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Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Louisville, KY, Monday, July 22, 2013

Good morning!  Commander Hamilton, thank you and thanks to all of your officers and leaders of the VFW.  I’m not only grateful for the introduction but what you do for this institution,  for our country, for our families, and for our active duty military and their families.  I’d like to also congratulate Bill Thien and Mrs. Thien and wish them every success as he takes over as the new incoming Commander of the VFW.

As the Ladies Auxiliary to the VFW nears its 100th anniversary, I want to thank National President Leanne Lemley and the Auxiliary members for the work you all do to honor our veterans and their families.  And also congratulations to Sissy Borel for following in Leanne’s footsteps as the National President.

It is a privilege to be with all of you here in Louisville.  This is a remarkable convention – a convention that always has an impact on our country and on our leaders.  And I also want to acknowledge the fact that as you all know, it wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of your executive director.  My longtime friend Bob Wallace and his entire team here and also to Mrs. Wallace for enduing living with you Bob.

So to all of the team and the organization, thank you, and to the city of Louisville for their always extraordinary hospitality, we thank you.

I bring you greetings from your commander-in-chief, President Obama, who asked me to thank you and to extend his greetings and let you know that he is aware of the work that you do on behalf of our veterans and their families, as well as our active duty military and their families.

As you all know, this week is the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. So I'd like to begin my remarks this morning by asking our Korean War veterans with us today to rise.

If we could once again acknowledge our Korean War veterans here with us this morning.

Thank you for your extraordinary service.

The upcoming observance of the 60th anniversary is an opportunity for this country to fully express its profound gratitude for your service and your sacrifices and the contributions you've made.          

Later this week I will join President Obama and Secretary Shinseki, who I know will be with you tomorrow, and we will take part in a special ceremony honoring our Korean War veterans in Washington DC. 

The Korean War veterans here today, and all those across the country, should know that your fellow citizens are proud of what you accomplished, and what your generation has contributed to our security and our prosperity here in this country, and certainly in Asia. 

I grew up in little towns in Nebraska where life revolved around the VFW and American Legion clubs.  As Commander Hamilton mentioned, I am a proud life member of VFW Post 3704 in Columbus, Nebraska.  My father, a World War II veteran of the South Pacific, who would be 90 years old today, was an active VFW member, as is my brother Tom, who Commander Hamilton noted, served with me in Vietnam.  I’ve been a member for 45 years, since I returned home from Vietnam in December 1968.  To my home state commander wherever you are out there, Harold Schlender, and Donna Fenske, President of the State VFW Auxiliary, and all my fellow Nebraskans who are here today – thank you for your support and good work and we’re very proud of what you do in Nebraska.

And of course at this point I’m obliged to say, “Go Huskers!”

Thank you.

Forgive that parochial comment.  I know that, now that we've joined the Big Ten, all you Ohio State, Michigan people question that.  But I do have the microphone.  Thank you for all your service to my friends in Nebraska.

It’s often said that no one does more for veterans than VFW.  You’re also a great friend to those who wear the uniform today.  In my first couple of weeks in this office, as Commander Hamilton noted, I convened a roundtable with the VFW and other veterans organizations to let them know they had a strong supporter and a friend at the Pentagon.  I will continue to reach out to veterans organizations like the VFW and listen to your concerns and seek your advice. 

All of us at the Pentagon, and across this administration, value your perspective, your experience, and your devotion to our military men and women.  And as I’ll explain this morning, we will need your help and partnership as we manage through a very significant period of historic transition and change.

The United States is emerging from the largest period of sustained combat in our history, having unwound from the war in Iraq and continuing to wind down the war in Afghanistan.  The world is complicated and it’s dangerous.  At the same time, we are confronting stark new fiscal challenges – including the imposition of steep and abrupt budget cuts under the mechanism of sequestration.

We have gone through periods of realignment and redefinition after every major conflict in America’s history.  They always have enormous ramifications and consequences for our entire defense enterprise – in terms of our national security, in terms of our priorities, available resources, and the needs of our men and women in uniform and their families.

America must always have a strong, capable, and ready military, a military that is always prepared to defend our national interests.  But fulfilling that obligation now and in the future will require us to fundamentally reshape defense institutions that were designed for different strategic and budgetary realities and times. 

Today I want to describe the four principles that will guide these efforts to realign and reshape our military. 

  • First, prioritizing DoD’s missions and capabilities around our core responsibility of defending our country;
  • Second, maximizing the military’s combat power;
  • Third, preserving and strengthening America’s military readiness;
  • Fourth, honoring the service and sacrifice of our people.

I am laying out these principles today, before the VFW, because all of you in this audience helped build our military into the strongest, most capable, and most respected on earth.  You understand that these principles are essential to keeping it that way.  And if we are to succeed in this effort, we will need your continued engagement and your continued partnership.

First, prioritizing core missions and capabilities:  the Department of Defense must set clear strategic priorities to implement the President’s Defense Strategic Guidance within the framework of a new fiscal reality of fewer resources. 

With $37 billion in mandated budget cuts that began on March 1st under sequestration, we are witnessing the largest single-year reduction in the defense budget since the drawdown after Korea.  Unless the law changes, the Department will have to absorb $52 billion in cuts next year, and a total of $500 billion in cuts over the next decade.  This is in addition to the $487 billion in reductions over 10 years that we are already implementing under the Budget Control Act of 2011. 

Sequestration is an irresponsible process, and it is terribly damaging.  I hope that our leaders in Washington will eventually come to policy resolution, a resolution that stops sequestration.  But all of us who have the responsibility of leading our Defense Department cannot lead the Department of Defense based on hope, based on "we think," based on "maybe." We have to prepare our institution for whatever comes.  To that end, these cuts are forcing us to make tough but necessary decisions to prioritize missions and capabilities around our core responsibility, which is the security of our country.

The reality is that many DoD missions and capabilities are essential to defending the nation and our interests.  But some are not. 

Going forward, informed by the Strategic Choices and Management Review that I initiated four months ago, the Department will prioritize how we match missions to resources.  The President must be assured that the options we present to him, the options he has to protect our country, and defend our national interests are ready and real.

Second, maximizing the military’s combat power.  To protect our country in an era of reduced resources, we will have to maximize our military’s fighting strength.  Preserving combat power means the Department is going to have to deal with deep structural imbalances in our budget – particularly supporting infrastructure that has grown in size and expense. 

An organization of the Department's size and complexity will always require a back-office.  But every dollar we spend on large staffs, large headquarters, and overhead, or facilities that we don't need, is a dollar that we don’t have available to spend on readiness, training, and equipment for our troops – or on sustaining other vital programs that help to support our people and their families.

In any budget environment, the Department of Defense should always be looking to find more efficient and affordable ways to do business.  For several years we have been paring back overhead, making our operations more effective, and putting more emphasis and focus on deeper accountability and more savings all of this in all of our departments, and in particular in our acquisition and procurement programs.  But if we are to preserve our decisive military edge, technological superiority, and our world-class professional personnel in the face of current reductions, we must find savings everywhere in our budget. 

Earlier this month I directed a 20 percent reduction in the budget for my own organization, the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, offered a similar reduction in the Joint Staff, and we expect each military service to make comparable reductions in their headquarters budgets.  I expect these cuts to not only save us significant money, but also to result in organizations that are more effective and efficient as well as more agile and versatile. 

However, DoD will not be able to meet its budgetary savings requirements just through more efficient operations and headquarters reductions.  It will require far more.   

Third, preserving and strengthening military readiness: to implement the steep and abrupt reductions that have been required under sequestration, we’ve had to make very difficult decisions to reduce, stop and defer many activities and programs that keep our military prepared to fight – including training, maintenance, and modernization investments. 

Readiness cuts aren't always visible, but these cuts are having and will continue to have very damaging effects.  During a visit to Fort Bragg last week, I heard from infantrymen whose units were short on training rounds for their weapons.  Each of the services have curtailed activities – flying hours have been reduced, ships are not sailing, and Army training has been halted.  These kinds of gaps and shortages could lead to a force that is inadequately trained, ill-equipped, and unable to fulfill required missions. 

Going forward, preserving and strengthening our readiness must be a key priority.  Unfortunately, when compared to other areas in DoD’s budget, military readiness does not always have a vocal constituency.  You cannot buy back readiness.

You all have fought and put your lives on the line for this country.  You did so with the expectation that you would be given the equipment, training, and support you needed to succeed.  Many of you – especially those veterans of the Korean War – have seen the costs, measured in precious American lives, that come with sending a hollow force into battle.

We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.  To avoid a prolonged readiness crisis, and the lasting damage it would inflict on our defense enterprise, I have given clear guidance to the services – guidance that they should not retain more people, equipment, and infrastructure than they can support, than they can afford to keep trained and ready.

This will require careful balancing.  Professional and quality individuals are the foundation of a ready force.  They are the foundation of any institution.  But strengthening readiness will ultimately demand that we address unsustainable growth in personnel costs, which represent half of the Defense Department’s budget right now, and crowds out vital spending on training and modernization.  If trends continue, we could ultimately be left with a much smaller force that is well-compensated but poorly trained and equipped.  That would be unacceptable.

Opposing for political reasons or any other reason every reform or cost-savings measure that DoD presents to Capitol Hill is shortsighted and irresponsible, and it does not help our men and women in uniform – especially when these savings can be used to fund readiness and modernization.  This will require Congress joining DoD in a partnership of difficult choices, priorities, and decisions.  It will not be easy, it will take some courage.

As we work to achieve the right balance, our men and women must always be assured that they will be fairly compensated, including earned benefits; given the best training and equipment; and treated as the professionals they are.  And they must be always certain their families will always be taken care of.   

Fourth, honoring the service and sacrifice of our people:  this brings me to another guiding principle that will inform all DoD efforts to reshape our defense enterprise – recognizing the service and sacrifice of our people.  DoD is not a corporation, and it cannot be run like one.  The costs of our decisions are measured not in how they affect the financial bottom line, but in how they affect human lives. 

Making the right decisions about our future depends on our appreciation of the sacrifices our people and their families make for our country.  We must continue to pay close attention to their needs and our commitments to them – including everything from family support programs to the resolute and painstaking work of POW/MIA recovery efforts.

Our people are strong and resilient after twelve years of war, but they are under stress – and so are the institutions that support them.  Last week at Fort Bragg’s Soldier and Family Assistance Center, I met a First Sergeant who told me that in Afghanistan, he froze up and became overwhelmed by anxiety.  He couldn’t command.  He had lost his ability to command.  I asked him how many deployments he had.  He told me he was on his fifth consecutive combat tour when this happened.

When you push human beings this hard, they break.  And our people have been pushed close to the breaking point – some have been pushed beyond the breaking point.  As the wars wind down, we are also dealing with debilitating, insidious and destructive challenges such as alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

Our military leaders do everything possible to protect our men and women on the battlefield. We must make this same commitment to our people here at home.

I have made clear to DoD’s senior leaders that the scourge of sexual assault in the military must be stamped out.  It is a stain on the honor of millions of military men and women, and is a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force.  I meet weekly with the department's senior leadership team to personally review sexual assault prevention and response efforts, and ensure that the directives and programs we've initiated to stop sexual assault in the military are being implemented now. We're all accountable. We will fix this problem. And we'll fix it together.

As I mentioned, ensuring the well-being of our people will require continued partnership with Congress. It also requires our constant cooperation and close coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Secretary Shinseki and I have a longstanding, strong, very close relationship. He and I meet on a regular basis and our working with our departments to collaborate even more closely on resolving veterans' problems and issues. I have the highest regard personally and professionally for Secretary Shinseki and the work that he and his team are doing for our veterans. This is difficult. It's imperfect. The transition of our servicemembers and their records leaving activity duty into the care of Veterans Affairs should be smooth. It should be seamless and efficient. And we're committed to breaking down the barriers that inhibit this transition.

I want to thank the VFW and other veterans organizations for what they do to assist in this effort. Their continual focus and their cooperation and their push and their assistance is vital, and we appreciate that.

Among several actions I've directed to partner with the VA, DoD is assisting VA's efforts to process the backlog of veterans' claims by sending teams of DoD experts to work with their VA colleagues in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Most backlogged VA claims today are those veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the vast majority of cases, DoD has provided all the information available to the VA.  Still, we remain committed, absolutely committed, to continuing to help reduce VA's backlog, as we have a responsibility to work closely together on these problems.  DOD and the VA are building a seamless system to ensure that future veterans never encounter some of the problems we are working to fix today.

A centerpiece of this effort is DoD’s revised Transition Assistance Program, which President Obama announced at last year’s VFW Convention.  That has since been implemented. It’s working well.  It will go a long way toward ensuring that veterans have the health care, counseling, and support they need – and that they have the opportunity to find a good job, start a business or pursue an education. 

As a former VA deputy administrator, U.S. Senator, and veteran, I have been involved in these issues for many years, so I have some understanding and appreciation for the complications and difficulties involved in getting these two large bureaucracies to work closely together.  There is a lot more that needs to be done, but we are making good progress. We’re committed to do it.

Chairman Dempsey has correctly observed that the country is now at a defining time in our relationship with our newest generation of veterans.  He’s correct.  Despite the many challenges facing our defense enterprise, we will get through this together and be stronger in the end – but only if we are prepared and willing to make wise and difficult decisions and be much more disciplined about setting our priorities.

As I look out across this audience, I see thousands of veterans whose lives have been committed to helping our service members, their families, and our veterans and their families -- helping them to ensure and succeed that this country honors their legacy with policies that are worthy of their sacrifice.

All of you and the roughly 22 million veterans across this nation have an important role to play in the debate over our country's future national security priorities. All of you and the roughly 22 million veterans across this nation have an important role to play in the debate over our country's future national security priorities.  Not one American should ever be ordered into battle without our leaders being as sure as they can be that their decision is worthy of the sacrifices that will be made by our sons and our daughters.

Thank you. God bless you and all the men and women who serve our great nation.

Thank you very much.

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