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Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Speaks at the USNA Alumni Leadership Forum

Hello everyone and thanks for inviting me to speak today.  I want to begin by thanking all of you for your selfless service to our nation.  For those of you who might not know, I'm a former naval officer, and it means a lot for me to come and speak to all of you today. 

I'm sorry that I can't join you tonight for the Gala.However, I would just like to mention that Secretary Del Toro is a shining example of the Gala's theme, Celebrating Hispanic-Latino Achievement at the USNA and Naval Service.

Having learned about his personal history of immigrating to the U.S., his naval career where he served numerous tours of duty at sea, his achievements in the private sector, and now as the Secretary of the Navy, I believe Secretary Del Toro embodies everything we think of when we think of leadership, citizenship, and service.

He is an example not only for the Hispanic-Latino community, but for all Americans.So, I wanted to thank him for his leadership and service to our nation.

This year's leadership forum theme is Strengthening Our Competitive Advantage Through Inclusive Leaders, and within this theme, I was asked to talk a little about leadership in citizenship and government.I think I would like to start by telling you a little bit about my story and background and how those themes played a key role in where I am today.

I grew up in Southern California and come from a long line of veterans.  Both my grandfathers served in World War II, my godfather was in Korea, and my father and uncles served in Vietnam.  I had a very early appreciation for what it meant to serve in our military and the pride and satisfaction our veterans have.

So, five days after high school, I left for boot camp.  I was fortunate enough to meet a Chief Petty Officer who saw something in me that I probably didn't see in myself at the time.  He suggested that I apply for a Navy program that was trying to increase diversity in the Navy called the BOOST program. 

The program was designed to take students from underserved communities and help prepare them for college.  After successfully completing this program, I received a Navy ROTC scholarship, and as they say, the rest is history. 

In a span of five years, I went from an 18-year-old kid who wasn't sure what he was going to do with his life, to someone who became the first in his family to graduate from college and earned his commission as a United States naval officer.

None of this would have happened if it wasn't for one individual who suggested I apply for a program that was looking to provide opportunities for folks like me.  So, when I think about diversity and inclusion, it's about opening pathways and doors for individuals who might not otherwise have those opportunities.

It's no secret that our military is having some recruitment difficulties right now.  There are several reasons for this, and there is no one silver bullet or specific action that the Department can take to quickly fix the current recruiting challenges.

But one crucial action we are focusing on is galvanizing our citizens, both youth and influencers, on the need to contribute to our country's well-being.  Military service is the very essence of leadership in citizenship and government, and we have to make sure our citizens know the merit and value of serving.

I have seen data that indicates that Generation Z is primarily driven by purpose, relationships, and a clear path to success.  The military offers all of these, but many times, these individuals just do not know it. 

Changing this dynamic requires leadership and involvement from national leaders, teachers, coaches, as well as parents, grandparents, and veterans.  It's a call to service.

Right now, the type of candidates we are looking for to serve in our military are innovative, and digitally fluent.  It's a generation that could operate an iPhone often before they started elementary school.

If we want to maintain our competitive edge and capture these types of individuals, we have to cast the widest net possible for our recruits.  These individuals reside in every segment of our society, and this is why diversity and inclusion are so important for the Department.  

To get to the heart of our future Service members from all segments of our society, we have to tap into their motivations.  Our next generation of Americans should know that there has never been a better time for them to choose military service.  They can find personal fulfillment serving in every part of the world and develop skills that truly make a difference. 

So, I'll go back to citizenship and service.  In my personal story, the common thread among the three generations in my family is our commitment to service to our nation.  A calling to serve for a greater purpose.  While every Service member and veteran will have a unique story, I believe the desire to serve our nation binds us all.

And calling on a new generation to lead in citizenship and service to our nation is inextricably intertwined with these new leaders understanding that having a diverse and inclusive force makes a team stronger.    

Good leaders get to know their team members' stories.  They understand that an organization with diverse people, from different backgrounds, with different experiences, that can provide multiple perspectives, come up with the best solutions.

Seventy-five years ago, President Turman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, formally allowing women to serve in the military.  That same year, he signed Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the force which stated, "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."

In the decades since, we have built the most lethal fighting force in the world composed of a diverse, highly skilled force, but our work is not done.  The only way we can continue to sustain our force to meet current and future challenges is by ingraining DEIA principles into everything we do to ensure we advance opportunity, address barriers, and treat people with dignity and respect.

Secretary Austin designated me as the Department's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer as a result of Congress' wisdom in seeing the need for such a position in last year's NDAA.  I am honored to be in this role. 

Since my designation, we have launched many initiatives in the Department.  The DoD 2040 Task Force stood up last spring and is designed to shift norms on how DoD advances DEIA.  It's about creating the right culture and environment so that DEIA can flourish.

We have recently undertaken a series of sprints targeting critical touchpoints in a career lifecycle.  These initiatives are focused on looking at things such as the retention and promotion of women and minorities, expanding diversity in the recruiting and accessions processes, and increasing diversity at the senior leadership ranks. 

We are aggressively moving out to inculcate the Department with our DEIA efforts to make our Total Force more reflective of the nation that it serves and protects.  We can look back at some examples in history about how diversity and inclusion make our military stronger. 

During World War II, Navajo Code Talkers, who used their traditional language to transmit secret Allied messages in the Pacific theater of combat is an example of how diversity and different backgrounds can address mission challenges in a variety of approaches.

More recently, in Afghanistan, Female Engagement Teams were critical in interacting with the local population where gender prohibitions created operational limitations.  These teams developed trust with local Afghan women that led to critical information such as the location of improvised explosive devices.

There is also ample evidence in other sectors of how diversity and inclusion positively impact goals and missions for organizations. 

Research has found that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform others, and racially diverse companies are 35% more likely.  Another study found that companies with at least one female board member had better returns.

It's pretty clear how diversity can improve a company's finances.  And similarly, people from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences, who bring a wider range of skills and viewpoints to the table will help our military and the DoD avoid group think and will help us become stronger. 

At the foundation of having a more diverse and inclusive military is our future generation of leaders – a generation of leaders that is more diverse – that will ingrain diversity and inclusion principles into everything we do.  There are many reasons why diversity and inclusion should be a priority for every leader, but a few come to mind. 

First, diversity and inclusion are essential to unit cohesion and trust.  Unit cohesion, which is the bedrock of readiness, means Service members are ready to act as one.  We have to make sure we eliminate discrimination, extremism, and toxic behaviors which undermine readiness and unit cohesion, and is against everything we stand for.

Diversity also brings about more innovation.  People who are different from one another in race, gender, and other aspects bring unique information and experiences to the mission.  Talent pulled from diverse backgrounds across the country will amplify innovative solutions across the complex challenges the Department faces.

Another reason diversity is a strategic imperative is about aligning our missions and activities with those of our allies and partners.  Our security environment is global in every way.

I am of the mindset that persuasion is as powerful as any weapon in our arsenal and building coalitions through human interaction should be at the forefront of our efforts.

We need a diverse force that understands different cultures, backgrounds, languages, and regional politics around the world. 

To develop a diverse Total Force that is inclusive of different ideas and cultures, we need to promote and execute training and education programs that help us build and strengthen partnerships and alliances.

It's about equipping our Service members not only in the art and science of warfighting, but also trains and educates them to gain the trust of allies and partners.

By building relationships this way, ones that are diverse and cover the full spectrum of human interactions, we build the strongest and most enduring alliances and partnerships.

Switching gears a little, as I talk about our future leaders and the need for a more diverse force, I would be remiss not to talk about the four priority areas of P&R which all focus on our people.

The first priority is Changing the Culture.  Besides diversity and inclusion which is a big part of changing the culture, another issue that greatly impacts our ability to ensure a culture of dignity and respect is the crime of sexual assault and sexual harassment, which continue to be persistent and corrosive problems. 

We are taking unprecedented steps to prevent sexual assault and restore the trust of Service members in the military justice system and response process.

Key developments include standing up the Office of Special Trial Counsel in each of the Services to prosecute certain offenses, including sexual assault; training prevention personnel; and professionalizing the sexual assault response workforce with the enhanced skill and independence needed to best support survivor recovery.

Since day one, Secretary Austin made addressing sexual assault a top priority.  The Department's most senior leaders remain focused and resolute in solving this problem.

The Second P&R priority is promoting the health, wellbeing, and safety of the force and families.  This is right at the center of taking care of our people.

At the top of the Secretary's priorities, and mine as well, is suicide prevention and mental health.  Suicides decimate lives, families, and units. 

Unfortunately, I think most of us here have dealt with suicide in some way.  We have a tremendous responsibility in taking care of the physical and mental well-being of our service members and their families.  Everyone here is on the front lines to help stop suicide and end this tragedy. 

We are currently in the implementation phase of the recommendations that came out of the review of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) which was mandated by the 2022 NDAA, and is a comprehensive effort to address this complex and difficult issue. 

In the military, we all recognize first-hand the importance of teamwork.  Suicide prevention is no different.  We have to all work together and do everything we can to prevent suicides. 

The third P&R priority is Cultivating Talent Management.  We have to have a talent management system in place that can strengthen our enduring advantages. 

Behind our transformation of the future force, making the right technological investments, adapting and fortifying our defense ecosystem, and strengthening resilience and adaptability, is the common denominator of our ability to cultivate the force we need to accomplish our goals.

To get the best recruits and to be able to keep them, both military and civilian, we need to be in step with the current labor market, alleviate shortages in critical skillsets, and ensure a compensation system that meets current demands.

One critical step we have taken to accomplish this is hiring our inaugural Chief Talent Management Officer.  The CTMO will report directly to me and be responsible in leading the DoD's talent acquisition and management strategy for the Total Force.

Our goal is always to maintain the highest standards, and help our folks who want to serve, to meet and exceed standards.

Lastly, the fourth P&R priority is Advancing Strategic Readiness.  When I say Strategic Readiness, I'm talking about our ability to build, maintain, and balance warfighting capabilities and competitive advantages to achieve strategic objectives across threat and time horizons.

A key component to this priority is Professional Military Education.  As I alluded to earlier, we are developing Service members who understand the evolving nature of the security environment and how it potentially affects American interests, warfare, and the dimensions of strategic competition in this new era of competition.

The Department is updating PME to make it even more relevant to the National Defense Strategy.  Our War Colleges and Command and Staff Colleges have adjusted their core curricula to address the challenges of strategic competition with China and Russia.

Our goal is always to set a high bar for developing the knowledge and habits of mind of our warfighters.

So those are P&R's priority areas and some of the initiatives we have underway. 

Thanks again for having me over.  It really was an honor to be invited to speak.  On a personal note, my life has been defined by many of the same values as those of you in this room - service to our nation and giving back to others. 

I know the importance of being given an opportunity that can lead to transformative changes in an individual's life.  The fact that the Navy was looking for ways to increase diversity made all the difference in my life.

I hope that we can all open similar doors and pathways for future generations to serve.  Thank you.