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Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks Remarks at White House Black History Month Engagement with Student Veterans and ROTC Students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) (As Prepared)

Good afternoon, everyone.

It is my distinct honor to take part in this first-of-its-kind convening of student veterans and ROTC cadets representing HBCUs from across the DC-metro region.

I hear that we have students here today from Howard University, Morgan State, Bowie State, U.D.C, Coppin State, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. As well as students from other DC-area universities.

Thank you for traveling to the White House today in honor of Black history month.

There is so much to celebrate.

Black history month is a dedicated time to remind us all of the proud history, important traditions, and the contributions of Black Americans that are embedded in the very fabric of our nation.

For this community, in this year, it is especially noteworthy that we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of President Truman's executive order ending segregation in the armed services. With it came the promise of an integrated force and full equality that we're quite honestly still working to fulfill. But we have come a long way and remain committed to ensuring DoD becomes a more diverse and inclusive place.

2023 is also the 50th anniversary of the end of the draft and the transition to an all-volunteer force—the best-trained and organized fighting force in the world.

And under this Administration, President Biden nominated and the senate confirmed my boss, the first-ever African-American Secretary of Defense, Secretary Lloyd Austin.

These milestones are a big deal for DoD and for the entire nation. It shows how much we, as a country, have evolved, but it also shows us how important it is that we continue to pave the way for your generation and for generations to come.

A diverse and ready workforce is critical to defending the nation, our allies, and our interests in the face of those modern threats.

As recent events have shown so clearly, we are in a new era of strategic competition, with the PRC as our pacing challenge.

Secretary Austin's top priority is to defend the nation. And as he has made expressly clear that “we can't accomplish this mission if we exclude from our ranks any qualified American who wants to serve and who can make the grade. And we surely can't accomplish it if we are too afraid to be challenged by good ideas from people who haven't always had the chance to put those ideas forward... and to be treated with dignity and respect while doing so."

Tapping into and leveraging the diversity of backgrounds, interests, and skills across our country is as important as ever. It helps make our all-volunteer force the best in the world because it gives us an asymmetric advantage over our global competitors. And it's an edge we're committed to maintaining and fine-tuning.

That's why the department is working to quickly advance key diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives that will improve recruitment and increase opportunities for advancement that are key to retaining a high-quality force.

We have been rapidly pinpointing barriers and identifying solutions to:

…One, retain and recruit a diverse talent pool, and…

…Two, ensure that the armed forces develop a demographically diverse leadership cadre to reflect the nation it serves. For example, it is among my top priorities to increase the diversity of our officer pool and ensure paths to senior leadership.

And that's not all we're doing.

The Department of Defense is the world's largest organization — public or private.

With global challenges as robust as we're facing and with a workforce as massive as ours, we need problem solvers of all kinds to sort them out and ensure that our national security needs are met.

So, we need engineers, we need data scientists, and we need mathematicians.

DoD's university-affiliated research centers are important because they drive breakthroughs in science and engineering that strengthen our military and make our nation more secure.

Last month, Secretary Austin announced the department's newest university-affiliated research center at Howard University.

It's the first to ever be established at an HBCU. It is our hope that it won't be the last, and that this is just the beginning of new partnerships we're fostering with HBCUs.

This new center is a consortium of nine HBCUs that will work with the Air Force and will open up opportunities for STEM professionals while giving them the opportunity to serve the country and defend the nation.

Through a $15 million grant award to HBCUs, DoD is also establishing Centers of Excellence that will provide training to underrepresented students pursuing STEM disciplines.

These are just several examples of what the department is doing to train, recruit, and retain a diverse and capable workforce, and they are fully aligned with our goal to attract, assemble, and maintain the best fighting force in the world.

As we move into the Q&A portion, I am interested in hearing your thoughts, your perspectives, and your ideas.

But first I want to close by saying this… I know there are many ways and places to make a difference in the world today. I am grateful that each of you has answered what I consider to be among the highest of callings, which is pursuing a career in public service, and in doing so, making the world safer and more secure for everyone.

So, I'm happy to now to take any questions you might have for me.