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Secretary of Defense Esper Press Briefing in Norfolk, Virginia

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:   Good morning everyone.  I want to thank you for joining me today in Norfolk at the shipyard.  I've had a good day so far today.  I started off with doing physical training with a platoon worth of soldiers on the USS Wisconsin. We had a good session.  And then I -- my first visit was with the USS Boise, (inaudible) it has been for a while. I had a good time talking with their commander and the crew about the mission of the Boise, her challenges with regard to maintenance. 

And then as you just saw, I just disembarked the USS Gravely.  She just got back from deployment and, again, had a very good discussion with the commander and with the sailors about the mission of the ship, the challenges, et cetera.  

I'd say just a few things to sum up so far my trip this morning. I'm very impressed, of course, by our naval forces.  They provide a great core presence. They are a symbol of American might and values (inaudible).  That said, the DOD continues to wrestle with the fact (inaudible). And (inaudible) project for months.  

This is deeply troubling, particularly for ships that (inaudible) deploy, and ships that need to go into maintenance.  (Inaudible) so that's one of the things I want to emphasize here today and one thing (inaudible) discussed with members of Congress, and I've discussed with the media.  

So with that I will pause and take questions.

Q:  Secretary Esper, if I may ask (inaudible) very quickly. USS Bush in the last week had three suicides in the middle of suicide prevention month. What’s not working with efforts on suicide prevention and also about the USS Truman still being unable to get underway.  How is that messing up things by it not being able to deploy?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, so I mean the suicides are tragic.  Every single one is a tragedy, and, you know, you mourn for the families and you mourn for their shipmates, everyone else, and I wish I could tell you we have an answer to prevent further, future suicides in the Armed Services. We don't. We are caught up in what some call a national epidemic of suicide among our youth.  And not just our youth, but it's something we continue to wrestle with.  I believe we have the means and the resources to get ahead of this and do better than our civilian counterparts.  

I know the services are committed to doing this.  I'm committed to doing this, because it's -- we just can't let these great, young Americans take their lives because of financial pressure or relationship challenges, or whatever comes up. We need to help them.  We need to start with prevention, but we need to work all the way through the system and really continue to get on top of this issue.  And not just in the Navy, in all the services, and with our DOD civilians.  

Q:  On the Truman?

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, I'm sorry, the Truman.  Look, any time you arrive late to a shipyard for maintenance or leave late out of maintenance, it creates ripples throughout the force, and I'm tracking this issue, as I've dug more into it as secretary of defense, spent time with the secretary of the Navy. He and I have had these discussions.  The key thing is we need adequate shipyards and a qualified workforce to do that whether it's the public or private sector.  

We need to get ships in on time and we need  to get them out on time and we need to better manage the demand coming from our combatant commands to make sure that again we stick to our maintenance schedules.  At the end of the day we have to maintain a ready and lethal force not just for today but for tomorrow.

STAFF:  All right, guy right here.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, all signs are pointing toward a continuing resolution at the start of this fiscal year.  Obviously we've seen that cripple this area, especially ship maintenance.  What are you most concerned about going into that?

SEC. ESPER:  Well every day that we have a continuing resolution means it's a day in which our training, our maintenance, our modernization and everything is impaired, because there are a number of things that you cannot do under the C.R. such as new starts of programs.  You can't adjust your munitions purchases, et cetera, et cetera.  

And so the biggest concern we have out there is not only does this drag on for weeks or months, but it could end up being a year-long continuing resolution.  That is devastating -- devastating to our military readiness.  And I think many members of Congress recognize this, certainly the defense committees, and I want to work closely with them to make sure that every member of Congress understands that message, and they work quickly to pass what was agreed upon, topline number, and quickly get them to an appropriations bill that meets the needs of the department.

Q:  Sir, you're going to an all-hands call here today.  Earlier, you voiced your concerns of privatized military housing across the nation and (inaudible) here in Norfolk.  (Inaudible). Are you confident that the services (inaudible). 

SEC. ESPER:  You know, I was (inaudible) Fort Bragg where we saw just inadequate maintenance for (inaudible) relationships -- a whole bevy of things.  It just was unconscionable that these providers were treating our military families this way. And I think all of the services (inaudible) got on top of this, worked together and moved a number of initiatives around.  

I hosted actually the first meeting, tri-service meeting, with all of the private provider CEOs, where we laid down what we were going to move forward on.  It was the Bill of Rights.  It was a new contractual agreement for services and the providers, and it was going to be a new common contracting bill for tenants that would operationalize the Bill of Rights and I spoke with the service secretaries last month. I recently saw a draft of the Bill of Rights and everything is moving in the right direction.  

The challenge will be sustaining the pressure -- sustaining the pressure on the providers, making sure culturally each of the services picks this up and understands we have a very important role in terms of taking care of our families and making sure that we also are a backstop to maintenance all those other issues, so that they have a third party advocate that's ready at any given moment to help them out and deal with their private sector providers.  

Q:  Good morning, sir.  On Ukraine, The Pentagon certified that Ukraine was making progress on corruption but the White House disagreed.  Can you kind of explain that?  And then also the President of Ukraine has talked about buying more Javelins?  Are you willing to make that sale?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not tracking the latter issue.  I think they've bought some in the past.  In all things we've got to assess the needs of the recipient country, and I think that starts with the command and the services, so we take that one step at a time.  

And what was your first question again?

Q: The first one was just about how the Pentagon had said that Ukraine was making progress on corruption, but the White House disagreed.  Can you kind of explain...

SEC. ESPER:  Well I wouldn't characterize it that way, and I don't want to get too much into it, because obviously this all the news back in D.C., but I will tell you that corruption is a very serious issue for the services, for DOD.  It was a concern of the interagency, and it was a concern of Congress.  It was, as I recall, put into the law that there has to be material progress made on corruption, so that's just one of the many things that I think we have to continue to assess. 

When I spoke to my counterpart a week or two ago, I called to congratulate him, I raised that very point, that they have to deal with corruption, because we have to be good stewards of the taxpayer's dollars.  (Inaudible) is the importance that I’ve place on burden sharing. And I said, you know we’re pressing our NATO allies to meet two percent as a floor, but we also need them and us to press our NATO allies to also help Ukraine.  It's very important that -- you know, Ukraine is on the front line opposite Russia.  They -- you know, Crimea was seized (inaudible) occupied, but we need all allies participating and helping them out, not just the United States.

Q:  If I could just follow up on that.  Did the White House decision to temporarily withhold military aid to Ukraine impact or harm national security in any way?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to get into any of that right now.  I want to focus on, you know, my visit yesterday and here today.  We'll be able to talk about that in due course, but as I said on many occasions, I'm trying to keep DOD out of politics, and obviously that's all of the news today, and so we'll address that at the right point in time.


Q:  Secretary, how did you find the Navy PT this morning, and do you think there's any room for an occupational fitness test in the Navy the way the Army is developing one right now?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, that's a good question. That question was raised, along with some others related to physical fitness.  You know my view has been that there are things that the services should do, and I would leave it up to the services to figure out whether it's an occupational test, if you will.  But that is on the things when I go back and I sit down with Secretary of the Navy Spencer and share with him what I've learned with regard to sailor questions on physical fitness. I've learned a lot this morning already on maintenance, shipyard capacity, et cetera.  And I had a good discussion with the commander, both commanders about when they deploy, what -- the challenges they face with regard to deploying their boats and ships in execution of the NDS. 

Q:  Right, because statistically right now the Navy is the most overweight service, and that's something that they're trying to grapple with right now.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I'm not tracking that, but I'll let you say that.

Q:  OK. (Laughter.)

STAFF:  All right, guys, thank you very much.