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Remarks at Stand Up for Heroes Reception

Good evening, everyone, and thank you so much for being here this evening.  And thanks for that kind introduction, Bob, and thanks for inviting me to be here at the start of what looks like a very exciting evening. 

We have some very good friends here tonight from the department, few finer than our former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my sidekick – I don’t know where he is – General Marty Dempsey.  Marty, his wife, Deanie – a great friend to myself, and also my wife, Stephanie, who’s here – all lovers of the great force that is ours.  It’s great to see both of you, great to see all of you.  I don’t know whether Pete Chiarelli here – Pete, if you’re here – General Pete Chiarelli, and many, many others, thank you.  Thanks for being here.  Thanks for your support to our people. 

Our host, Bob Woodruff – thanks for saying that.  Bob, it means a lot to us.  He’s an excellent reporter of course, and he’s right, the last time he interviewed me, we were a long way from midtown Manhattan – almost as far as you can get, in fact – on the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea.  And that kind of trip is the proof that Bob Woodward will go the extra mile, or thousands of miles, in fact, to write a good story and explain about what we do, and the importance of what we do, to our world.  That’s not a surprise to any of – any of us – I think, who are here in this room.  He goes where the story is, and he’s committed to getting to get it right. 

Same thing from Martha Raddatz, by the way, whom I see here tonight.  I just left her in Erbil, about 10 days ago or something.  Martha, thank you also. 

For Bob – in addition to his journalism – Bob and his wife Lee have gone the extra mile for our servicemembers, for our veterans, and their families.  For the last decade, Bob, Lee, and the Woodruff family have stood up – building awareness, raising resources, and making connections for those who stand up for all of us, sometimes in harm’s way.  And for all that, I want to thank you, Bob, Lee, and everyone at the foundation, all of the supporters here, everyone here tonight.  Bless you for that.  We appreciate your standing up for our people.  And I’m going to talk a little bit tonight about how – what we’re doing to stand up for them, too. 

As I’m sure Bob and Lee can attest, each and every one of them, each soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and veteran, is dedicated, driven, and awesomely capable.  And together, they have made America’s the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  We should all take pride in them, be thankful for them.  Quite simply, they do one of the noblest things a person can do, which is to help defend our magnificent country, and make a better world for our children.

To do so today, our current force is confronting on our behalf – as we’re here tonight – no fewer than five unique, evolving challenges.  They’re countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe.  They’re managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific, the single most consequential region of the world for America’s future.  They’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile provocations.  They’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and helping defend our friends and allies in the Middle East.  And they’re accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL – destroying it in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and destroying it in Afghanistan, Libya, and everywhere else the ISIL cancer metastasizes around the world, even as they continue to help protect our homeland and our people as well. 

Moreover, when you look at history, you see we have an almost perfect record of failure, when it comes to predicting the strategic future.  And because of that, we’re being flexible, and they’re being flexible, agile, to contend with a complex and uncertain future, where new challenges will almost certainly arise we don’t foresee today.

And now in the Defense Department, we don’t have the luxury of choosing among these five challenges – we have to do it all.  And we confront these challenges with the strength of our technology, the strength of our values, with our penchant for innovation.  But the key –  the key – is our people.  To meet those challenges and face that unknown future, DoD counts on and takes care of our force of today, and at the same time, builds what I call the Force of the Future. 

Let me tell you a little bit about what we’re doing, let me start with today. 

As Secretary of Defense, my first commitment – and this is something Stephanie and I think about every morning when we begin our day – my first commitment is to our men and women, uniformed and civilian, to their excellence and to their welfare, to making sure they’re treated with dignity and respect, and above all, making certain that when they’re sent into harm’s way, it’s done with the utmost care and strategic necessity. 

I’m doing everything I can to support the strength and the readiness of today’s fighting force – investing in the right training, the right force size, the right compensation and benefits that our troops and their families and DoD civilians deserve, and the right equipment.  Just to mention that last one, for example, we need to spare no effort and expense and brook no delay when it comes to deploying – for our troops that are in harm’s way – the tools to accomplish their mission and protect themselves, whether with mine-resistant, ambush-protected, or MRAP, vehicles that help keep them safe from roadside bombs, or with new lightweight and easy to use combat application tourniquet, that stems bleeding on the battlefield, has saved countless lives, and is a big advance over its predecessor.  All this, and some ideas that our scientists are working on right now.

But of course, our support to today’s force goes well beyond that.  It includes a commitment to help care for our military’s wounded, ill, and injured, and support our military families because they serve, too.  It includes our enduring pledge to support the families of the fallen whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice.  It also includes our pledge to help our servicemembers transition when they move on to whatever’s next for them in life.  And I’m very gratified to see the way employers’ attitudes towards veterans have improved in the course of my lifetime.  And it also means that when our servicemembers are not being treated fairly and with respect, we act quickly to fix it, as we’re doing with the California National Guard bonus issue. 

Our commitment to today’s – our commitment to today’s force also includes ensuring the respect and dignity of our people, one for the other, which is why we’ve been prioritizing the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

So with all this, even as our force of today is outstanding and meeting the challenges we face, the Pentagon must also – as I like to say – think outside our five-sided-box about the future, about how we stay the best tomorrow. 

More than anything else, we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known because of our people, and we can’t take that for granted.  As generations change, as technologies change, as labor markets change, we need to stay competitive and to continue to attract and retain the most talented young people that America has to offer.  That’s why we’re taking steps to build what I call the Force of the Future – one that will be just as excellent as the one I have the privilege to lead today. 

We’ve announced a number of what I call links to that Force of the Future, and I want to say something about a few of them. 

The first, which I announced a year ago this month, created on-ramps and off-ramps, so more people outside DoD can come inside and contribute to our mission, even if only for a time or a project – for example, in cyber – and also in the other direction, so more people in our military can spend some time outside at a leading company or university to gain skills and perspective they can bring back in to make us better. 

Link two, focused on improving retention among our ranks, principally by increasing our support to military families.  It’s often said that our military recruits a servicemember, but retains a family.  So with changes like 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for those serving in uniform, increased paternity leave as well, extended childcare hours on bases, we’re making it easier and more desirable for our best people and their families to stay with us.

A third link to the Force of the Future improved our military talent management policy to ensure we’re promoting, retaining, and bringing in the best possible officers.  This is about making some common sense adjustments to our strong and successful traditions.  For example, we can’t have an officer promotion system that inadvertently passes over a Rhodes Scholar – which almost happened recently – just because he spent two years at Oxford, and as a consequence hadn’t yet held some of the Army jobs that the others in his cohort had held.  Now fortunately, Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, himself a scholar-soldier, intervened.  So we’re infusing more flexibility into the system and continuing to ensure that promotion is based as much as possible on all relevant kinds of merit and talent. 

And link number four focused on the talent management of the more than 700,000 DoD civilians.  And you may not know as much about them, but they do things like fix our planes, build our warships, staff our laboratories, and more.  Here, we made changes that make it easier to hire civilians directly – for example, before their senior year in college is over – without the long waits that make it impossible for us to be their first choice, and also to expand scholarship-for-service programs in science and technology fields. 

And today, earlier today here in New York at City College, I announced links five and six.  Link five, we’re going to tell our story in more places, more ways, and to a broader range of audiences across the country, even as we improve our recruiting efforts to widen our geographic, demographic, and generational access to young Americans – recognizing that 40 percent of our recruits come from just six states, and recognizing that fewer young people today have parents, or teachers, or coaches, or guidance counselors who served.  So these steps will help us to fish in more ponds, new ponds, wider ponds so we always have the best that America has to offer.  And last, we’re making some improvements in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, or ROTC – which celebrates, by the way, this year, including at CCNY, its 100th anniversary, and which furnishes 40 percent of our officers. 

In addition to all these links from today to the Force of the Future, we’ve also opened up all combat positions to women, and lifted DoD’s ban on transgender servicemembers, so that we can now have a full opportunity to draw on 100 percent of America’s population for our all-volunteer force – focusing purely on an individual’s willingness and ability to meet our standards and contribute to our mission. 

Because we’re doing all of those, because we’re taking care of today’s force and also because we’re building the Force of the Future, and because of our nation’s enduring strengths, I’m confident – confident – that we’ll meet those five challenges and fully realize the bright and opportunity-rich future for our country. 

But I never forget, we can never forget – you don’t forget, or you wouldn’t be here tonight – what makes it all happen.  And you know the answer, because you chose to stand up for them tonight and every day.  And that’s our people. 

Each of our servicemembers and DoD civilians makes me incredibly proud.  There are almost 3 million of them serving across this country and around the clock, in every time zone on earth, in every domain – in the air, ashore, afloat, and even in cyberspace – all in service of this great nation. 

All of them are defending not only the United States and its people; they’re also defending the values and the principles that define us, while they provide the security that will enable our children to live a better life. 

Because they do so, we can gather here this evening and enjoy tonight’s concert.  We can go to work tomorrow or study at schools like City College, where I was earlier today.  We can live our lives and dream our dreams and enjoy the freedoms upon which this country was built, and for which so many generations of Americans have fought. 

They make all that possible.  And at a time when not as many serve, I want them all to know that we don’t take them for granted.  Stephanie and I begin every day thinking of them. 

I know that our mission is demanding and constantly changing.  But I couldn’t be prouder of them for what they do every day and for what they’ve done for us.  Their excellence is unparalleled.  Their service, valued.  Their sacrifices never will be forgotten. 

But thank you for recognizing and standing up for them.  Thank you for all you’re doing for them.  God bless them, and God bless this great country.  Enjoy the evening.