INTRODUCTION: Simply sailors, it's my proud opportunity here to introduce our secretary of defense, the honorable Mr. Panetta.
Sailors, at ease at this time. Please crowd around the secretary.
Mr. Secretary – welcome aboard the USS Blue Ridge, sir.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Thanks very much. Thank you very much. It's great to have a chance to come onboard and to have a chance to talk to all of you, and first of all to thank all of you for your service here. You guys are a long way from home. But you and your families have done a lot of sacrifices on behalf of our country. And I really appreciate it. Appreciate what you do. I appreciate your service. I appreciate the great work that you've done out here.
Our democracy is dependent on people who are willing to serve. And I can't think of a greater complement to the strength of our democracy than the men and women like yourselves who are willing to give back to this country. I thank you for that.
You guys have done a great job here. I just was briefed on the Tomadachi -- Operation Tomadachi. And it's remarkable. Twenty-two ships, 19,000 personnel, all involved in trying to help your fellow human beings.
And in the end, you know, the greatest service we do is when we are able to reach out and help our fellow human beings in need. And the work that was done here in that disaster, working with the Japanese self-defense forces and being able to respond to just the drastic needs that people had as a result of that terrible earthquake, it's a great compliment to all of you. And I can't tell you how important it was to the alliance between the United States and Japan.
This is my first trip as secretary of defense, to the area. I've had a number of trips here in other capacities. I was in Indonesia, meeting with the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] defense ministers. Now I'm here in Japan, and I go from here to Korea.
And I've got a very basic message that I'm sending, and the basic message is this: The United States of America is a Pacific power. We are a Pacific nation. We will not only remain a Pacific power, but we will strengthen our presence in this area. We are here to stay. And that's an important message to send to the region and to send to all of our allies.
You guys have done a tremendous job serving this country in that capacity. And I want you to know that as secretary of defense, my job is to make sure that I do everything in my power to support you.
You've been asked to do an awful lot by your country. And frankly, you've done everything your country has asked you to do. And I think it shows. You know, the United States is at a real turning point after 10 years of war. We’ve gone after terrorism since 9/11. We were able to go after bin Laden, go after Awlaki, go after a majority of the leadership that was leading al-Qaida. And we have seriously weakened their ability to commit -- (inaudible) -- to be able to do the kind of planning that was involved in 9/11.
We have not only disrupted and dismantled them, but we're on our way to defeating them because of the tremendous work that's been done by both the military and intelligence communities.
As the president announced, we’re drawing down our combat forces in Iraq by the end of this year. The mission there was to develop an Iraq that could govern and secure its -- (inaudible). And we will maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq. And we will have, as you know, a long-term presence in that area. We've got over 40,000 troops in that region, just 23,000 alone in Kuwait. So we are going to be there.
And the message to Iran and everybody else that might have any ideas there is that the United States is going to have a presence in that region for a long time to come.
And in addition to that, we just completed the mission in Libya. That was a NATO mission. It was a very successful NATO mission. We worked together with a lot of allies in an operation that was incredible.
I had a chance to visit the Naples operation a few weeks ago. And just the effort of coordinating that operation with all the nations that were involved is a remarkable compliment to NATO. They did a great job. And the fact is that, as a result of that, Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people. They've declared liberation. Gadhafi is no more. And that country we hope will move forward to establish institutions that can represent the best hopes of their -- (inaudible).
And in Afghanistan, General Allen, who I stay in touch with every week and sometimes every day, is developing a plan that will gradually draw down our forces there, between now and 2014. That's what was agreed to by all of the countries that were involved there, in Lisbon.
The fact is that the forces there have done a tremendous job at weakening the Taliban. They've also established greater security in that country. We have developed an Afghan army and police. We're on the way to transitioning to an Afghanistan that can also govern and secure itself.
All of that -- all of that -- is because of all of you and the sacrifice that you've made to help this country, our country, be able to protect others. You know, we've lost almost 6,200 people who have been killed in action since 9/11, something like 46,000 who have been wounded and, as you know, sometimes seriously wounded, with our Wounded Warriors. Their sacrifice is not in vain, because the reality is we have made the world better, we have made the world safer, and we will continue to try to work with the world to secure it.
And that's the pledge for this area. Because all of the success we've had now gives us the opportunity to make sure we make the kind of investment we need to make in the Pacific. This is an important area. There are continuing threats that we have to address: threats of terrorism, threats of rising powers, threats from North Korea with nuclear proliferation, threats from cyber areas. We've got a lot of threats that continue to face this country.
And the fact is that all of you, by virtue of your service, by virtue of your sacrifice, you're helping to make America safer.
So my deepest thanks to all of you guys. I really do appreciate your service. I appreciate your sacrifice. I appreciate what your families have done.
But you know, we're going through some budget constrictions now in the United States. But I commit to you, and I've been in touch with our service chiefs and work with them every day, all of us are committed to maintaining the best military in the world. And we will do that.
I'm going to operate with the following guidelines. Number one, we protect the best military, and we do. We've got the best military probably in the history of the world. And that's represented by all of you. We're going to continue to protect the best military.
We're going to make sure we never hollow-out the force. That's a mistake that's been made in the past; we're not going to make that mistake now.
And thirdly, we're going to protect and keep faith with all of you. You've put your lives on the line. You've been deployed time and time again. We've made commitments to you and to your families, and we're going to stick to those commitments. That's my job-- is to make sure I do everything possible to protect you and to protect your families. And you have my pledge that I will do that.
So thanks to all of you. Thanks for your sacrifice. Thanks for your service. Thanks for making America not only safer, but stronger in the future.
I'd now give you a chance to -- I want to meet each of you and give you a coin. But more importantly, again, thank you personally for all you've done.
Thank you guys.