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Remarks to the National Association of Counties

President Hokama, thank you much for that wonderful introduction, for your leadership of the National Association of Counties, and thank you for inviting me here today and all of you for coming. Because what you do in your counties and your communities is so important. And not just to our country, but – and that’s the point I want to make – our military.

It’s so very important because our men and women in uniform don’t come from the Pentagon. They come from your communities. We recruit from your communities. Our servicemembers and their families live in your communities while they’re serving – including our Guardsmen and Reservists – and when they leave military service, they’ll once again be in your communities. And for job, family, or other reasons, your community may be a place they’re coming to for the first time.

We’ve needed to make changes in how we defend you as the world’s threat’s change, as the world’s opportunities have changed, as technology changes, and as new generations come of age in our great country of America.

One of the many things, many things I’m proud of about the Department of Defense is that we’re a learning organization – so that we look out on a changing world, we change our strategies, we change ourselves. But one thing we haven’t had to change is how our servicemembers returned home to a grateful nation and grateful communities. Throughout it all, you are there for them – and believe me, I know a time when it was different. And on behalf of the Department of Defense, I want to thank you all for that.

But it’s true that while at the end of World War II no fewer than 10 percent of our entire population was on active duty, that’s not the case anymore. Today, we have a smaller yet highly-specialized force of all volunteers who comprise about 1 percent of our population. While they receive widespread public support from those they defend, it’s also true that because fewer Americans are serving in uniform, fewer have personal connections to those who do. For my generation and my parents’ generation, three-out-of-four had a family member who served, but for our kids’ generation, it’s only one-in-three. And because these connections significantly influence whether a person decides to serve in the first place, this trend is likely to continue.

Meanwhile, with our men and women in uniform doing such a superb job of keeping us secure, sometimes – I have to say – I feel like what they do is not being adequately appreciated, or is being taken for granted. And that can be frustrating to me sometimes. You see, security’s like oxygen, and if you have it, you don’t pay any attention to it; if you don’t have it, it’s all you can think about. And so when I get frustrated, I tell myself, you know, our military’s mission is to make sure that everyone else in our country – that 99 percent – can go to bed at night safely, sleep peacefully, wake up, hug their children, go to work, live their lives, dream their dreams, and not have to worry about their security. And so, when our troops succeed, it can be easier for some of them not to see how much they owed them. That’s a paradox that’s not easily reconciled, but one that I see and understand.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who defend our country in uniform are, as I always tell them, the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

And that’s true first and foremost because of the people themselves, and secondly, the technology and the strategies they use, but next – and this is where you come in – because of the foundation provided by the communities and counties like yours. While each of those three is critical to sustaining our Armed Forces, none of them can be taken for granted. And I don’t. Indeed, all three must be continually renewed for the future. I’ll mention the first two briefly, but then I want to bear down on the piece you here reflect – our military’s foundation in America’s communities.

I’ll start with our people. They’re all volunteers, so for us to keep recruiting and retaining the best America has to offer, the military has to be an attractive place to work, especially for those with in-demand talent and high-level skills.

That means we have to keep up with trends, like the recent revolution in technology – excuse me, in talent management – and the fact that some young Americans today aren’t satisfied with industrial-age career tracks. They want to be on a jungle gym, where you get up by moving around and having new experiences, not an escalator, where you get on and wait your turn.

To attract and compete for talent in these new generations, we’re trying to build what I call the force of the future. We’re pushing to be attractive to this generation, to be more geographically diverse, making on-ramps and off-ramps to give our people more choices, and bringing our personnel management systems into the 21st century. We’re also drilling tunnels through the walls that too often separate government and the private sector, particularly in scientific and commercial technology areas, because we need America’s brightest minds to contribute to our mission.

And as for technology, in the past – when I began my own career – there were such close ties between industry and the defense sector that we created breakthroughs like GPS, and the Internet itself, and before that satellite communications, the jet engine, and other innovations, which advanced both our security and our society. Today, we have to renew that partnership to sustain our military’s second primary ingredient – its superior technology.

And our technological edge has never been guaranteed. It’s not a birthright, and to sustain it, we have to keep up with several trends. The technology base has become global and more commercialized than it was when I started out. High-end technologies long possessed by only the most advanced militaries have gotten into the hands of previously less-capable forces, and even non-state actors. And nations like Russia and China are modernizing their militaries to try to close the technology gap.

To stay ahead of these challenges, and to stay the best, DoD is investing in innovation. We’re pushing the envelope in new technologies – like cyber, autonomous systems, and hypersonic engines that can fly over five times the speed of sound. And we’re developing new partnerships with America’s private sector and tech communities – starting with setting up a DoD innovation hub in Silicon Valley, and making ourselves more open to working with start-ups, commercial companies, and small businesses.

And much of what your local communities do will be critical to these efforts. For example, with schools in many of your communities focusing more on the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, our future recruits – and all young Americans – can be prepared not only to defend us in the future, but to drive that future forward.

Our people and technology are vitally important, and I’ll continue to spend a lot of my time and attention on them. But I want to focus today on the third reason why we’re the world’s finest fighting force: the foundation of community and support we receive from counties and families nationwide, from all of you and the people you represent.

You and your communities are a source of our military’s enduring strength, because you provide our men and women in uniform with the preparation, the care, and the purpose they need to defend our country.

It may not always be obvious to everyone, but our military servicemembers, veterans, families, and survivors are part of almost every community in America. And frequently, their local issues are your local issues. They visit the same parks and museums as you do. Their kids go to school with your kids. They’re our neighbors, our community leaders, and most of all, our friends.

And some of them are also colleagues, because hundreds of thousands of Americans serve in the National Guard and Reserves. As some communities know firsthand, when disaster strikes – storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, and the like – they pitch in, laying sandbags, clearing debris, keeping security, conducting search-and-rescue. And more importantly, when we call on them for other operations – like we did for the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – they serve as a vital complement to our active-duty forces.

By stepping forward in times of need, Guardsmen and Reservists from your communities uphold one of our oldest traditions – and today, they do so during a time of change in the relationship between Americans and their military. Indeed, one of our nation’s founding precepts was the citizen-soldier, based on the idea that in wartime, every American would be expected to do their part.

And for much of our history, that’s what happened. Militias were raised from local communities, and neighbors and friends went to war together, while back home, their parents, siblings, and communities rationed food and clothing, tended victory gardens, gathered scrap metals, or retooled entire industries.

But as I said earlier, that’s no longer the case anymore. We have fewer Americans serving, and fewer who are personally connected to those who serve on our behalf.

All this means that the community foundation we have today must similarly evolve for the future. This isn’t the World War II-era, and because of what DoD is doing to build the force of the future, transitioning out of the military will look different from how it did 70 years ago – or, for that matter, 10 years ago. It will mean that in the future, while some might serve only for a time, others might spend 25 years moving back and forth between national service and other opportunities, like using the G.I. Bill to get a degree or applying their skills in the private sector. Also, we may see some troops and families spending more time in the communities they love, without having to move around as often as they do now.

We know we can’t push a one-size-fits-all career model anymore, and we can’t keep pushing a one-size-fits-all, one-stop-shop community foundation anymore, either. As we’ve seen in recent years, each community’s different, and the foundations of preparation, care, and purpose they provide to servicemembers and their families should be different too. People from urban areas and rural areas may have different ideas of what their community should look like, just as a model that works for Riley County, Kansas may be different than one that’s right for Florida’s Miami-Dade.

Still, in a future where each community’s foundation will be different, and uniquely tailored to reflect their local civic traditions, resources, and populations, there should be some elements that they have in common.

For example, let’s make a future where more Americans nationwide strive not only to support our troops, but to also know our troops – and not just when they come home, but from the moment they start to contribute to our mission.

Let’s make a future where this relationship is a two-way street, where both military and civilian communities contribute to each other, share ideas and best practices that can benefit all of us.

And let’s behold what will happen when young Americans take notice of how those who serve our country go on to do great things, how military service can be a path to leadership positions in all sectors of society – business, government – a path many of you in this room have taken. And when they see the positive difference it can make in someone’s lives, and the positive difference it’ll make them make in the lives of others, they’ll realize how noble this mission is. When they see the changes we’re making to attract new generations of talent, they’ll realize that they too can make a contribution. And if and when they choose to join us, even if only for a time, we’ll all be safer for it, and our country will be more secure.

NACo’s new partnership with Vets’ Community Connections is a great example of how we can get closer to that community foundation. By taking the initiative to provide local servicemembers, veterans, and families with personal, human connections to their own communities – by engaging with the many existing community resources and tools, making them together work together in a smarter way – Veterans’ Community Connections is making a real difference in the lives of our people, and we’re grateful.

Let me tell you what else you can do, because your communities are the front lines of the effort.

As you see more of our military servicemembers, veterans, families, and survivors, I ask that you embrace them as they join your communities, and empower them with opportunities to continue leading lives of meaning and purpose.

It won’t be very hard, because they already tend to be more civically engaged. According to one recent study, veterans are 20 percent more likely to give to charity, they volunteer 30 percent more hours a year, and they’re three times more likely to join a service or civic organization. To be clear, they aren’t looking for handouts. The 9/11 Generation volunteered to serve at a time of war, and they have a strong desire to continue making a difference in the world. All that it takes is finding the right opportunity.

Maybe your school board needs a fresh perspective. Maybe your county fair needs new people to help organize it each year. Maybe your son or daughter’s scout troop or sports team needs a mentor they can look up to.

In all these situations and so many more, I encourage you to seek out and ask your citizens to seek out someone who’s served – whether they’re on active-duty, Guard or Reserve, a veteran, or a military family member. Harness the invaluable experience, global perspective, and extraordinary talent they bring to the table – talent you’ve invested in and helped develop. Because when you grab hold of our people, you’ll never forget it, and you’ll never regret it.

I’ll end by saying that more than 2.6 million American servicemembers deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if any of us were to ask, I bet most of them would say – and I know this because I’ve talked to so many of them – that they’re not heroes, but they are proud to have protected the country and made a better world. They certainly won’t say they’re victims, and won’t be treated that way. Instead, they’re our fellow citizens, and they chose to be part of something bigger than themselves. The sacrifices they’ve made on our behalf are no small thing, but many of them also found great meaning and fulfillment in their service.

When you go back home, ask your citizens to take some time to get to know them. Encourage your communities to do the same. You’ll all be glad you did.

And thank you, and God bless you, God bless our troops, and God bless the United States.