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American Legion National Convention

Well, good morning and thank you. Thank you very much, National Commander Helm. I want to thank the leadership of this great organization for inviting me, and each and every one of you here for your tireless advocacy on behalf of our veterans and our men and women in uniform. And I want to thank Baltimore for hosting this year’s convention. I don’t know whether Bob McDonald is here, but I also want to thank him for his determined leadership at the V.A. and his partnership.

From the Second Battle of the Marne, to the Battle of the Bulge, from Inchon to Khe Sanh, from Fallujah to Wanat, to every person here who proudly called themselves a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine – who now proudly call themselves a Legionnaire – thank you. You are defending those who defend us.

There’s someone else here today, a great personal friend and distinguished predecessor, who I want to mention and thank – Chuck Hagel.

Chuck was a soldier in Vietnam, stories of his bravery are well known. And throughout the rest of his life in public service, Chuck dedicated himself to those who served…and that’s why he proudly wears the golden seal.

Vietnam taught us the hard way, that while one may question why we fight, we must never question the honor of the men and women who do the fighting. Our Vietnam vets were not given the recognition or respect they deserved. We cannot reverse that wrong, but we can learn from it, and that’s what we’re trying to do together. Never forgetting the sacrifices America’s bravest sons and daughters make is what drives, inspires, and gives meaning to this organization.

For nearly 100 years, Legionnaires like you have fought for freedoms nobly earned by our country’s finest patriots.

 You’re driven by an enduring truth: that above all – above all – the strength of our military, and our nation, are our dedicated men and women in uniform. And given that truth, we have a responsibility to defend those who’ve defended us.

That’s why as Secretary of Defense, among the three principal commitments I made when first took this office a few months ago, first and foremost is my commitment to our people, to the current force – including active duty, guard, reservists and their families, and veterans too.

Second, is my commitment to lead with a national security strategy suited for this new century – protecting our country, keeping us strong, respected by our friends, feared by our enemies, and always ready.

And third, is my commitment to our future and to the force of the future – where innovation and technology remain pillars of American strength, and making sure tomorrow’s force is as great as today’s by continuing to recruit and retain the best America has to offer.

Because above all else, our people are what make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Few others know better than you: our great responsibility is to make sure we never put a single one of America's brave sons or daughters or their families in harm’s way without the greatest care and reflection about why we’re doing it and how it benefits our nation.

And our responsibility extends to all generations – to our veterans, to our wounded warriors, to the fallen and their families, and those on the frontlines today. Through our partnership, we’ve made tremendous progress in recent years, and I’m grateful for partnership with this wonderful organization.

Today, for example, we know that traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress are factors that increase the risk of suicide. And we’ve taken action to make sure servicemembers treated for mental health conditions can continue their care as they transition to the VA. We’re expanding suicide prevention training so warning signs are easier to spot and help is easier to get. We’re also overhauling our electronic health records with a focus on interoperability across agencies.

On transition assistance, we’re upgrading our program so benefits like counseling and financial planning are interlaced throughout service careers, rather than tacked on at the end. You provide these vital services, too, and we’re grateful. You know, I travel around the country and talk to employers, and the recognition today is widespread, that a veteran makes a fantastic employee. That wasn’t always so. I remember when it was different, when people didn’t understand. And now, with the exception of very few, they do.

Better transition assistance is partly why veterans are getting jobs at record rates, and good jobs. But I think there’s more that we can do. Thanks to the Legion’s help, we’ve established a credentialing and licensing program to give servicemembers credit where it’s due. Because if you're certified to drive a truck or provide medical attention in a war zone, you shouldn’t have to get re-certified back home.

Over the next few years we expect 1.5 million 9/11 generation vets to join the 2.5 million who’ve already left service. We need to lay a foundation for veteran support needed 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now.

Asking questions about the future is vitally important, and we need to ensure today that every strategic decision we make should be a step towards keeping us safe, protecting our country, and protecting our allies and friends now and in the future.

After 9/11, under the weight of important and all-consuming missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our men and women in uniform performed with tremendous professionalism, skill, and valor – as so many of you have done in your time when called to duty. As we remain engaged there to preserve gains we’ve helped secure, we must also turn the corner and look ahead to a full spectrum of threats today and into the future – where our focus must be broader than counterinsurgency.

In the Asia-Pacific, for example, our rebalance toward that region – where nearly half of humanity and half of the world’s economies reside – is aimed at preserving a security architecture strong enough, capable enough, and connected enough to ensure all nations – all nations – have the opportunity to continue to rise. 

The United States joins others in that region and around the world in our deep concern about China’s pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea. We want a peaceful solution to all disputes, but let me be clear: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.

In Europe, we’re supporting our allies with a new playbook, countering Russian aggression with a strong and balanced approach and bolstering our NATO alliance, which continues to be an anchor for global security. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake: while Vladimir Putin may be intent on turning the clock back in Russia, he cannot turn the clock back in Europe. We will defend our allies…we will defend our allies, we will defend a rules-based international order, and we will defend the positive future that affords us.

 In the Middle East, the situation is, to put it mildly, complex. There are threats to our friends from different directions. But we have our compass, and we know our true north: We are focused on protecting our interests and our allies and above all, defending our people.

First, we will deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL. With a global coalition of some 60 nations, we’re taking the fight to ISIL across the physical, virtual, and ideological battlespace as it requires. Our coalition has conducted over 6,500 airstrikes, severely hampering ISIL’s movement and operations and systematically eliminating this evil group’s leadership.

Dealing ISIL a lasting defeat means that there must be capable, motivated, local forces on the ground to sustain the defeat. Otherwise we know from experience that ISIL will be defeated, but then five years, ten years later, something like it will be back. The coalition and us, we can support such local forces but we can’t substitute for them.

To date, we’ve trained more than 12,000 Iraqis. We need more. ISIL’s defeat is certain, but it will take time and it will take – require, it will require leveraging all elements of American power, including intelligence, financial, and diplomatic efforts as well as military.

Which brings me to a second, important piece of our broader Middle East strategy – the nuclear deal with Iran.

Our strategy towards Iran includes, but is not limited to the agreement to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Let me say outright, this is a good deal, because once implemented, it will remove a critical source of risk and uncertainty in an important but tumultuous region – Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon. But while the deal puts limits on Iran, the point I want to make is, the deal places no limits whatsoever on our military and our military option is real and will remain real. We will continue to protect our friends in the region, especially Israel, from Iran’s destabilizing activities. As I told some of the more than 35,000 American troops in the region when I visited there last month, deal or no deal the United States military will remain “full speed ahead.”

No matter the circumstances in that region or around the world, the bottom line is this: those who wish to do us harm will never find safe haven. If you threaten American lives – you will answer for it, no matter what it takes.

Answering threats today and for years to come demands we look forward and prepare for the future.

Last week, I was at Nellis Air Force Base, where we’re conducting exercises with our air forces and– in fact, a joint force, and some allies, working with new technologies and capabilities in space, cyber, and electronic warfare, as well as air warfare. In that way, Nellis symbolizes our strategic transition, a future where America remains – remains overwhelmingly strong in posture, and retains full spectrum dominance. After a decade of a focusing on counterinsurgency, we’re turning to all the challenges and opportunities and threats that will define our future security…where we remain strong, and agile, and always ready.

Today, the U.S. military has no equal. We are the best. But to stay the best, we have to embrace the future. And that has several dimensions. We have to be open to the wider world of technology. We need a sensible long-term budget that does right by our military and our taxpayers. And we need a 21st century personnel system to match a 21st century military – that’s what I call our force of the future.

Embracing change to stay the best into the future isn’t a course correction, it’s wind – it’s the wind in our sails. It’s the American way. Quite frankly, it’s what’s we’ve always done to make us strong.

First, our unrivaled military must double down on an unrivaled American strength – our capacity for game-changing innovation.

We have to be the firstest with the mostest in all of technology fields. As part of my effort to push the Pentagon – to push the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box, as I call it, we’re building stronger bridges between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley and the tech communities around the country. We’re aggressively investing in innovation and pushing R&D in areas like robotics, data science, cybersecurity, biotech, and hypersonic engines that can fly more than five times the speed of sound.

I was just in Silicon Valley last week announcing a new public-private partnership to propel flexible hybrid electronics technology. Which, just in case you don’t know what that is, is lightweight, shapeable sensors of the future that can give us real-time damage reports or integrate into smart prosthetics that have the full flexibility of human skin. Those are some of the applications but the most exciting applications will no doubt be the ones we can’t imagine yet. And that’s just one field of technology.

It’s not just about the best technology; you know we need the best people, too. So we’re drilling tunnels through the wall that sometimes seem to separate government from the innovative private sector – so more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission, even if for a time.

All of this – having the best people, maintaining the best technology, and executing the best strategy – takes resources. That’s the next point I want to make: to support today’s force and meet tomorrow’s threats, we need long-term budget certainty.

Our troops need the best training, the newest equipment, and the right compensation. For too long we’ve been forced to make painful tradeoffs, often on short notice, critically undermining our mission. Our troops deserve better than the inadequacy of quick-fixes and one year, every year, crisis budgeting. Indiscriminate cuts from sequestration are wasteful for taxpayers …dangerous for our strategy… unfair for our troops… and frankly, embarrassing in front of the world. We need to come together behind a multi-year approach to our budgeting.

The wider catalogue of strategic challenges requires marrying the threat of force with financial and diplomatic leverage. So I also can’t be, as Secretary of Defense, indifferent to the budgets of the State, FBI, Justice Department, Treasury, Homeland Security, that’s the world in which we live. I can’t be indifferent to that and I’m not. Failing to fund them too undercuts the full national security apparatus, for example, our collective effort to protect ourselves from ISIL and defeat them.

To stay the best, finally, we have to attract and compete for the best talent from a new generation. And to accomplish this, we need to build the force of the future.

You may have read about recent proposals on personnel changes. We are thinking through many ideas and we need time to get the best ideas and advice, both from our services and from groups like yours, like the Legion. The people of U.S. Armed Forces are the best, and always will be the best, and how we manage them should be the best, too.

We have an all-volunteer force. So for us to keep recruiting and retaining the best, the military has to be an attractive place to work. We’re aligning our personnel management system with 21st century trends – like the digital revolution in talent management and the generational reality that some young Americans aren’t satisfied with an industrial-era type career tracks. They want, you might say, jungle gym careers, where you advance by moving around and having new experiences; not an escalator, where you get on and wait your turn.

But not all upgrades you see in the private sector are applicable for our military, because after all, the military is a profession of arms with a unique mission. Still, we can learn some lessons and get some inspiration from new tools and modern approaches. Here are some things we’re considering:

We’re pushing for flexibility by building on-ramps and off-ramps to give our people more choices, because wherever it’s compatible with service needs, it shouldn’t feel like you have to choose between pursuing a promotion, supporting a family, or getting a quality education.

When today’s veterans succeed, it shows tomorrow’s servicemembers that the military can be a launching pad for further success for them. A few days ago, I met with leaders at the professional networking tech company, LinkedIn. I sat down with a few veterans who worked there who said it best when they told me that the military isn’t just a great place to go, it’s a great place to be from.

In its near-100 years of life, the American Legion has seen the world undergo tremendous change. That trend continues today, with a more digitized, more connected, and more complex global security environment.

But we are a learning organization. That’s what keeps us ahead – adapting, innovating, and rising to the occasion. We don’t react to change, we wield change.

In the century of progress the American Legion helped painstakingly build, you’ve never shied from advocating for what’s fair, insisting on something better, and demanding, above all, that we do right by the people who’ve stepped forward to defend this great nation. Thank you for that.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Captain Kristen Griest and 1st Lieutenant Shaye Haver – the first women to earn the right to wear the coveted Ranger Tab. They did what Rangers do: “lead the way.” Today, it's actually a huge credit for anyone, man or woman, to endure the intense curriculum at Ranger school, and to prevail and to graduate.

  But these two women are more than a snapshot of the strength of our current force, they represent a broader future trend…where a strategy of attracting the best and staying the best means we keep pace with change and open ourselves to the talents and strengths of all Americans who can contribute with excellence to our force. Where we modernize our recruitment, our retention, and our readiness in a way that’s worthy of a 21st century force.

When put to the test, not everyone – not everyone, only a select few, will meet our standards of combat excellence. But no one needs to be barred from their chance to be tested. That’s just one way we’re evolving to retain our place as the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

To stay the best, we must keep our focus on our greatest strength, our people… caring for those who serve, and pursuing a strategy suited for this century, in building the force of the future. If we do right by our people, with thought and commitment and openness and honor…then tomorrow’s veterans will be as good as today’s…and America’s security will be assured for generations to come.

Thank you for all you do to make our country strong and secure.