Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

June 29, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: There's a happy face.

Q: Hidden behind the mask, can't tell.

MR. KIRBY: All right. A couple of things at the top, we'll get right to it. As some of you know, General Gus Perna, who serves as the chief operating officer of the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, who is going to retire at the end of the week. His deputy, retired Lieutenant General Paul Ostrowski, a 35-year veteran himself, will also step down from his position as director of supply production and distribution, and return to civilian service.

Both leaders were selected due to their vast experience and expertise in logistics and acquisitions to lead an incredible team, including the best of government, industry, and academic professionals, to develop, manufacture, and deliver safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics for the American people.

General Perna, Mr. Ostrowski, and their team accomplished this incredible feat in only 13 months, an unprecedented and historic accomplishment. To date, they have helped deliver over 390 million doses of COVID vaccines, and almost 1 million therapeutics for the American people. And, of course, they began the initial coordination to support our global donations.

As the country transitions to a new normal, the department will transition leadership of vaccine operational logistics under the Countermeasures Acceleration Group to HHS. Both departments will maintain a strong partnership to ensure the seamless production and delivery of vaccines. The general's retirement and Mr. Ostrowski's return to civilian service I think is a benchmark of that transition. And we thank them and their team for their incredible success in this really what can be called a Herculaneum mission and service to their country.

As the secretary himself said of General Perna and his team last week, thanks to his unrelenting efforts and leadership in the fight against COVID, we are, in fact, one step closer to returning to a normal way of life.

On a new topic, as I mentioned last week, this Monday -- yesterday, U.S. Navy Europe and the Ukrainian Navy kicked off Exercise Sea Breeze 2021 in the Black Sea with the largest number of participants in the exercise's 21 iterations.

During the opening ceremony, Deputy Commander Captain Kyle Gantt explained that there is nothing provocative about a naval exercise in international waters, and he's absolutely right. This longstanding exercise continues to support security and stability in the region through interoperability with our Black Sea NATO allies and partners.

This week, the exercise will include force integration training, which places participants into a pre-scripted scenario that builds familiarization at sea, and then this will transition in -- into the unscripted scenario of testing the dynamic maritime capabilities of the participants.

And then lastly, tomorrow, Secretary Austin looks forward to welcoming and hosting General Federal Minister of Defense -- I'm sorry -- German Federal Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer here at the Pentagon for a bilateral meeting. And of course, we'll -- there will be access to the press to -- to the opening comments of that meeting.

Bob?

Q: Yes, thanks, John. A question about Afghanistan and trying to understand sort of the -- the sequence of events as the U.S. military winds up its activities in Afghanistan. Will -- when the Resolute Support mission ends -- right -- excuse me, let me put it in -- when General Miller leaves, will that mark the end of Resolute Support mission or will there be some sort of interim kind of period between the next several days or weeks and September, when there will be a -- like, a -- some other commander or some other mission follow on?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Bob, I don't want to get too far ahead of -- of process here. Resolute Support, as you -- as you know, is a NATO operation, so it's really more appropriate for NATO to speak to the future of Resolute Support.

But it is my understanding that with the completion of the retrograde of U.S. forces -- retrograde withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, with -- with accepting, of course, whatever's left behind to protect our diplomatic presence, that that does not necessarily mean the end of Resolute Support, but really that's a question better posed to -- to NATO.

Q: But -- but the U.S. is part of NATO and so you're part of the mission, so ...

MR. KIRBY: Correct.

Q: ... will you continue to operate in some way after the retrograde is finished?

MR. KIRBY: When the withdrawal is complete, our mission transitions in two ways. One, to -- whatever U.S. forces are in Afghanistan are there to protect the diplomatic presence. And -- and -- and, you know, there's a -- there's a lot of pieces to that, but it's really about protecting the diplomatic mission. And -- and two, our bilateral relationship with Afghan forces shifts to one of -- of financial and logistical support from outside the country.

Q: But -- but the -- you know, try to think in terms of when the war -- the U.S. war in Afghanistan ends. Is -- is it -- is it the same as saying when Resolute Support ends, or is there going to be a separate U.S. function in -- you know, in -- in -- in the war?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, again, the -- the removal of combat forces, which is what the retrograde is all about, ends the combat mission in -- in Afghanistan for the United States. And what's left, again, is enough force posture to protect our diplomatic presence, and that's going to be the focus of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, once the withdrawal is complete.

The -- I think, you know, the best way to do this is to go back to the President's order, which is to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan. That's what the retrograde's all about. And when that's complete, that mission is complete, and we transition to two new missions -- protecting our diplomats and transitioning to a new bilateral relationship with Afghanistan.

Q: Will you announce the end of the retrograde?

MR. KIRBY: We'll be as transparent as we possibly can.

Q: Hey, John, along the lines of initial logistical support, the Afghan press is saying that the U.S. will provide 37 additional Blackhawks to the Afghan military and two fixed wing aircraft. Can you say anything about that?

MR. KIRBY: No, I've seen the press reports on that, Tom. I'm not in a position to confirm that level of detail. Again, what we've said before is that we're going to continue to support them over the horizon in a logistical capacity and -- and certainly in a financial way.

I -- I -- I've got nothing on, though -- to -- those -- on those specifics in terms of the numbers of aircraft.

Q: Well -- well, can you say anything about -- you expect additional aircraft to go to the Afghan military?

MR. KIRBY: Honestly, those kinds of details are still being worked out, Tom, and I just think it's too soon to say, with any great specificity right now, in terms of aircraft transfers.

Q: All right.

MR. KIRBY: Carla -- Carla Babb?

Q: Hey, John, thanks for doing this. I have two questions, two different topics, if you -- if you don't mind. First, on Green Village, the situation there in Syria -- how many rockets were fired at U.S. forces? Can you please describe the damage and tell us who launched these rockets? And then I have a follow on on Afghanistan.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Carla, we're still assessing the rocket attacks, so I'm not in a position to get into specifics about the number of rockets, and we're still assessing attribution on this. I mean, I think we're all working under the assumption that they were fired by Iran-backed militias or militia. We don't have specific attribution.

And as for damage, there was some structural damage to -- to two buildings that I know of on -- on that compound, and again, you've seen our reporting on this, that the -- there were no U.S. casualties as a result.

Q: Thank you. And then on Afghanistan, the AP's reported that there will be 650 U.S. troops at the embassy, hundreds more helping the Turks with the airport security. Can you confirm that? And in light that the Taliban has doubled the number of districts it controls since May 1st -- that's according to SVD -- so in light of that, in the wake of that, is the Pentagon and the administration rethinking its post-withdrawal strategy to include defensive strikes against the Taliban, in addition to the strikes against ISIS and Al-Qaeda forces who threaten the homelands of the U.S. and Western allies?

MR. KIRBY: That was more than one more question.

(LAUGHTER)

On the numbers, no, I've seen the press reporting by the Associated Press. I cannot confirm the -- the specific numbers. Important, though, to keep in mind that, as -- as we've said, we're going to have a -- a certain amount of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan to protect our diplomatic presence. We have to do that. And Afghanistan is not going to be treated like any other nation, where we have, you know, Marine security guards. I mean, it's -- it's Afghanistan and we understand the dynamic nature of the security threat there.

So there will be some number of -- of U.S. troops there, and as we've said before, security at the airport is critical to being able to protect and have a diplomatic presence on the ground. We are still working out some of the details of what the security situation is going to look like at the airport and how that's going to be facilitated.

MR. KIRBY: I think you all know, you all reported that, as you and I speak, there are U.S. troops at -- at the airport. What the future of that looks like, we just don't know right now. So we haven't worked our -- our way through that.

And on -- on future missions, I'm simply not going to speculate or hypothesize, except to say, as I told Bob, once the withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan is over, we will have two new mission sets at DOD.

One is to have a presence in Kabul that is sufficient to the task of protecting our diplomacy there. And two, to -- to have a relationship with Afghanistan, a new bilateral relationship with Afghan forces that is designed to help their needs for competency and capability in the field, but it'll be over the horizon, over-the-horizon logical support and some financial support.

Those are the two mission sets and the president was very clear about that.

Q: So is the administration OK with the Taliban taking these many gains and potentially taking over the country of Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY: Carla, we have said before, the violence remains too high. And we're all aware of -- of the security situation in Afghanistan. I think you saw General Miller speak to that earlier today, concerns over the -- the security situation there.

It -- what we -- what we want to see, what we'd like to see is the Taliban return to the peace process in a -- in a credible way. And as we see events on the ground unfold, it certainly calls into question the sincerity of their efforts to -- to -- to be a legitimate, credible participant in the peace process.

That's really the right future for Afghanistan is a political process that leads to a negotiated settlement and a peaceful end to the fighting in Afghanistan. And that's what we're -- that's what we're in favor of. That's what -- that's what the administration's policy continues to try to pursue.

Meghan?

Q: You said you knew of two facilities in Syria that were hit yesterday. Were there people in the facilities?

MR. KIRBY: You're talking about the rocket attack?

Q: Yes, the rocket attacks. Were there people in the facilities or around them? Were they able to get to shelter before the rockets landed?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have that level of detail. All I can point you back to is what we've said -- that we know there were no U.S. casualties.

Q: Because -- well, the reason I ask is because last year with Al Asad, the original assessment was...

MR. KIRBY: I know that.

Q: ... no casualties and it was...

MR. KIRBY: I know that.

Q: ... you know, more than 100 traumatic brain injuries came out of it...

MR. KIRBY: I understand.

Q: ... So I'm wondering if that is also an evolving situation.

MR. KIRBY: We are still assessing the full scope of the damage. As I said, I -- I know that there were two structures hit. And of course, you saw OIR say that all personnel were accounted for, no -- no initial reports of casualties. But clearly, we take this very seriously and I certainly reserve the right over time to -- to prove additional context, should that be necessary.

I'm just giving you what we -- what we know right now. And we're still assessing, and so things could change but that's what we know right now.

Yes?

Q: On Afghanistan, you said there are currently troops -- U.S. troops at the airport. Are they going to be part of the diplomatic mission or are they going to be pulled out?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get ahead of plans. I'm just saying, as we speak now -- you know, and that's been the case for quite some time. Any of you who've traveled to Kabul will know that. What that's going to look like going forward, we're still working out.

What I'm -- the main point I'm trying to state is that whatever U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal is complete are there to protect our diplomats and to preserve our ability to have a diplomatic presence there, because the president's been very clear that he wants to keep that embassy open and keep the programs of that embassy in play.

Q: And then on -- on Syria strike, like, you strike and they retaliate and then you strike back. So the first strike that you made on the Iranian-backed militia, was there an imminent threat coming up or you just -- this was a pre-planned strike that you planned and you go ahead, strike it?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think you've got your back and forth a little bit backward there. I mean, we chose to strike at these facilities after having come under attack for quite a number of weeks by both UAVs and by rocket and mortar attacks on our facilities and our people.

So, it's not fair to say that the U.S. struck the first blow here. But, as we've said repeatedly, we've got to protect our own people. The president's serious about that commitment and clearly these attacks were ongoing. And so, these strikes were designed to get specifically at the kinds of threats that were coming at our people, particularly from UAVs.

And it was directly tied to the kinds of attacks we've been seeing. OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Yes, sure.

Q: So, if this is a threat that's been ongoing for weeks and months, then why is the timing for -- of Sunday? Why now (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: Courtney, you know, there's lots of factors that go into timing, including necessary intelligence assessments that give you the assurance that you're hitting the right targets, the ones you want and that you're hitting them at a time and a place of your choosing, in such a way as to also minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage.

You know this, there's a lot of factors that go into targeting and a big piece of the targeting is the when.

And so, that was clearly the case in this regard. I'm not at liberty to go through in great detail how each of those decisions was made and why. We don't think that that's useful information in context to telegraph to potential enemies out there. But we take the targeting process, including the when very seriously.

Q: Is there any assessment on what kind of impact it actually had on the -- on like their operational ability to conduct future UAV strikes? Like is -- how -- or -- and also are there any casualty -- updated casualties that --

MR. KIRBY: Don't have an updated casualty assessment right now. The battle damage assessment is ongoing. We know we hit what we were aiming at and that we destroyed the structures that were targeted.

These structures were directly tied to specifically the threat from UAVs in terms of the logistics and maintenance of them, the command and control of them, launching and recovering of them and perhaps even transfers of equipment and systems support.

So, we're very confident that these structures were tied directly to the kinds of threat from the UAVs that our people and our facilities were under.

Q: Transfer from Iran too?

MR. KIRBY: Just -- I just -- I won't go anymore than that, but transfer capability. Yes.

Q: Just (inaudible), so between January 22 and end of March there were only about like eight attacks from these military groups. But from in -- from April to today there has been about 20. Do you have an assessment why these attacks have increased? 

MR. KIRBY: I think that's a great question for the Iran-backed militias that are doing this. I'm not capable of getting inside their head space and their decision making loop. But you're right, the attacks have continued and it's dangerous. And the president and the secretary they have an obligation to protect our people and our facilities and that's what we were trying to do.

Jen ?

Q: John, what impacts will if they repeal the AUMF, the three AUMFs on the Hill, what impact would that have on your ability to do this in the future? Are you in favor of would it be a problem for this department if the AUMF were repealed?

And back to Bob's question, how do you plan to mark the end of the Afghan War? It seems as though no senior leaders are flying over there. Is there a ceremony planned or are you just going to kind of go out quietly in the middle of the night?

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Jen . On your first one, I don't want to get ahead of Congressional actions. That's really for members of Congress to speak to. The president had the authority to conduct these strikes under Article 2 of the Constitution, his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief to protect our troops. And we're confident in that legal justification.

Separate and distinct from that, you've heard the secretary say that he's in favor as the president is in favor of a more narrowly defined AUMF from 2002. So, the department's in full support of taking a look at that AUMF and more narrowly defining the framework on it.

As for the end of the war, I'm certainly not going to speak to VIP travel one way or the other, but I can assure we're all mindful, all of us here, of the fact this war is now two decades on and is coming to a close. And of our responsibility to communicate the closure of that to you and to the American people and we will do that.

We also have to be especially mindful, Jen, of the dynamic situation in Afghanistan. This isn't-- you can't compare it to the retrograde out of Iraq. Different -- completely different security situation.

We've said all along that we have to assume that it could be contested. It hasn't been so far. We also said that we want to make it orderly and safe. It has been so far and we want to keep that going until the very end.

But yes, we will find a way to mark it officially and to state it unequivocally for the American people at the right time and in an appropriate way.

Yes ma'am?

Q: Back to Iraq, given the frequency and the increase for the number of attacks, is there a concern here in the Pentagon that this might lead to more involvement or maybe like an escalation from the ground?

MR. KIRBY: I think you saw when we talked about the strikes over the weekend that they really were intended to disrupt and deter future attacks. Now, that remains to be seen, I understand that.

Nobody is interested in escalating tensions. Nobody is interested in further violence in Iraq or in Syria. Our troops are there at the request of the Iraqi government to help them in their fight against ISIS, which is still a relevant mission.

And so and it's all about, the whole purpose of us being there is all about helping protect the Iraqi people and our own national security interests. So, we have no interest in having this escalate into some sort of broader conflict. But we do have a responsibility to protect our people and our facilities. And that is what the president ordered over the weekend.

Tara?

Q: Hi John, thanks for doing this. Following up on Jen's question, there's been some pushback on the Hill about whether the president had the authority for these strikes without consulting them. And I was wondering if the secretary or another senior leader would be going up to the Hill to brief members on the reasons why a strike was necessary now? And then I have one follow-up.

MR. KIRBY: I think the -- I think you saw the White House speak to the fact that they are certainly willing to provide a briefing to members of Congress about these strikes and how and why they were conducted. But again, Tara, I'd go back to saying that the President was operating clearly and unequivocally inside his Article II authorities to -- for self-defense, to protect -- to protect this troops.

Q: And then as a follow-up, is the Pentagon considering taking additional defensive measures for the footprint in Syria to add defenses, add troops potentially since it seems like some of these attacks may be escalating?

MR. KIRBY: I know of no force posture changes coming to Iraq or Syria. And again as for specific force protection measures you know we don't talk about that publicly. We'll do what we have to do to make sure our people are safe.

Yes, Janne.

Q: Thank you, John. I'd like to talk about the Sea Breeze exercise (inaudible). According to the South Korea military authority that United States (inaudible) South Korea's politics in the (inaudible) exercise Sea Breeze '21.

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, what was the question?

Q: Yes, the (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: I'll stand back.

Q: What they -- what they that -- the South Korean newspaper say in the last (inaudible) the South Korean Ministry of Defense and (inaudible), quote, "Our military has been invited to the training but there is no plan to participate or affirm the joint exercise is set." What is your comment because South Korea didn't want to join these  exercises?

MR. KIRBY: It's a sovereign decision by a nation state and they're certainly entitled to make that decision and to speak to that decision. And we absolutely respect it.

Q: But this is a multinational exercise by South Korea (inaudible) training. Do you think that the participation of South Korea in this exercise is essential?

MR. KIRBY: I don't think they would have been invited if there wasn't a genuine desire to have them participate in whatever way they deemed fit. They obviously chosen not to participate and we respect that. It doesn't change the strength of the alliance or our commitment to the people of South Korea or our security commitments there on the Peninsula, it doesn't change it one bit.

But this is really a better question put to officials in Seoul. I mean it's a sovereign decision to participate or not and we respect that.

Q: So you respect that, it doesn’t matter if they were joined or not joined?

MR. KIRBY: I didn't say it didn't matter I mean but it's their decision to make and their decision to speak to and we absolutely respect it.

Q: All right, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Tom Squitieri.

Q: Hi, John, good afternoon. How you doing today?

MR. KIRBY: Great. How are you?

Q: I have a question -- I'm great, thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Good.

Q: A question on what's the Pentagon's assessment of the strategic value of the just announced deal between Indonesia and the United States on a new maritime center at the South -- into the South China Sea at the time?

MR. KIRBY: I'm going have to take that question. I didn't -

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: -- I didn't see the announcement so I'm going to take the question -

Q: Yes it was announced.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I'm not quite sure I completely understand but we'll take it and I don't want to -

UNKNOWN: The dog has some questions.

UNKNOWN: (Inaudible) good idea.

MR. KIRBY: The dog is taking the question as well. Oren?

Q: At this point how many district have the Taliban taken and how many have the Afghans taken back? And then of the troops that have yet to come out are you able to share information on what units they're from?

MR. KIRBY: On the number of districts we know that they continue to attack district centers. I'm no going to get into an intelligence assessment here. But clearly we know that they continue these attacks. And, as I said at the outset, the violence is too high and as General Miller said today, the security situation certainly is concerning over there. But I couldn't get into a specific number of district centers right now that they have taken over.

What's important to say and I'll say it again is that we want to see a peace process that's creditable and Afghan led and leads to a negotiated settlement and that's what we all want to see the Taliban commit to is to sitting down at the table and working through this negotiation. So I think the political solution is really the best solution for the Afghan people. And nothing's changed about the United States desire to that end.

I don't have a breakdown of units that have left or are leaving and where they're going to that's really a better question put to CENTCOM. I just don't have that level of detail. But as you well know, Oren, there wasn't all that many troops left in Afghanistan when President Biden took office anyway. So it shouldn't come as a shock that we're able to move them out at a -- at a brisk pace. And again we're trying to do this in a very safe and orderly way understanding that the security situation is still dynamic.

Yes.

Q: Thank you, John. I want to ask you about the U.S. (inaudible) relations? (inaudible) the prior administration approved a potential sale of the F-16 aircraft at (inaudible). Does that --

MR. KIRBY: To where?

Q: To Manila, Philippines.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Yes. But does that (inaudible) to encourage Manila to extend the (inaudible) (force ?) (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: I won't about foreign arm sales just because that's really the purview of the State Department. We obviously are glad to see another decision to suspend the termination of the visiting forces agreement. We believe it's part and parcel of a strong alliance that we have with the Philippines and we obviously want to see that continue.

I think it would be unfortunate if people were to try to draw a parallel between arm sales and the VFA as a carrot and stick sort or approach. That's -- I think that would be drawing the wrong conclusion here.

Q: (Inaudible) extended (inaudible) just temporarily for another six months -

MR. KIRBY: Correct, yes.

Q: Could you give us a sense of how urgent is it to make (inaudible) permanent in order to (inaudible) the buyback of relationship and get at South China Sea?

MR. KIRBY: Right, I'd rather not get ahead of process here. We're glad that the termination was suspended again to give us a chance to continue to have these discussions with the Philippines government and we look forward to that. Again the alliance is important to the United States, it's important to the Philippines, it's important to the region. And nothing's changed about our commitment to our security requirements underneath that alliance. And we'll see where these discussions go. But I don't want to get ahead of that.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Lara Seligman.

Q: Hey, John, thanks for taking my question. I'm just wondering if there is any concern that the government of Iraq has condemned the airstrikes and Iraqi officials are now talking again openly about the U.S. leaving? So are there any concerns? Is Secretary Austin concerned? And are there any plans for the U.S. military to withdraw from Iraq?

MR. KIRBY: We value our partnership with the Iraqi government. As I said earlier, we're there at their invitation to help them and their forces fight against ISIS. And that mission continues. It's not a new thing, Lara, that we have been talking to the Iraqis about what the potential end of this on the ground presence looks like and means. Those technical talks have happened, and I suspect they will continue to happen.

And, look, we also respect the Iraqi government's right to express their concerns about what goes on inside their borders. The president made this decision, specifically under his Article II authorities, to protect our people and to protect our facilities and to hopefully disrupt and deter future attacks. We recognize that the Iraqi government is -- you know, has a tough job to do, but we also recognize that our partnership is -- is important for all the reasons that I've already stated.

Q: Did you alert the Iraqi government before the strikes?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about specific communications before connecting a military strike. We acted again in -- under Article II authorities, completely consistent with the president's right and responsibility to protect U.S. troops at home and overseas.

Paul Hanley?

Q: Hey, John. I've got two questions. One on COVID. One on Afghanistan. Is the Pentagon considering or is it taking any new action or considering any action from the U.S. forces to deal with the threat of the Delta strain of the COVID virus?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not enough of an expert on the Delta strain to speak to that. We're going to have a COVID briefing tomorrow. And I think if you wouldn't mind re-putting that question to our briefers tomorrow, that's probably a better way to get an answer on that.

Q: OK. Secondly, you've repeated and others repeat that violent -- the level of violence is too high in Afghanistan and the advances of the Taliban is concerning. The amount of times you say that makes me wonder is there a situation where the violence remains too high that the U.S. would adjust its stance on the pullout? If not, then why is this an issue to keep saying that the violence -- level of violence is too high and very concerning?

MR. KIRBY: It's an issue because it's an issue. It's an issue because the violence is too high. And the Afghan people deserve better after 20 years of war. And that's why we continue to urge a diplomatic end to this war, a political process that leads to a negotiated settlement that is Afghan-led and is in keeping with the Afghan people's desire for peace and security and prosperity in their country. That's why we keep saying it, because it's true, because it's important to stressing the need for a diplomatic end to this -- to this war.

Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. More than four times as many troops and veterans are (inaudible) since 9-11 are believed to have died by suicide more than killing the more (inaudible) is a mystery maybe, have you heard...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I’m aware of the study.

Q: ... estimates more than 30,000. Was your comment about it (inaudible) for each country (inaudible), would like to hear for any studies.

MR. KIRBY: It's a sobering study. I'm not...

Q: (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: Hmm?

Q: by Brown University

MR. KIRBY: Right. It's a sobering study. We're aware of it. We are well aware also of the problem suicides in the ranks. And frankly even outside the ranks in family members and it's deeply troubling. And there's a lot of reasons for it, for each individual case.

It's difficult to pin it on anyone factor it's one of the reasons why the -- that -- that we've been trying so hard to remove the stigma inside the military of seeking help for mental health issues. And it's why the secretary has put such an emphasis on looking at suicide prevention programs to make sure that we've got the ones that are right in place and that we also encourage and actively so colleagues and teammates to look out for one another.

And to keep checking in on one another so that we can try to read the signs before they get there. But it's very -- it's a very difficult problem to get our arms around. And I can tell you we're taking it very, very seriously but those are somber numbers, no doubt about it.

And -- and our own numbers are somber enough when it comes to this. I'll just lead by saying what the secretary has said himself that -- that seeking health for mental health issues is not -- does not show weakness. It's a sign of strength and we want everybody to believe that, to take it in and to act on that.

It's definitely got all of our attention here at the Department. I've got time for just one or two more and then I really got to go. Yes, ma'am.

Q: Thank you for taking my -- thank you for taking my question. Chancellor Merkel -- German Chancellor Merkel has been widely reported talking about a need for a more unified Europe and a strong Europe on the defense side as well. Looking ahead to tomorrows visit, would you care to talk a little bit about the U.S./German defense relationship going ahead?

MR. KIRBY: IT's a very strong bilateral relationship. One of the secretaries first overseas trips was too Berlin to meet with Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer and we look forward to having her here tomorrow as well to continue that relationship and continue that dialogue.

Germany is a critical ally and a good friend and we look forward again to having a very strong bilateral relationship going forward.

Q: If a member of the military is in pain, do you encourage them to go to the doctor? I would think yes, if they're pain to go see the doctor. Why, if they're in mental pain, aren't they encouraged then to go see the doctor?

MR. KIRBY: They are.

Q: Because that's kind of the attitude.

MR. KIRBY: What's the attitude?

Q: Just in terms of thinking about it, not just as mental health but in terms of internal pain.

MR. KIRBY: I think we're talking about a distinction without a difference, ma'am. There's -- there's -- there's absolutely no communications coming from the Department of Leadership that if you're in mental anguish that you can't seek help. We want you to seek help. We want you to raise your hand and -- and -- and tell somebody and get the help you need.

There's terrific mental health professionals inside the Department of Defense that are more than qualified to help our people and their families deal with this. So we are very actively encouraging people.

Again, as the secretary said, seeking help for mental health issues is not a weakness, it's a strength. And what we have to do a better job here is removing that stigma inside the ranks because there is still a stigma to ask -- to raising your hand and asking for help and, you know, we need to obliterate that stigma too.

OK. Thanks everybody, appreciate it.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome.