguard America today. While consolidating gains in Afghanistan is a priority and Iraq remains at the forefront in the war on terror, the strategic deterrence and long-range, precision capabilities offered here – our only operational B-2 base – are critical to protecting America’s other national interests around the world.
I will conclude with one final story that illustrates what else has changed. In the mid-1990s, I was giving some speeches in Hanoi. Following one, Vietnam’s Minister of Defense approached me and asked if I had fought in Vietnam during the war. I replied, “No, I was stationed at an intercontinental ballistic missile base in Missouri. I was targeting your patron, the Soviet Union, in case they got out of hand.” The Minister’s face froze a few seconds, then he slowly broke a smile and said, “That’s good, that’s good!”
Congressman Skelton and members of the BCC, again, thank you for showing our troops how much you care. Now I’d be happy to answer your questions. Thank you.