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Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops in Fort Drum, New York

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: Well, thanks, General Bannister. And I've got to say right at the top how much I have admired General Bannister. He's right. We went through a lot and you all have been through a lot. But in Afghanistan, too often, and I know this probably won't surprise anybody in the room. It's just the way human nature is.

But people in Washington and people here stateside would forget that every morning as we woke up there in Afghanistan, you, many of you, and before that in Iraq, were sacrificing, putting your lives on the line, giving your all for our security. And to an extent that would surprise you, and certainly surprised me and General Bannister, that we fought against all the time, there would sometimes be the attitude that we could just keep doing business as usual, Washington-style.

And that attitude used to -- what's a nice word for this? -- really used to annoy me. And my view was that our troops in a conflict deserve everything that we can think of to help them do their job; no excuses, no delays and so forth.

And that was the attitude that we'll try to continue to bring to you as you so proudly deploy -- and I'll get to more of that in a minute -- and defend us.

Look, the main thing I want to say to you all today is thank you for what you do. We don't take it for granted. I don't take any one of you for granted for one minute. I deeply admire what you are doing for our country. I very much appreciate it. And it is a privilege for me to be associated with you and this great mission and this great institution.

Please thank your families also on my behalf for their support for you as you do what you do for our country.

And I want to thank our new -- your new congresswoman. Thank you for being here. Really appreciate it. Representative Stefanik has already shown herself to be a staunch supporter of our military and this base. It means a lot to us. Thank you.

And same to the community here at Fort Drum. You know, we can't do this unless we have support of the country and support of our communities. And you get that up here. And we don't take it for granted. And we're very grateful for it.

To you -- to you of the 10th Mountain Division, you have done so much for us in the last 14 years. I mean, it's really incredible. We were going through, General Bannister, your deployment history, which -- much of which I remember. But when you see it all arrayed there on a chart, it's really incredibly impressive what you have done for us.

And I -- I understand there were just two months in all of those years when elements of the 10th Mountain weren't deployed. That's an amazing, amazing history.

And some of you are recently back from Afghanistan, which has been mentioned. Some of you off again to Afghanistan. And some of you, and this is important, will be going to Iraq. And there to train, advise and assist the Iraqi security forces so that they can be the force that sustained the defeat of ISIL after ISIL is defeated, which it will be. But in order to sustain that defeat, we need a force on the ground and that's what you'll be helping to create.

And I could go on. I know you have other deployments scheduled elsewhere in the world, and I guess that's kind of the point, from Asia to Eastern Europe to Afghanistan to Iraq, to domains that don't exist in a place, like cyberspace. In all of those, our world is changing rapidly. The threats to our world and our people change. Terrorism, the face of terrorism, which is one of those challenges we face, changes all the time.

And we can't meet them in garrison. We have to be out there. And that's why we need soldiers like you engaged around the world. I know it's not easy. We're asking a lot of you. That's why regionally aligned forces are going to be so important to our future. You all will continue to be on our behalf globally engaged. And I know that's challenging, but it's also incredibly important.

There's much we can discuss and we'll have an opportunity to -- for you to ask questions or say what's on your mind shortly. But I wanted to touch on one aspect of my job that I'm very much focused on at the moment, and share with you some of my thoughts about building what I call the force of the future.

We have the finest fighting force the world has ever known today. That's you. But for me, I need to be thinking ahead a generation, two generations, and make sure that our country continues to have what you represent, which is the best of the best in every generation.

And that means attracting new people of a new generation. I went to my high school this morning, because that seemed like an appropriate place to speak about bringing in a new generation to the military. I had the opportunity to talk to some of your colleagues in the last hour who are already in about what it will take to keep them in. How do we keep the wonderful people that you represent? And what are the things that are going through your minds, your families' minds, as you try to chart your course? And are we able to compete? Are we able to keep up? Are we able to keep the very best once we've gotten them?

And I need to worry about that and be attentive to that as well because I don't want to lose our best people. I don't want to lose our best skills. And I know I can't take that for granted because you people have lots of choices. You are so good that you have other places in society where you can ply your skills. And if we want to keep you, we need to think carefully and we need to be innovative about what we do.

And I -- I like to say that we need to think outside of the five-sided box that I work in every morning, the Pentagon. And we have to because without change, you can't keep up in today's world. And the only way to change is to be open, to be looking around trying to find new ideas and ways that we can keep the wonderful traditions that we have of one of our country's oldest and most respected institutions, but also change so that we're relevant; that we're attractive; that we're exciting to you and to the generations that come after you.

I have some thoughts in that regard, and one of the reasons I wanted to be with you this afternoon is to share some of those thoughts for how we can make the service more modern and more attractive to you.

Let me start with one which -- and it's probably best illustrated with a field like cyber which is fast-moving, newly emerging, but it's -- that's not the only field in which it's relevant. And that is: How can we bring in more highly skilled people? And how can we reward those people and promote people not simply on the basis of when they joined, but even more and more on the basis of their performance and talent? How can we be that kind of organization?

Another one is to use more of what I'll call 21st century technology. Shortly before I rejoined the department a couple of months ago, I was living in California, in Silicon Valley. And one of the last places I went before I left and came back to Washington was a company called LinkedIn, which I'm sure you've heard of.

And that's an example of a kind of technology that you can use, and we can use, to improve performance evaluations; to make sure that onward assignments, next assignments, that you have the greatest visibility into where your talents can be useful if you do want to stay in and choose to stay in; how you find a next assignment that fits you -- your skills, your family, your future and your goals in life.

We need to be competitive in that way. That -- that's changing for every other employer in our economy and we need to change also.

We need to think even in the military about ways to broaden experiences for serving members. So, like the pilot programs that we have, that I'm thinking about expanding, that let you pause your service for education, for a new work experience outside, for family. So you can then come back in and bring back your skills, maybe even honed further by education or a different experience outside. And we can have that benefit of having people coming in and coming out again.

We're looking down the road for you as you think about how long you're going to be in and what life will be like for you afterwards. So we're looking, for example, I'm looking very hard right now at blended retirement plans that would be similar to the 401(k) mechanism that is widespread in civil society. Because 80 percent of our troops leave service before 20 years are up, of service. And in the current system, if they leave before 20 years, they leave with nothing.

So we want to look at that and see if we can create a choice that opens up opportunity and is -- allows us to be more similar to other institutions and therefore competitive with them in getting people join us and stick with us.

I'm thinking about and working on some additional ways to help you think through your next steps after military service from the day you arrive with us, a transition that is -- concept of transition that isn't for the last few weeks or the last four months or "What do I do now, and how could I use my military skill and my military training in the next phase of my life or my next job," and so forth. But you can start thinking about that the day you enter in stitching together your experience in the military with your aspirations and your family's aspirations for the rest of your lives.

And of course, my hope is that by your thinking in those terms, you'll stay with us and build skills, better skills and stay in longer, give us more of your excellent service, because you'll know that there's a future there that allows you to build upon your period of military service.

So these are ways in which I'm thinking and looking -- and I was talking to some of your colleagues earlier today about their experience and their thinking about the next stage for them, we need to think broadly and differently in the leadership of the military so that we preserve the best of the old, which is tradition, honor, discipline, commitment to the country and commitment to service, with a changing world in which you all have lots of opportunities, your families have lots of opportunities, where technology's changing, where the concept of a career is different.

People want more. They want choices. They want to be able to zig and zag and change their mind later and start this and try that. And we need to make a military career that's compatible with what I know is going on in your heads and is going on the heads of just about everybody working anywhere in our economy.

We need to compete if we're going to succeed. I know that. I want to have, going forward, the kinds of people that I see sitting in front of me now, excellent people like yourselves.

I want you to feel like you have a future with us. I want your families to be supportive of you in that ambition so that we continue to have what we now certainly have -- well, I'll tell you, there's nobody around the world who doesn't know it -- the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

That's you. We need to keep it that way. I want to share those thoughts with you and get your input on that and anything else.

So, once again, please -- I thank you. Please thank your families from us also for allowing you to serve with us.

For those who are deploying very soon, good luck. I hope you know now I'm behind 100 percent each and everyday, you're what I wake up for. You're what I think about the minute -- from the minute I wake up, and I'll try to make sure everybody else in Washington remembers that as well.

So ask -- then I'm going to get a chance to look at each one of you individually in the eye and shake your hand and say exactly that, namely, "Thanks."

But before then, let me open up the microphones here and have at it. You can ask a question, or you can say what's on your mind, and any subject is fair game. So please.

Q: Sir, -- Specialist (inaudible), 1st Brigade Combat Team, (inaudible) -- artillery.

One of the main reasons you end up joining is for the benefits, be it further the education for myself or medical care for your families. The crux of my question has to do with VA and the recent difficulty they had with actually ensuring expedient care for veterans. What mechanisms would you like to see in place to ensure that even after we've made the transition to the civilian world, that we still are taken care of?

SEC. CARTER: Well, it's a very -- that's a very good question, and I'll tell you what my approach to that is. But I'll also say that I think we have in the current secretary of Veterans Affairs a really excellent guy. He's got a lot of experience and he's really dedicated to it.

But from my point of view, to me the way I think about it is there's only one soldier. Why should they have to put up with two cabinet departments, right? You guys shouldn't have to see all that. It should be seamless to you. That's thing one.

And thing two, when you get there, we ought to be treating our veterans with the same dignity that we try to treat our current serving members. So for me, I need to think about the force of the future that I've been talking about, and make sure that we honor the force of the future. At the same time, and make sure that we honor you in service today. And we honor those who came before. I have to do all three of those.

And we need to balance all that in our budget and our programs and so forth. But what we really have to make sure we do is remember always, and I know that the secretary of V.A. feels the same way I do, there's only one soldier. They shouldn't have to put up with bureaucratic barriers between two cabinet agencies. That's not your problem.

Q: Thank you, sir.

Q: Good afternoon, sir. -- (inaudible), Delta 189, 2nd Brigade.

And my question goes into what you were talking about in your speech about the force of the future. I've researched and I've seen that you want the best of technology and best of the ideas that -- (inaudible) -- have right now. So my question is: What do you see in your position right now that excites you about the technology that's going to get down to us on the field, on the battlefield to help us to continue to dominate and maintain our superiority?

SEC. CARTER: Great. Fantastic question. And I -- two things come to mind.

First of all, we have in this country an incredibly innovative technology economy. So we have this tremendous opportunity to draw from the commercial industry, not just in I.T., which is kind of what we all think about, but in other fields as well.

But to do that, we have to be open. It gets back to this point about openness. If we try to do everything within our own walls, which is the old way. When I started my career -- you know, I'm a technologist -- everything that mattered in technology happened in America. And most of what happened in America happened under DOD sponsorship -- the Internet, all those things.

That's no longer the case. The technology base is global. It's commercial. And if we're going to remain the very best, we need to be open to getting that in. But I think that creates tremendous opportunities for us. And so I -- I think we can do a lot more and a lot better and a lot faster.

Specific fields, there are so many that I can't say if I'm going to pick one. It may surprise you because I'm a physicist, but I think the field of biology and what it brings to us is going to be terribly important. And I single that out because the Department of Defense has a pedigree in space technology. We have a pedigree in information technology. I mentioned the Internet.

We have less of a pedigree in the field of the biological sciences. So it's another area where we need to be open, because that's going to create a real revolution in human capabilities for good and for ill. And since we want to be the force for good and the force against ill, we have to be absolutely on top of that field.

So I think that's a new one that, like being open to innovation in industry, is going to be a stretch for us and we're not going to be able to just do our old -- do that the old way. We're going to have to do it the new way. But if we do, and I'm sure we can and we will, we are going to continue to be the world's most technologically advanced military. And that second to you, what makes our military great, first and foremost, is our people. The second thing that makes it great is our technology.

And we've got to keep up with that, and we can.


Q: Sir, I’m Sergeant Alvarez with the Aviation Restructuring Initiative. Is the initiative going to be put into effect as it now stands, or do you forecast some change to the prior -- (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER: OK. Good question. This is about the Aviation Restructuring Initiative, and for those who don't know what that is, that's a plan that the Army has devised to change the -- the structure of -- of Army aviation in certain respects.

Part of that is driven by strategy, part of it is driven by technology, and part of it is driven by the budget.

I expect -- I think it's -- it's a well-thought-out plan. It's been a carefully thought-out plan.

I'm sure it can be improved, and so we'll be -- like anything else, any other plan, we will be adjusting it as we go along.

The part of it that is driven by the budget is a part that I particularly want to single out if I -- if I could, because we are being driven as a government and as a military, these days, way too much and way too arbitrarily by the budget.

You know what I'm going to say, but I just -- I -- sequester -- this is no way to run an airline. It's dangerous. It's unsafe. It's disrespectful of our institutions of government. And so there're certain aspects of what we're being forced to do by the budget that I wish we didn't have to do.

And I'm not going to pretend that every aspect of the ARI is something that we'd want to do if we weren't facing the budget reduction. I think the reduction, the -- the magnitude and the pace of the reduction in Army end strength is something that's importantly being driven by the budget, and I don't like that either.

We've got to find a way to surmount and come together in Washington behind some solution to our budget. This has been going on now for four straight years. It's unsafe. It's embarrassing -- if you travel around the world, it's embarrassing us in front of the world. We have to stop it.

And then we'll be driven to fewer decisions that we don't want to make in the first place by the fact that we simply don't have the money to do everything.

Q: Good afternoon sir, Sergeant Atkins, 10th Sustainment Brigade, 10th Special Troops Battalion.

My question is in regards to the future of Fort Drum. What is the likelihood right now that Fort Drum will either be downsizing or closing down completely?

And what will -- what kind of effect is that going to have on the military service members and their families who don't have enough time left in their contract to be reassigned to a new duty station?

SEC. CARTER: There's an easy answer to that, and I'm not just going to say it because I'm here at Fort Drum.

Fort Drum isn't going anywhere. You guys are in the middle of everything. You're -- you're deploying all over the world. The capabilities and the experience you represent are essential.

There are going to be impacts in every installation everywhere if sequester keeps going, no question about that. But is there going to be a Fort Drum in the future? I just -- yes.

It's --it's critical. We've made big investments here, and we've reaped the benefit of those investments in terms of amazing power emanating from this place all over the world, year after year after year after year. We can't do without that.

That one's an easy one for me to -- I couldn't say that everywhere, at every post, camp and station everywhere in the United States, but I sure can say that at Fort Drum. No problem.


Q: (off mic) My question's a little lengthy, and I apologize for that.

I am currently stationed to Korea, and I'm just trying to give it some spectrum. And I'm based -- I'm a single mother, and I'm faced with some custody issues, and basically, it's going to be choosing between my career in the Army or my child.

Is there any protection or support for the single and/or divorced parent in the Army to prevent this type of thing from happening? It's either I go and I lose my child, or I have to get out of the Army. And that's the choice that I'm faced with currently, sir.

SEC. CARTER: OK. Well, that's a lousy choice. I don't want you to make that choice or have to make that choice. I don't know the specifics of your circumstance and I'm sorry about whatever it is that brings you to this point. But it's not a choice that I want us to be driving you to.

And again, without knowing your personal circumstances, and not wanting to go into them here, maybe you could even be in touch with me afterwards, and then I will be happy to pursue it with you in the context of your particular circumstances.

But I -- that doesn't sound like a choice that anybody should have to make. And certainly, it's not a choice we want you to have to make between our institution and your own children. So would you pursue that with me off-line? I'd really like to. And let's try to make that work out so you don't -- that's a lousy -- that's a lousy choice.

Q: Good afternoon, sir. I'm -- (inaudible). And I plan on making the military my career in – sorry, can you hear me?

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, I can.

Q: Sorry, sir. And I'm concerned with our military pay right now. Currently, the inflation rate this year was 3 percent and our pay raise was only at 1 percent. And my question is: Is the military pay going to stay competitive with the civilian workforce?

SEC. CARTER: No, that's a good question. And it goes back to, first of all, the budget issue, and the point when we were talking about VA (Veterans Administration), of balance. We need to -- we need to balance our investments in military service members of the past and their benefits, which they deserve; investments in the future force; and investments in you so that you're paid adequately and enough to be able to stay in.

Obviously, we don't have all the money we want and so we're trying to balance in that regard. And I know that you, as you think about how we balance the budget, it's -- pay is important to you, but I'll bet you other things are important to you also, which we also have to pay for. So, for example, I -- it's important that there be enough of you, right? Because we could cut down the numbers, but we want to make sure there are enough of you to defend us.

We want to make sure you have the best equipment. It gets back to the earlier question, so we need to invest in new technology because we don't want you to go into action with old stuff or antiquated stuff either.

And then finally, we need to make sure we can afford to train you. Because I never want to send anybody into harm's way who isn't fully trained for that contingency.

So there I have readiness. I have modernization. I have force structure. And I have compensation and trying to balance all of those things. We're not able to have everything we want in all of those categories now. We are trying to do the balance in a way that is sensible and that makes the best of a circumstance in which we don't have all the money.

And compensation is one element of that balance, but a very important one because we want you to -- this to be a job that works for you, works for your family, and works for your future.

Q: Thank you, sir.

SEC. CARTER: Thank you.