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Remarks by Secretary Carter at a Troop Event in Aviano, Italy

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Thanks very much, General Landrum, Chief Lusson, wherever -- there you are.  Your both lovely wives, thank you for being here.  My better half is right there.  And this is holiday time, and holiday time is family time.

Stephanie doesn't get to travel with me very much because she works.  But this time, she was able to come along.  And it's a way of saying from our family, but also more importantly from the big DOD family we're all part of, that I lead, from our family, little family, and our big family to your family, happy holidays and much appreciation for what you're doing.  And let me turn to that first, and then I'll come back to you.

We're working you all here at the 31st pretty hard.  And I recognize that.  And I just want to tell you that you are what I wake up for every morning.  I know exactly what you're doing.  I don't lightly ask you to do the things that we have you doing.  I know it's a hell of a lot.  You've got your hands full, but that is the world in which we live, the responsibilities that our nation -- (inaudible) -- and our allies and friends need to discharge.

I'm confident in us and our ability to meet all those challenges, but it is what it is.  We have to do them all.

And whether -- so here, you know, you all -- some of you are involved in counter-ISIL.  I'll get back to that in a minute.  Some of you are involved in standing strong with NATO, to deter aggression, especially from Russia.  Some of you are involved in -- in other matters in Africa.  You've got a group in Djibouti.  And I know they've been there for a long time.  And that's not anybody's first choice, but it is a necessity.

Let me start with the counter-ISIL campaign.  Aircraft from here, in Incirlik, have been very involved in that.  The -- our campaign plan is proceeding the way we set it out about a year ago.  The first and essential objective, not sufficient, but necessary, I s to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  That's where it arose and we need to crush both the fact and the idea that there can be an Islamic state based upon this ideology.

And we're hard at it right now.  I was just in Iraq.  I was in Baghdad, Erbil, a place called Qayyarah West, which is a little air base that we've built -- an air base/fire base -- to -- in the immediate vicinity of Mosul there.  We need to take Mosul because that is Iraq's second-largest city.  It can't stay in the hands of ISIL.

And we need to take in Syria Raqqah, because Raqqah is the so-called capital of their so-called caliphate.  And we need to take it out of their hands.  And in Mosul, things are proceeding exactly according to our plan.  It's a tough fight, but we knew that.  The Iraqi security forces are doing well, but they couldn't do what they do without us and the coalition, and the awesome enabling power of the coalition behind them.

In Syria, our partners there are now about 15 miles from Raqqah, again completing the envelopment and ultimately the seizure of Raqqah.

And in addition to destroying ISIL in Iraq and Syria, we have to do it everywhere else in the world where they pop up.  So you see us operating in Afghanistan, where I was three days ago.  You see us in Libya, where we've been working on -- and concluded our assistance to operations there in Sirte.

And then the third part of our campaign plan, and of course in way what it's all about in the end is protecting our own people from attacks on our own homeland.  And in that connection, I want to tell you something that I have not said before.  You know, we don't talk about these operations very much.

But you're the first to know we're -- I can confirm today that we took out three of ISIL's key leaders in the last couple of weeks.  It was one strike.  These are guys who were linked to plots right here in Europe.  And I can't share all the details with you, but for example with the Paris attacks.

And they were associates of al-Adnani, who was, if you recall, the chief external plotter for ISIL and its chief spokesman.  And we killed him a little while ago.  And now we killed these guys.  And that makes five, I guess, just in the last few weeks.

So we're at that all the time, and you all are an important part of that.  So I'm confident we're going to win.  We always do.  But it's going to take time and it's going to take some effort.

Here in Europe also, for 25 years or so, we didn't have to worry about deterrence on the eastern flank.  When the Cold War ended, things eased there.  And that wasn't -- didn't need to be a preoccupation of ours.  Now, we do.  And we are.

And that's the reason why we have quadrupled the amount of money we're spending this year on deterrence here in Europe.  I know I'm not going to get, because of the fog, to the 173rd over in Vicenza this afternoon, but if any of them see this video, you're one of the brigades that is here that comprises the ground component, even as Aviano comprises part of the air component.

And just to tell you of the importance of what you're doing also, we have, just to remind you, two brigades stationed all the time here.  Another one we're putting in that will be on a persistent rotational basis; equipment for yet a fourth, so that -- an armored division that the troops can fall in on in a crisis; battalion in the Baltics; and of course much, much, much more -- at sea, on land, and in the air.  A sad necessity of our time, but one that we need to do.

So whether it is in Europe, whether it is in the Middle East, whether it is in Africa -- all of the things you're doing here are necessary.  They're extremely important.  So you are right here, right now at a critical time in our strategic history.

And everything you do, you're doing with excellence.  I'm so proud of you.  One of the great feelings is to go out around the country and talk to people about you, and understand -- they don't always understand what you're doing.  That's fine.  But they do appreciate what you're doing.  And certainly we back in Washington do.

And I want -- I know, and I want you to know that I'm there for you, not the other way around.  That's what it's all about.  You're what I wake up for.  You're what I go to bed for every single night, thinking about your effectiveness; thinking about your welfare.

And I can't -- I'd like to be asking you to do less, but I'm afraid I can't promise you that there's going to be any let-up in the future.  The best I can tell you is that what you're doing is extremely important.  And if you think about it, despite all the sacrifice, despite all the hardship, despite all the danger and everything else that can be associated with military life, you do get to wake up in the morning and be part of something bigger than yourself.

It is the noblest thing you could do with your life.  You're part of the incredible mission of protecting our people and making a better world for our children.  And it's holiday season.  And so people are going to be getting together with their families.  They're going to be enjoying the holiday.  And they're going to be doing all those things that -- that people do -- hugging their kids and sitting around the dinner table, telling stories, just living life full, dreaming their dreams.

And that's not possible without security.  All that's not possible without security.  You provide that security.  So at holiday time, maybe you're not exactly where you'd like to be or with everybody that you'd like to be with, but remember that they're able to do it because of you.  And that's a wonderful feeling, I think, to have.

For me to you, from Stephanie and me to you, God bless you at this holiday time.  And God bless your family.  We're so, so proud of you, and you do such a fantastic job.

What I'm going to do now is -- I've got a little time.  I'll tell you, I've got just a limited amount of time because I've got to go back on that airplane and I've got a video conference with the president.  And he's the one person I can't be late for.  (Laughter.)

So, that -- that's a fact.  But I want to take a little time to take your questions.  So there's a mic somewhere.  There are mics around.  And here's the deal.  You can either ask me a question or you can tell me something that you think I ought to know, that you think maybe I don't know.  So either one, any subject.


Q:  Sir, I'm -- (inaudible) -- from the 606th Air Control Squadron.

My question for you is:  What should the U.S. do more and/or less of to get the rest of the world to engage in the fight against ISIS?

SEC. CARTER:  So, the question was what should we do to get other countries to do more to help us fight ISIL.  And I mentioned this coalition.  We do lead a coalition.  And if you think about it, nobody else could do this but us.  Nobody else but the United States could have put together this coalition and led it, and brought our awesome military capability to bear.

At the same time, we have a lot of really good friends and allies who are doing it with us.  One of them is right here in Italy.  They've been with us from the beginning.  They're -- they're very strong.  They've participated in and contributed to the formulation of the campaign, as well as the execution of the campaign.  And there are other allies and partners that are strong, too.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that everybody's doing -- everybody around the world is doing everything I'd like them to do and everything I think they could do.  And without naming the names, I'll just say that we work real hard to try to bring those who are less active into the coalition, into the really active part of the coalition.

In my next stop, I am going to London, where I'm going to bring together all of my counterparts -- the ministers of defense, the secretaries of defense, as they're called around here, who are the most active.  And we're going to get together in London and we're going to, just like we did around this time last year and put the plan together for Mosul and Raqqah, and said:  Okay, who's going to do what?  And how are we going to put together the combat power to enable the local forces?

Because that's our strategic approach, because we can -- we've got to -- we not only want to defeat ISIL, we want to do it in a way that sticks.  That's why we're working with the Iraqis; why we work with local forces.  And now I'm going to meet with them and we're going to talk about sticking to execution.  We haven't finished off Mosul yet.  We've got a lot of -- a lot of work to do.  Everybody needs to stay focused on execution.

And we need to look ahead.  What comes after?  And are we getting ready for that?

But by and large, and certainly right here in Italy, we're getting incredibly great and strong participation.

And if you think about it, I mean, ISIL is -- it's barbarism.  And so, you know, Italy, Europe, this is the civilized world as we're -- of which we're apart as well, and you have to defend the civilized world.  And everybody knows that here.  And, of course, people here, cities here, have had attacks on -- on them also.

Who's next?

Q:  Good afternoon, Sir.  Tech Sergeant (Rall ?) from the 31st Maintenance Group Maintenance Operation Center.

My question is, since you have served your country with great honor and are passing the baton here very soon, what do you look back on that you wish we could have done better as a country?  And what changes do you foresee with the change –of command in both the president and SECDEF will bring to us?

CARTER:  Okay.

First on the -- the presidential transition, a couple of things.  The first is, I'm really proud of the way that the entire Department of Defense conducted itself during this very long campaign, with many candidates over a long a period of time -- months and months and months.

We stood apart from politics.  That's the way we do things in our country.  We weren't involved in that.

And then when the election occurred, we turned ourselves to the transition, which we've done for 240 years now in our country.  And I'm committed to an orderly transition to my successor and to helping President-elect Trump hit the ground running in -- as -- in the best way we possibly can.

And I'm confident we'll do that.  We -- we were all ready for that.  You know how we operate in DOD, wouldn't we -- we would all had a whole plan for who -- it didn't matter who won, same -- same plan.  And we're carrying that -- that out right now.

And, of course, I can't speak for the new administration.

America's interests remain the same.  So, we still have ISIL to fight, we still have Russia -- that isn't gonna change, the world isn't gonna -- isn't gonna change.

And as I said, the American people are very, very supportive of y'all and of what you're doing.  And again, they don't always understand it, but they're very, very, very supportive.  So, I expect that to continue.

With respect to what could be done better, I -- I'll tell you something that I'm -- I'll start with something I'm really proud of and then I'll get to something that really bugs me.

But the thing I'm really proud of is that we are a tremendously innovative institution.  And I'm very proud of that, because today's a competitive world, and so we've pushed ourselves to change, change our weapons system, change our operational approaches, how we handle talent, people and so forth, so that we're always using the absolute cutting-edge ways of doing whatever we're doing.  And I'm really proud of that.

And -- so even -- even though we change over time, and we have been doing that as long as I can remember, and I've been doing this a long time -- excuse me -- we -- we continue to be open to change.  That's one of the reasons why we're the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Now, if I have a beef about the last -- the time I've been secretary of defense -- and actually it goes back way before that, when I -- you know, I've been -- eight years ago, when I started just this tour in the Defense Department.

We haven't -- we -- it is now December, right?  Fiscal year begins October 1st.  Do we have a budget?  No.  Eighth year in a row.  So -- so I mean, that's the single thing -- now, we -- we've gotten actually practiced at getting through the early part of the fiscal year without a budget, but that's no way to do things.  It's -- it's wasteful, it -- it hinders our ability to plan ahead.

I think to you and your families, you know, you pick up the newspaper, you read it and say what on Earth is going on here?  People come up to you from other countries and say hey, can't you guys get your act together?  It's embarrassing and -- and -- and there's just no -- it's a symptom of gridlock in Washington.  I hope, and I've been appealing for this the whole time I've been secretary of Defense -- can we -- come together and -- and get some order and certainty in the budget.

And that can't happen the way we -- our government runs unless everybody comes together.

You deserve better and our department deserves better, and that's the single thing that if I had to point to one thing, that it is just persistently not okay with me, it is having to manage without a -- without budget certainty.

STAFF:  (off mic.)


Q:  Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.  Technical Sergeant Graham, 31st  Med Group.

In today's every changing military, what advice would you give to our young airmen to inspire a lifetime of service?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, first of all, that's a great question because I don't take what you -- that you're with us for granted.  So I'm working all the time on recruiting, retention, development, because what makes us the finest fighting force the world has ever known is our people.  We got a lot of other good stuff going for us, but our people are really what do it -- what does it.

And I can't take that for granted.  It's an all-volunteer force, none of you has to be here, and so I have to get you here and then I have to keep you here.  And I think that when it comes to retention, you know, we do surveys, I talk to people all the time about this just when I'm out and about like now and just ask them what's on their mind, what are you thinking about your future, what's your family thinking and try to get a feel for what the key things are.

Now, by far and away, 99 percent of the time, people will say it's the mission.  I mean, that's what really makes us all do what we do, is we know the importance of it and we -- and we want to do something that really matters.  But you know, that becomes really tough if you also have a family.  You know, family's pretty important too and I try to do everything I possibly can not to make it have to be a choice between family and service.

And so let me just pull on that thread a little bit just as one part of the answer to your question.  So -- so I've been doing a number of things, I'm sure you've seen them, with respect to family programs, parental leave, childcare center hours.  You know, these things may seem small, but they're not actually and we -- we cost them, we look at the readiness impacts and so forth of all these things, but they're really worth doing.

And the reason is that I don't want to have an airman have to choose between his or her family and staying with us.  I can't give you everything -- I mean, I've got to send to where I've got to send you.  I've got -- you've got people in Djibouti right now.  I'm sure that's not where they want to be spending their time right now.

That, I can't -- that's part of the profession of arms and it's part of the OPTEMPO of today's world, I can't help that.  But when it comes to other things, like parental leave and -- and so forth, giving you geographic flexibility.  So if -- it would be really, really good if you could stay in this -- where you are now for one more year because you've got a kid in school.

I have given -- I don't want to mandate these things.  I try to give your commanders flexibility, that's my way of operating, not saying you have to do this, this, this, this and this, but give them some flexibility.  Give them the flexibility to give you some more geographic stability in return for something.  So they may ask for an extra commitment from you back.

But that -- so there's some flexibility within the limits of what we have to do, which is we have to carry out the mission.  We can't do everything, but -- so these are the kinds of things you have to think about and that I think about with your chiefs and leadership back in Washington, and the same thing's true -- recruitment, we're constantly looking to get as wide a -- be able to dip into as a wide a part of the American population as possible because it is an all-volunteer force.

We get to pick, right?  But I want to pick from the biggest pool I can.  That's why, for example, right around this time last year, I opened up all military specialties to women for a very simple reason.  It's half of our population and I want to be able to pick.  That doesn't mean I'm going to pick them, they've got to meet the standards, they have to qualify.  But there may be people who are qualified, and if they end up in those positions, it's because they're the most qualified person for that position.  And that's a good thing for our military.

And it's the same thing with geography, we're not equally -- we're not -- we don't have equal access in all parts of the country, just historically, and so I want to get out there.  There's talent there we don't have our hands on.  So I want to have myself and my successor and my successor's successor have in front of them in a place like this as great a group of people as I have in front of me today.

That's not a birthright.  We've got to work at that.  We've got to -- and -- you've got to constantly think generations change, technology changes, how people think about their lives change.  And we've got to get in there and we've got to compete for people like you, both to get you and to keep you.

All right, listen.  Thanks everybody so much.  Just once again, bless you all from our family to yours and from the whole DOD family.  Blessings on you.

I'm going to now take some -- recognize some of our airmen of the year, I guess as you'd called it.  And everybody here is outstanding, but here are some that were recognized especially this year.  And then we're going to I guess group by group, take some photos.  And I'll leave coins behind for everybody.  I'd love to shake every single person's hand in this hangar, but that would cause my boss to get angry with me.  Isn't a good idea.

Okay.  Ready to go?  Come on up.  Let's see.  How are we going to do this?

STAFF:  (inaudible) -- get in front of the podium, sir.

SEC. CARTER:  In front of the podium?  Well, make sure you get the -- (inaudible).