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Town Hall Meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
July 16, 2009
            MODERATOR: Well, good afternoon everybody. We are very fortunate today to have the Secretary of Defense come visit us. Secretary Gates has spent most of his adult life in honorable service to our country, and I'd ask you to join me in a very warm welcome for him as he comes up and speaks to us. 
 
            (Applause.)
 
            SEC. GATES: Thank you all very much. And thank you, General Oates, for the introduction. And thank you for coming today.
 
            I'm thankful for the opportunity to be among the Warriors of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, and those loved ones and supporters of this august, battle-tested organization. 
 
      And, I wish all the best to the "Commandos" of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) now on a rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), and soon to deploy to Iraq. 
 
            And also, to the "Spartans" of 3rd BCT in Afghanistan, and the 10th Aviation Brigade, and the elements of the 10th Sustainment Brigade in Iraq, I wish you Godspeed and a swift and safe return. 
 
            Finally, I want to welcome home the division headquarters team from their most recent Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment. Your work helped pave the way for the transition that took place just over two weeks ago. 
 
            Much has been asked of this division over the last two decades -- from Somalia to repeat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 10th Mountain Division team has delivered for our country time and time again. No other division or post has been asked to do more. We are a safer and more secure nation as a result. What else needs to be said but, "Climb to Glory."
 
            My prepared remarks, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know, will be, thankfully, brief in order to leave more time to hear from you -- what you need to do your job that you are not getting; what we can be doing better for your families; or, just what's on your mind. And, then we'll do some handshakes, handout some coins and do some photos
 
            I know that several of your own have recently fallen in Afghanistan. And my words are wholly inadequate to characterize the men, or their sacrifice, or the sacrifice of so many from this division over the last eight years of war.
 
      It calls to mind a stirring example from ancient Greece. On the eve of the battle of Thermopylae, someone asked King Leonidas of Sparta about the risks he and his men faced. The king's response was: "If you men think that I rely on numbers, then all Greece is not sufficient, for it is but a small fraction of their number. But, if on men's valor, then this number will do." 
 
      Men and women of this division are more than equal to do anything asked of them. As we fight two wars, I am mindful of the stress on Army families back home. The quality of life for our soldiers, their families; and especially our wounded warriors remains my top priority. And, I'm glad to see the number of efforts that are under way here at Fort Drum: 
 
            An expansion of the Guthrie Clinic;
           
      A new Warrior in Transition support center and barracks;
     
      More Family Housing Units renovated, and hundreds of new homes delivered -- although, as I heard from my meeting with spouses, not nearly enough houses on post;
 
            Expansion of the Child Development Center and other youth programs; 
 
            And, the Soldier Family Assistance Center and Warrior Transition Units that continue to do outstanding work.
 
            Nonetheless, we know that much more still needs to be done. 
 
            I also want to take a moment to thank all the families. I know how much they sacrifice in order for you to be able to serve. They are truly the "power behind the power." I just can't tell you how much we all appreciate what they do, and what you do. And, I thank you for your noble work, and your selfless sacrifice. 
 
            With the announcement of your upcoming return to theater, I know I speak for all Americans when I wish you the best in the arduous missions that await you. The nation is grateful for your service. 
 
            Now let me just close with a final thought. I actually did not do these town halls for the first two years-plus I was in this job. I thought they looked staged, with soldiers as props. And I was embarrassed at how early you all had to show up, and kill time waiting for the secretary of Defense when you could be in the rack or doing something more productive. 
 
      But, I started to do these a few months ago because I realized that it was a chance mainly just to thank you personally, and to thank your families, for your service to our country; and to shake hands with each and every one of you; and be able to thank you -- and look you in the eye and thank you. 
 
      I'll take some questions here in a few minutes, but the main purpose of this meeting really is for me to have the opportunity to tell you that I consider the well-being of each and every one of you to be my personal responsibility. For the younger ones of you, I care about you the way I would my own son and daughter. And, for all of you, my highest priority is to do everything possible to help you accomplish your mission -- to win and to come home safely. 
 
            So now I'll take a few questions. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Sir, Sergeant -- (inaudible) -- from 57-TRANS. 
 
            A question, the subject is civilian contractors, especially down-range, the populace of over 2,000 civilian contractors doing or taking our jobs -- i.e., truck drivers. Is there -- the reasoning on that, sir? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, you're talking about down-range or here at home? 
 
            Q     (Off mike.) Both, sir. 
 
            SEC. GATES: What we're trying to do -- and I think that the Congress has obviously taken a lot of interest in this, and I think, at the high point in Iraq we had on the order of 160,000 contractors, and probably only about a third of them were actually American contractors. 
 
            And the contractors did everything but running the dining facility (DEFAC) and doing the laundry, doing the cleaning chores, doing some security work. But, the need was to try and free up as many soldiers for actual combat duty, rather than having them do things that civilian contractors could do. The problem is, we've -- I think we let it grow without the kind of controls that we should, in terms of looking at it repeatedly. 
 
      And I'll just give you an example of what we're working on right now -- and, frankly, prompted by some questions from Senator Webb, and it was how we have turned over increasing numbers of training roles to civilian contractors, and where should we have a combat veteran doing that training, and where could we have a civilian doing it? And I think we've -- we really had no idea where that line should be drawn. And we're going back and looking at that now. 
 
      And so, for example, for the Air Force it probably doesn't make any sense to have a combat-capable pilot teach somebody how to fly for the first time in a Beechcraft just to get that kind of "Flying 101." On the other hand, when that person graduates to an F-15 or an F-16, it probably ought to be a combat trained veteran or a person in uniform who's teaching them. So, we're kind of going back through all of these roles, at this point, to figure out where military ought to be doing these things and where civilian contractors can be.  
 
      To tell you the truth, we've got a contractor problem on the civilian side of the government as well. I discovered, when we started working on this issue, that I actually have more contractors working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense than I do Civil Servants. And we're going to fix that too. So, it is a problem. 
     
      And I think that there is enough of a demand signal for experienced soldiers that nobody has to worry about losing their job. But, the question is, how can we make the best possible use of our soldiers and the skills that they've acquired? And so you've raised an issue that's taken a lot of our time and that we're focused on, and it's one that we need to get better control of. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Sir, Sergeant -- (inaudible) -- Golf Company, 10th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB). 
 
            With the recent changes in our role in Iraq, and all the civilians employed over there and in the States, how do you feel that it would change the economy -- seeing that we pulled out of the towns? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, that's an interesting question. It's one that I haven't heard addressed. I mean, when I do the televised -- the video conferences with General Odierno, one of the things that he talks about fairly frequently is the, sort of, the revival of the markets, and so on, in the cities in Iraq. 
 
            My view would be that if the Iraqi security forces can, to a considerable extent, sustain the security environment that we have created for them -- partnering with the Iraqi security forces, then the economies in these towns should prosper.
 
      I think what would -- what would begin to reverse the economic growth, and the situation there, would be if the Iraqis began to lose control of the security situation. Then we'll have a lot of different problems. But, I think as long as the Iraqis can sustain where we are now, that we'll see continued economic growth in the cities in Iraq. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     How you doing this morning, sir -- or this afternoon? My name is Staff Sergeant (McClellan ?), from -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: How am I doing? Let me tell you. Any time I'm outside of Washington, D.C. I'm doing great. 
 
            (Laughter.) 
 
            Q     Well, sir, actually my question is, we just returned back from down-range in Iraq, and I heard you mention earlier that, you know, "family first," you know; and on our minds it's "mission first." There's a gray area in there, so my question will be somewhat complex -- it's going to cover a lot of what I'm pretty sure a lot of noncommissioned officers -- not E4s, that are living away from home and they have family living away from here and we are here because of deployment. 
 
      Now, when we come back we're paying to maintain a residence, either on-post or off-post, however it happens. The problem that it's causing is extra money coming out and it's causing us financial stress at home. And I'm wondering, sir, is there anything we could do as far as -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: Because you're maintaining, basically, two residences -- one here --
 
            Q     Pretty much. 
 
            SEC. GATES: -- and your family remote from here? 
 
            Q     Yes, sir. And, however, some of us, as well, also have rental property because the home didn't sell -- in my case, having two residences at Fort Stewart. And now I'm here and I'm deployed. 
 
            While I was down-range it was great because I was bringing in the extra money. However, now the BAH is exhausted because of the residence where the family is. And then the wife has a job, and if I pull her away, that's taking away more than what I'm getting here. So, it's causing a financial stress there. 
 
            So, I'm pretty sure -- you know, I call myself a soldier, my wife is a warrior because she's supporting me. And we have three kids. And it gets kind of difficult at times. 
 
      And I was wondering, was there something that we could do for those that we call "geographical bachelors" that are living away from home -- on all the installations, not just Fort Drum, that it could help us a little bit on the financial burden? 
 
            SEC. GATES: This is actually the first time, in all the sessions -- when I go to posts and bases around the world I, because of the problem that I talked about earlier with town halls, I generally try and have a meal with company-grade officers, and, independently, E5s through E7s, and so on. And so after all of those encounters I have to tell you you've just asked me a question I've never gotten before. (Laughs.) 
 
            So, I don't know the answer to it, and we'll see if we can get you an answer. But, the one area where I think there is relief, in the laws that have just recently been passed, is that I think we now do have the authority to help you when you're trying to -- when you're reassigned, and you've bought a home and you have a problem selling that home without taking a terrible bath financially. 
 
            So, I do think we have the authority to help, for those soldiers who are trying to -- or those in service who are reassigned, can't sell their home because of the local market conditions. So, we are in the process of implementing that. So, that piece of it, I'm pretty confident, we can help on. 
 
            The rest of it, in terms of maintaining, in effect, two residences, I just don't know the answer. My guess is -- just knowing the way the Pentagon works, the answer is probably we can't help. But, let me go look into it and see what we can do, and we'll get back to you. So, somebody will come up and give you a card, and so we can be back in touch with you. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Sergeant Blumm (sp), Alpha-187. 
 
            Sir, my question was about the dwell time for the different units. The 1st Brigade's been a year-on/year-off deployment for the past five years or so, whereas another brigade in this division has had a dwell time of almost two years. If there's anything -- we can make it more equal dwell time back in the States, or with that regard, sir? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Yeah, it's -- I mean, it is very uneven. And figuring out how to -- how to even it out is very difficult because of the different demands in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 
 
            What I can tell you is that we probably are looking at beginning to increase the dwell time for everybody beyond a year, about a year from now. We will begin to draw down an additional five or six BCTs from Iraq in the spring of 2010 -- spring and summer of 2010. 
 
      And I think it's General Casey's belief that, at that point, we can begin moving toward a year at home 15 months/18 months dwell time; moving toward two years for everybody. The goal is to get to one-to-two as quickly as possible. 
 
            One of the things that we're thinking about is whether -- to help make sure that happens, is whether to provide for a temporary increase in the end-strength of the Army that would ease some of the pressures. And, frankly, I expect to be making a decision on that within the next week. 
 
            We are very mindful of the stress on the force, and particularly the stress on the soldiers and their families, of a year deployed/a year dwell time. And I am most mindful of the consequences of 15 or 16 months deployed and a year's dwell time. 
 
      And I would just tell you what I told some of your officers and some of your spouse’s in earlier sessions, the decision to go to 15 months' deployment in early 2007 was probably the toughest decision I've made in this job, because I think we also realized how tough it would be on the troops. And I think, however realistic we thought our expectations were, it was a lot worse. 
 
            And so I hope we never have to do that again. The alternative was to shorten the dwell time at home. And the recommendation of the Army, which I agreed with, was: better to extend the deployment a little bit rather than cut short the time at home. 
 
      So, I hope we don't go back to that. I don't think we can ever, sort of, even out the deployments. I mean, the truth of the matter is, there's about a third of the Army that's never deployed at all. But, that's just the way it is, frankly, given the different specialized capabilities of the different units. 
     
      But, I do think there is relief coming for everybody on the dwell time, but it's probably a year away. 
 
            Yes, sir -- yes, ma'am? 
 
            Q     Hello, sir. My name is Staff Sergeant (Brandy Rudd ?). I'm with 1st BSTB. 
 
            My question is, soldiers' medical issues -- that are unable to perform their duties, that are going through the Medical Board procedure are still holding slots while we're deployed. So, on paper, the unit is 100 percent but, in reality, we're not, and the slots cannot get backfilled. 
 
      What can we do to expedite the medical procedure process, or to identify -- the soldiers that are identified, to get those slots back? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Yeah, this is a -- this is a real issue because, in the average, as we look at the four brigades that are, kind of, the next to deploy late summer, this fall, those brigades will probably be somewhere close to 700 troops short of their full complement. 
 
      And one of the factors that has increased dramatically -- and that includes the rear detachment, it includes people who are in transition, it includes stop-loss, it includes a variety of things, but the area that has changed the most since 2007 is in the number of those who are nondeployable for medical reasons. 
 
            And out of that, on average, 690 -- in these brigades that are nondeployable, on average, 156 are medical. About 75 of those are orthopedic; 38, 39 are mental; and then a variety of other medical problems. So, figuring out how to deal with the exact problem you just described is one of the challenges that we're facing. And, frankly, it's one of the considerations that we'll take into account as we consider whether it -- whether we should provide a temporary increase in the end-strength to try and deal with exactly the problem you've described. 
 
            Yes, ma'am? 
 
            Q     Hi, sir. I'm PFC (Golling ?), Charlie Company, 1st Brigade Support Troops Battalion (BSTB).   
 
            For the troops that do not complete their 12 months' tour in Iraq prior to the complete U.S. withdrawal from the country, will they be allowed to return for dwell time or will they be diverted to Afghanistan theater? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't know exactly the answer to your question. What I can tell you is what my hope is. My hope is that we will bring them home, because there is a different kind of training that goes on for Afghanistan compared to Iraq. And, I would tell you, the president has authorized a total of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. We have pretty well identified what those units are at this point. 
      
      And so I think that -- the reason I'm being cautious is that there may be some specific specialties or specialized units that might be transferred. But, I think in terms of large formations, I would expect them to come back to the U.S. just because, among other things, we're going to -- we'll see what General McChrystal recommends, but I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000, at least probably through the end of the year -- maybe some increase but not a lot. 
 
            So, I think, on balance, I suspect most of the units in Iraq, who are not there for a full -- for a full year, are more likely to come home than anything else. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Sir, Specialist (Candy ?), Charlie Company, with 187. 
 
            My question is a little different. It's about North Korea. I was wondering, if North Korea were to attack South Korea with a nuclear weapon, what our likely response would be to that; and what China's reaction would be to that?   
 
            Or, if they were to cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ), would we be able to get troops to South Korea before our forces there were overrun? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, one of the -- one of the main changes, I think, over the last number of years has been a significant increase in the capability and the numbers of the South Korean ground forces. And so, I think in the event of a conflict with the North, if the North were to invade the South, what you would see was -- we have, we have about 28,000 troops in South Korea, what you would see would be the South Koreans taking the bulk of the ground attack; and our Navy and Air Force would be providing the principal strategic reserve, if you will, in terms of supporting those operations. 
 
            Frankly, this is an army that's starving. The average North Korean, at this point, is seven inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. This is a -- this is a country where the famine of the mid-1990s has affected the physical and even intellectual development of those that are now coming into the Zone who would be eligible for military service. 
 
            So, this is a country whose conventional forces and capabilities are really, I think, declining. Nevertheless, they are developing these nuclear weapons. They are developing longer range missiles. And I think that -- we're watching them very closely and I hope they don't make any stupid mistakes. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Sir, Sergeant (Kibe ?), 33rd Finance. 
 
            With the recent announcement that the Army has met its goal for the fiscal year for recruiting, and with us starting to pull out of Iraq, are there any, like, current situations or future considerations that are going to be made that, actually, cut-backs in the Army that we might see in the future? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Not on my watch.  
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Sergeant (Scurry ?) -- (inaudible) --
 
            SEC. GATES: We did that once before. We did that in the 1990s when we cut the Army by 40 percent, and we've been paying the price for it ever since 2001. 
 
            Q     Sergeant (Scurry ?), -- (inaudible) -- Company, "Triple Deuce" Infantry. 
 
            Sir, in light of the recession and a down economy, about a year ago there was an article in "Stars and Stripes" about Congress passing a bill to change service members' retirement policy to civilian retirement policy. If it was implemented, a service member could do 20 years but would not be able to receive full benefits until the actual age of 55. If that were to be passed, sir, who will be affected by that policy? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I mean, obviously, if it passed, everybody would be affected. I think the likelihood of such legislation being passed in the foreseeable future is pretty remote. 
 
      It has not been a subject -- I'll just tell you, I've been on the job two-and-a-half years and that question has never come up in a single -- I've not gotten asked about that by a single member of Congress in two-and-a-half years. 
 
            So, I think -- you know, there are a lot of studies out there on this, and a lot of people talk about what it could save, and so on. But, between the active military and the veterans organizations, and so on, I think that the likelihood of that kind of a change is pretty small, for the foreseeable future at least, unless something fairly dramatic happens. 
 
            How we doing on time? I want to make sure I leave time to get a picture with each of you. 
 
            MODERATOR: One more, sir. 
 
            SEC. GATES: Okay, one more question? 
 
            You get the last word. 
 
            Q     Sir, Sergeant Garcia, with 36-Field Artillery. 
 
            What's the likelihood of the Army going to deployments that are under a year -- as a nine-month, or maybe even six-month tours? 
 
            SEC. GATES: You know, I don't -- what I can tell you is that General Casey would really like to do that. It's obviously made a difference for the Marine Corps to be seven-and-seven; for the Navy to be six-and-six; the Air Force has got shorter tours as well. 
 
      The problem, in Iraq in particular, has been simple the size of the force that we have there, and the logistics that would have been required to put -- to rotate the force on a nine-month center rather than a 12-month center. 
 
            Also, I think -- I know, I won't speak for General Petraeus, or General McChrystal or General Odierno, but the truth of the matter is, in a counterinsurgency like we're fighting, particularly in Afghanistan, the more time you have there the more effective you are; the more you know how to do what you're supposed to be doing; the more you understand the Afghan culture; the more you pick up some of the language; the more you pick up of the customs; the more you pick up on how the Taliban fight. 
 
            And so one of the concerns I would have about shorter tours, when we are engaged in a counterinsurgency, is do we cut our capability -- because we cut our experience level by the shorter tours. And I think it's a subject worthy of debate.     
 
      In a situation where we don't face that kind of a complex environment, I think that there probably is a considerable amount of interest, if only because of the interest of military families in shorter deployments that, in other kinds of situations, we might look for the opportunity to make for shorter tours in less complex situations. 
 
            So, what I've -- I guess I'm going to go over there.  
 
            MODERATOR: (Off mike) -- right here on the stage. 
 
            SEC. GATES: Oh, okay. And the plan will be to get a picture; shake hands with every one of you; give you a coin. So, I appreciate your patience and waiting your turn. 
 
            (Applause.)
 
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