Thank you very much, Bill Ballhaus [President, The Aerospace Corporation] for that introduction, and thank you all for coming from across Los Angeles to be with us this morning. This is one of those rare occasions where both Secretary Cohen and I are here on the West Coast, specifically for a dinner here in town last night. He had to return to Washington for a meeting at the White House this morning, but I wanted to extend his thanks to you for coming together, and for a community that is so supportive of the United States military, both in terms of the equipment that's produced here, as well as the military men and women that live in, and have been so much a part of, your community.
Let me also very briefly introduce a few key people who are here. Brigadier General William Wilson who is the Deputy Commander of the Los Angeles Air Force Station, Space and Missile Command, we thank you and welcome you. Mr. Al Maldon, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Manpower, one of the most critical jobs in the Pentagon and something that was very near and dear to my heart when I was Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness. I would also like to acknowledge Congressman Steve Kuykendall. [Applause.] I am going to provide him with the most extreme compliment that I can considering the context of Washington today. This is a man who is both independent and bipartisan, much like Secretary Cohen who is the only Republican in President Clinton's Cabinet. He has really focused on how we can have bipartisan cooperation between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch. Independence and bipartisanship are something that our country critically needs.
Buzz Aldrin is here. What does the Deputy Secretary of Defense do when he gets a night off? A few weeks ago I went to the Air and Space Museum where Walter Cronkite spoke about what it was like to cover the space program in the late '50s and the early '60s. And the folks at Aerospace Corporation were critically involved, as was the Air Force here on the West Coast. And anyone who's been to Cocoa Beach and to Cape Canaveral knows that those are two unique places in our nation’s history.
But Walter Cronkite was talking about how in the very early days of the space program there was a lot of secrecy at Cape Canaveral. So if reporters were in town, they would congregate at the two or three bars in Cocoa Beach. When everyone was at the bar in the evening they knew there was no action at the Cape that night. The reporters would wander into the watering hole and if the engineers weren't there, it was time to go get the cameras. Walter Cronkite talked about how they perched on the rocks outside of Cape Canaveral and looked down ICBM Road at the launch pads. And he said that 100 years, 500 years, 1,000 years from now, they will be talking about how the United States took planet Earth to its moon for the first time in 1969. We're all honored to have a man here who can claim that critical first. Colonel Aldrin, if you'd please stand. [Applause.]
These are challenging times in America. One of the folks that I was sitting with last night at dinner was a United States Navy ensign, who was the communications officer on the USS Cole when it pulled into the port in Yemen to refuel. We all know about the attack that occurred, but what we don't know is what happened on that ship for the next 72 hours.
The Cole was a ship in crisis. It was taking on water. All of the electrical power on the ship was gone. The generators were out. There was no air conditioning in all that heat. Yet the crew found a way to work around the clock, to never give up, and to save the ship.
Now, one of the rarest of instincts when a ship is taking on water and is starting to list is not to stand on the deck. The rarest of instincts is to take a flashlight and to go below deck and to find out where the water is coming down and to start a process of pumping the water out so that the ship will survive.
So for 72 hours, until a British ship arrived, the members of the Cole worked round the clock. They slept on the deck of the ship at night, catching whatever sleep they could, and catching whatever food and water they could from British and French military personnel that were soon on the scene. Think of the discipline. It's dark, the ship is listing, you're still searching for some of your crewmen, some are injured among you, so what do you do? With a flashlight you go below deck and you find out about the source that is challenging the ship and you find a way to keep the ship afloat and to secure it until help comes. This is the kind of professionalism of the young men and women who are part of our armed forces today.
So in addition to thanking Assistant Secretary Al Maldon, I'd also like to thank Victor Vasquez [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community and Family Policy], Jane Burke [Principal Director, Military Community and Family Policy], and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Ambassador Craig Johnstone, all of whom have been very much involved in supporting our forces. [Applause.]
[The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is crucial] not only in how the Department of Defense and the Government of the United States supports our men and women, but also in how we can take this message to the private sector. Ambassador Johnstone has been one of our excellent partners, and I just want to thank you for coming from Washington and being here as well.
A week after the bombing of the Cole, I was at Norfolk for the memorial service with Secretary Cohen and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Henry Shelton, and President Clinton. I was sitting actually with Steve Kuykendall on one side and John Podesta, the Chief of Staff for President on the other side.
Now, the journalist Theodore White once talked about the surrender at the end of World War II on board the battleship USS Missouri, and how from every vantage point on the Missouri you could see young sailors perched as if they were a sky of white uniforms. So there we were in October at Norfolk, Virginia. One of our carriers was there, one of our DDGs [guided missile destroyers] was there, and from every cranny and every vantage point of the ship, there was a young sailor in the white uniform looking down on the President as he spoke and met with the families. I think it was an overwhelming sight to see America coming together as one to grieve for the loss of its sailors, to rally the crew that had kept the Cole alive, and to make sure that a strong signal was sent around the world that our FBI and that our armed forces are very much engaged, and that indeed, we will track down the people who did this, we will find them, and we will seek justice on behalf of the members of the USS Cole.
These are extraordinary young men and women. Here in Los Angeles we know this because military men and women are part of your community, and aerospace is one of your key products. But to be on Secretary Cohen’s team, to serve the President just as I served on the staff of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, including some of Congressman Kuykendall's predecessors here, and to work on behalf of the finest fighting force in the world has been a great honor. To travel and serve with them as they watch and stand guard for America's interests, and to ensure that the security and freedom that we have enjoyed will be passed on to the next generation is a great honor.
Seeing our young men and women in uniform in action has been a constant source of inspiration because you see their devotion to duty. You see their dedication to their country. And you see the difference that their sacrifice makes.
I would ask Sergeant Major of the Army Williams and his wife to stand. [Applause.] Sergeant Major Williams and his wife serve every day. Sergeant Major Williams is the senior NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He's an advisor to Secretary Cohen. He has two PhDs. He has used the educational opportunities of going to college that our armed forces provide. He is one of the finest Americans you will ever meet. And I hope that you will have a chance to meet him and his wife because to see America is really to see the lives of all of the Sergeant Major Williams' in the armed forces.
You see the devotion to duty of our forces when you stand on the carrier decks in the Persian Gulf where temperatures are over 120 degrees as you see our sailors and airmen coming to launch jet after jet to patrol the skies over Iraq. You see their dedication in Kunsan, Korea where the summers are hot and the winters are cold, and where they spend a year-long assignment away from their families because it's considered so dangerous. You see the difference their service makes when you look through the barbed wire along the DMZ that divides North and South Korea and you see how narrow the strip of land is that separates the free from the unfree and how our troops there stand watch 24 hours a day.
All of these experiences leave two profound impressions. The first, of course, is that of admiration and pride for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Secretary and Janet Cohen have devoted so much time to reconnecting the armed forces—those young men and women—to the civilian world, underscoring how much the military is doing for America every day and in every region.
There was a time not long ago when every neighborhood in America knew someone who had served in the military—a son, a father, a neighbor or a friend, or today even a daughter or a mother. But with today's smaller, all-volunteer force fewer people have direct personal experience with the military. There are fewer communities with military bases and there is less public awareness of the unique issues facing our military men and women and their families. In short, fewer Americans have an understanding of who our military men and women are and what they're doing. That's why a forum like this and your participation is so critical. Not only will you see this devotion to duty, but as you return to your businesses and to your communities you'll be able to talk about some of the stories and some of the experiences that will be shared here.
The second deep impression that one gets from our military men and women is that, to borrow a phrase from Wellington, it is always a close-run thing. I daresay no other institution in the world has been through the combination of increased demands and sweeping reforms that we have managed at the Department of Defense in the past few years. And under those circumstances, our record has been extraordinary. There are constant tradeoffs between the immediate, near-term issues like readiness and quality of life, and long term issues such as procurement and infrastructure, so we have to take great care to make sure that the short term and the long term are always balanced.
Make no mistake, though, America's armed forces are by far the best in the world—the best trained, the best equipped and best led anywhere. I am also proud to report that the morale of our young troops is high. They're working hard doing the difficult and dangerous jobs that keep America secure. They believe in their mission, and most importantly, they believe that they are making a difference. And this nation would make a grave mistake by taking any of this for granted or becoming complacent.
That is why we have said to our armed forces that we may never be able to pay you enough, but we can pay you more. So we have instituted the largest pay increase in almost two decades and restored retirement benefits to the career force. We're also on track in the modernization of our forces through additional dollars in procurement. Indeed, after a 13-year decline in procurement spending on new tools and technology, new investments in our military men and women are now being made possible by the balanced budgets of the 1990s.
We recognize that our men and women in uniform are well trained, but we cannot expect to keep them if they don't have quality health care or if they do not have a decent standard of living. That's why we've offered a historic proposal on housing this year to reduce to 15 percent, down from 19 percent today, what our people pay out of pocket for off-base housing. And in five years we'll eliminate those out of pocket expenses completely. And we're going to allocate $43 billion over the next five years to accomplish these housing improvements. For the young men and women that live and work in this metropolitan community, that is absolutely essential and critical.
We recognize that the majority of our all-volunteer force is also made up of married people and families who believe that military service is a noble calling. And we recognize that our Guardsmen and Reservists are indispensable to our readiness and missions. But we cannot reenlist and retain them if our approach effectively says, "Your life is going to be completely chaotic and unpredictable even in peacetime."
We've encouraged all of the services to design their rotations to relieve the stress and the high tempo [of operations] that we're in. We've also pressed—and Al and Craig will discuss this in detail—ways to make a career in the military service more viable and attractive for all members of the family. And we are beginning to see progress. The support that we've received, for example, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and so many other local chambers over these past five years, has been outstanding.
For the department, it has become a truism that we thrive whenever we adopt proven and innovative solutions from the private sector. For the private sector, it is a truism that hiring someone with the training, background and discipline that the armed forces provides is a wise investment. And there is no question that by creating ways to facilitate and expedite that flow of talent and ideas in both directions we can both come out very much ahead.
So on behalf of our men and women in uniform, please accept my thanks for taking time out of your day to hear our message and to become involved in this process.
I'm working on my 26th defense budget, and there are a lot of pieces of that, but what makes this job so worthwhile are things like last Christmas Eve. I spent it at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. There, amidst 50 inches of snow, were young men and women who were keyed up because it was Christmas, and if ever there was the personification of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, it was what these young men and women were doing in Kosovo and in Bosnia.
Whether they were getting school children across boundaries and to school in the morning, or whether they were standing watch at the wedding of a Serbian family in an Albanian community—and getting very little recognition for that—they knew that their presence was having a tremendous impact in that environment. In fact, the more directly our forces see their impact, the higher their morale. Indeed, our highest reenlistment rates today are the soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines that are serving in Bosnia and Kosovo. Incidentally, with our joint force [in the Balkans] it was an amazing fact that the Soldier of the Month in Bosnia was a young woman who was actually a Navy Seabee.
So notwithstanding the fact that we have had an extremely close presidential election, our path is clear. We have a constitutional process that is continuing and which is going to work its will. As President John F. Kennedy said forty years ago when he was elected by a very thin margin of 100,000 votes, "The margin is thin but the responsibility is clear." Whoever takes the oath on January 20, 2001, the margin may be thin, but the responsibilities will be very clear.
So for the young men and women who are part of the armed forces of the United States, for the men and women of the National Guard and Reserve, and for the men and women who work in this community -- whether wearing the uniform, putting the F-18 together, working on missile defense at Huntington Beach, or at Edwards [Air Force Base] near Palmdale flying the Joint Strike Fighter or the F-22 and putting it through the testing, I want to thank those of you in the community for all that you do every day to support the men and women of our armed forces.
Thank you very much for the invitation. Indeed, thank you for being our host. Thank you for those who have come from the East Coast. General Wilson, thank you. Colonel Aldrin, thank you. Congressman Kuykendall, thank you very much. Indeed, thank you all for the chance to be here. [Applause.]