Transcript

Senior Department of Defense Leaders Host Global Virtual Town Hall

July 17, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley; Chief Master Sergeant Ramon "CZ" Colón-López, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman; Commander Morgan Murphy (Moderator)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Good afternoon, everyone.  I'm Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.  Thank you for joining us today for our fourth town hall.  I'm joined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, on my right, and on my left, the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman, Colón-López.

Today we want to speak about the numerous challenges facing our department, and to speak to you and address your questions.  I will tell you that I very much appreciate all that we’ve accomplished.  This month, July, marks my one-year anniversary as Secretary of Defense.  And during that time, we’ve accomplished a great deal over the preceding 12 months in some very challenging moments.

I’ve posted online recently a video that highlights some our most significant accomplishments together.  And I’m confident that there’s much more to come as we work through in the coming days together.

One of the things I want to particularly thank folks for, is helping me implement the National Defense Strategy.  As you all know, the NDS is key to our success moving forward in this era of great power competition.  As we address the challenges present to us – presented to us by China, and then Russia, and then other countries.  As I have outlined in our accomplishments video, we continue to pursue our three lines of effort.  First, build increasing lethality and readiness.  Second, strengthen our allies and build partners.  And third, reform the department for greater efficiency.

Beneath those three lines of effort, we have outlined 10 objectives with many subtasks.  And again, I encourage you to look at all that we have accomplished over the preceding time period.  Meanwhile, we have on our streets of America today, thousands of active duty service member and National Guardsmen who continue to serve the governors and the country.

Since January, we've been fully engaged in -- in combating the COVID virus.  Since that time, we've had over 60,000 service members, mostly Guardsmen, on the streets helping with distribution of food, handing out supplies or -- or providing testing facilities to our fellow Americans.

And then later, in June, American -- American soldiers, especially Guardsmen, were on the streets of America helping to secure the streets so that peaceful protesters can share their views, can -- can enact their First Amendment rights and can peacefully protest free from the violence from others.  So I want to thank those Guardsmen who were out on America's streets protecting their fellow Americans and ensuring that they could exercise their First Amendment rights. 

We came to that moment in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, something which shocked all of our conscience and spoke to the endemic challenges we face in this country when it comes to racism.  We, of course, in the military are not immune from discrimination and bias and prejudice.  So in the wake of George Floyd's murder, I sat down with the leadership team and we mapped out three initiatives to address these challenges within the military. 

Number one was to set forth a number of quick action items that we could move forth on fairly quickly; and I'm pleased to report that just this past week, I signed out a memo outlining what those actions are and looking for responses over the next 30 to 60 days. 

Second, we set forth the establishment of a defense board for diversity and inclusion.  And that board will conduct a six month sprint and report back to me in December on its findings and recommendations to, again, address racism, bias, and prejudice in our military.  I'm pleased to announce that the first meeting on the board was on July 15th, this past Wednesday, and they're off to a great start.

And finally, pillar three is the establishment of a -- of a permanent, enduring Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.  I'm in the process of standing that up right now, and that will be a permanent standing body with independent outside persons and experts who will continue to help us address the challenges we face in this country.  And those are things that I hope that we'll be able to talk about as well today. 

In the meantime, we also have tens of thousands of our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen out beyond our shores keeping the freedom, keeping the peace, defending our great country, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the -- to -- to the Middle East and Europe.  All over, American service members are keeping our great nation safe and defending their fellow Americans.

So today, I hope we can address some of these issues in more detail and I want to thank all of you once again for your service, for your sacrifice and for all that you do to keep our country safe as you live each and every day, commanded by that oath we've all sworn, to protect and defend and support the Constitution of the United States.  Thank you.  Chairman?

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY:  Thanks, Secretary, I appreciate that. 

And as the Secretary of Defense said, you know, we've got about two, 2.5 million or so in uniform, active, Guard, Reserve.  And many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine, Coast Guardsmen, deployed around the world; well over a couple 100,000, 120,000 in just the National Guard, with 45,000 deployed domestically and another 42,000 deployed in response to COVID domestically; and then about 35,000 from the National Guard alone deployed overseas.

In addition to that, we've got sailors that are patrolling the seas, have been doing so since 1945, and protecting the global commons.  We've got airmen flying in the skies, protecting not only North America but, indeed, most of the world.  We've got Marines and soldiers throughout the world, operating by, with, and through our allies and partners, combating terrorists, in some cases, in deterring adversaries in others.

Bottom line is, internationally, the United States military is doing a remarkable job and it's a steadying force.  The same is true domestically, with the United States military, all parts of the service, are doing just a tremendous job across the board in some really difficult times, as the Secretary outlined.

The one thing I would just ask everyone to remember is, in fact, what the Secretary alluded to, which is the oath that we all took to support and defend the Constitution.  And remember, why it is we are in the service of our nation, and what it's really all about. 

And remember that that oath is an oath to an idea, an idea that every single one of us, whether we're male or female or gay or straight, it doesn't matter if you're black or you're white or you're Asian, Indian, whatever the color of your skin is.  It doesn't matter the last name, your nation of origin.  It doesn't matter where you came from, it doesn't matter if you're tall or short, young or old, rich or poor, famous, common.  It doesn't -- none of that matters.

What matters is that we're all Americans.  What matters is that we're united as an American.  And in that Constitution, in that document, it is an expression of an idea.  It's dedicated to the principle, the prospect, that all men and all women that are Americans are created free and equal.  And those of us in uniform, we are dedicated to that principle and we're willing to die for it.  So if we're willing to die for it, we ought to be willing to live for it. 

And I can tell you that we in uniform are exactly that, willing to live for it, every single day, day-in and day-out.  We represent all that's good about America when we are a cohesive, united force and a force for good and a force for steadiness, both domestically and internationally.

And I for one, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- and I know I speak for all the Joint Chiefs -- that I could not be more proud of what our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen are doing, day-in and day-out, in some really difficult circumstances.

And I'm going to turn it over to the SEAC, but thanks so much for what all of you do every single day.

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Chairman.  SEAC?

SENIOR ENLISTED ADVISOR TO THE CHAIRMAN CHIEF MASTER SERGEANT RAMON COLÓN-LÓPEZ:  Thank you, Chairman, And thank you, Mr. Secretary. 

I have been seven months now in the position of the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman.  And in those seven months, we continue our sensing sessions to make sure that we address all institutional issues. 

As the Secretary mentioned, this week, we took the first concrete step towards an enduring commitment to ensure diversity and inclusion in our department, and that is with the DOD Diversity and Inclusion Board, which I co-lead with Secretary of the Air Force Barrett and Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan.

So we acknowledge that there is a problem, and we're willing to go anywhere, from cradle to grave, to make sure that we address all of the issues that are plaguing your institutions, your particular units, and personnel, to make sure that we do not get it wrong. 

And we want to make sure that at the end of the day, once we identify the root causes, we place those plans into action to ensure that everybody serving is valued for their talent, abilities, and experiences.  That is our promise to you.  And that is based on the principle of the Constitution, like General Milley brought up, that we are all created equal.  And equality and opportunity are the founding principles for our Constitution.  So we look forward to keep hearing from you.

Lastly, we want to make sure that we recognize that we are on this together.  And biologically, there's only one race and that is the human race.  It covers all of us.  Let's embrace each other, let's go ahead and get after the nation's missions to ensure freedom, and ensure that we, once again, serve as a model for society.

So thank you and let’s go ahead and take their questions, sir.

SEC. ESPER:  Thank you, SEAC.

MODERATOR:  Right, thank you, sirs.

Well, welcome to another town hall from the Pentagon Briefing Room.  I'm Commander Morgan Murphy.

We asked for questions from around the force and the general public on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and hundreds of you submitted not only your questions, but videos as well.  So in addition to written questions for our three senior leaders today, we'll be seeing recorded, unscripted messages, straight from military members around the world.

Let's get right into it.  The first question this afternoon was submitted via Twitter by Kate Wright, of Los Angeles, California.  She writes, "Thank you for defending freedom of navigation.  On a scale of one to 10, how important is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and why?"

Well, freedom of navigation is a tough question right out of the box.  I'll turn to the Secretary of Defense for an answer.

SEC. ESPER:  OK, thank you, Commander.

And thank you, Kate, for that question.  It's a very good question.  Freedom of navigation is very important.  First, as a principle; a principle that says that you as an individual, as a country, have the freedom to navigate either by air, by sea, without being threatened or impeded, if you will, by others.  It's an important principle that underlies international law and the rules and norms that have helped keep the prosperity and security of the United States and many countries now for over seven decades.

It's also important because, without freedom of navigation, you don't have freedom of commerce.  And when you think about it, over 80 percent of the world's trade occurs on the nation -- on the oceans of the world.  And not just in the Pacific – well, mostly in the Pacific, but all around the world.  It could be goods, it could be in the Persian Gulf; it is the free flow of oil that fuels many economies.

But freedom of navigation is very important.  That's why our United States Navy, now since its inception, has defended the freedom of navigation so that we would have that freedom of commerce, and so that other countries would respect those laws and norms that are out there.

That's why, also, the United States Navy faithfully, dutifully, expertly conducts what are called freedom of navigation operations in contested waters around the world, whether it's in the South China Sea, it could be -- could be in our hemisphere, or it's also in -- in the EUCOM AOR or the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

These things are important to defend, they are important to stand up to and to assert because the minute you don't, they get chipped away.  And over time, what you do is you lose that principle, those laws and rules and norms are eroded and you find yourself in a less free world that inevitably ends up being less prosperous and less secure.

MODERATOR:  Our second question today was submitted by 19-year-old Taemon  Hamlet, in Houston, Texas.  Taemon is a member of the ROTC and asks, quote, "Will the U.S. military focus on more humanitarian efforts to alleviate the harm caused by COVID?  If so, how?"

Taemon, I'm going to turn your question over to the highest ranking uniformed member of the armed forces, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Milley.

GEN. MILLEY:  Well, it's a great question, Taemon, and thanks for that.  As you know, with respect to COVID, for the U.S. military, our priority is, first, to protect the force.  And the reason we put that first is, because our theory of the case is, that if the force is not healthy, then we can't do all the other tasks, like protect the American people either internationally or domestically.

So the first thing we have to do is to make sure that our force itself, the -- the troops, the ships, the planes and those that man them are clean, COVID-free.  So the Secretary has instituted a whole series of very, very rigorous rule sets that we've been following now for several months.  And, thankfully, we’ve been – and I knock on wood every day – but thankfully, we've maintained that discipline and we have, relative to other parts of the society and the world, we have relatively low rates of infection.

So we've learned a lot over the last several months, but we've got to protect the force.  Secondly, we've got to protect the readiness, because our number one mission is to protect the Constitution, protect the country from any enemies foreign and domestic, sort of thing.  So that's the primary role of the U.S. military.  So maintaining the readiness of the force is key, and that includes the health of the force.

And then, lastly, we're going to work as part of and in support of the whole-of-government approach.  So right now, as -- as -- as many know, we, the Department of Defense, are in support of other agencies in combating this scourge of -- of -- of the COVID-19 virus.  We've been very effective at it.  We've been greatly in support with our ships, the -- the Comfort, for example, our doctors and nurses, our -- our hospitals, et cetera, have been deployed all over the United States and internationally.  So we'll continue to do that in support of other agencies.

So the force protection piece is critical.  The readiness piece is critical, and then lastly, we're in support of the other agencies, and we're going to continue to do that, as we have been, and we'll do that under the direction of the Secretary of Defense.  So thanks for the question, Taemon.

MODERATOR:  The third question comes from Peter Hu from Alabama.  Peter asks, "Sir, do you believe the integrity of the colonel's promotion selection process and being close hold was compromised politically and by the media?"  I'll turn this question over to Dr. Esper.

SEC. ESPER:  No, thank you.  It's a good question.  Look I -- I believe in the integrity of all of our promotion processes, regardless of rank.  We -- we -- we apply stringent standards, of course, to this to ensure its integrity, but we also follow all applicable laws and regulations, policies and practice and precedent.  So I'm very confident in the integrity of our board processes.  We -- we protect the privacy of individuals, and we go to great extent to make sure it's fair and it's sound, and the processes can hold up the scrutiny of any type of inquiry or any type of -- any type of look in terms of how the process is -- is -- is conducted. 

So I think everybody out there who is on -- being looked at now for promotion or who's gone through a board should have full faith and confidence that the chain of command, military and civilian, will ensure an upkeep of the integrity of that process.  That's what we owe our service members.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Given the events of 2020 and the Secretary's charge to the department on diversity, we solicited video messages from the force so we could hear from you directly.  This first story and question is from Senior Airman Naomi Simms of the U.S. Air Force.  Let's roll the video.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

Q:  Hello.  My name is Senior Airman Naomi Simms of the 177th Fighter Wing in New Jersey. I was recently at a meeting where my leadership acknowledged the importance of addressing some of the social issues we're all experiencing.  They opened the floor for conversation and feedback, but there was very little participation in that setting.

I actually did have ideas, suggestions and even some critical feedback to improve things around the unit, but I remained silent and frustrated.  After sharing my frustration with a trusted chief, I was encouraged to go as far as to speak with the command chief of our wing.

In my personal experience as a black woman in the Air Force, I have felt the pressure to conform and not cause any waves surrounding the subject of race.  So I was undeniably nervous to share my perspectives and ideas with leadership.

However, I am proud to report that my leaders were incredibly receptive and open to my feedback. Those conversations sparked a lot of much-needed dialogue about topics that people so often shy away from.  Being given the space to understand and be understood was extremely impactful for me, and I feel that others would benefit from it, as well.

With that being said, does the military have any plans to facilitate more opportunities for productive and informative dialogue around other bases?

(END VIDEO)

MODERATOR:  Mr. Secretary, your thoughts on her comments?

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, it's a great -- great insights, great comments.  I thank her for sharing them.  She's spot-on.  I've got to tell you, over the past three weeks I've held well over a half-dozen listening sessions all around the country and overseas with soldiers and sailors and airmen of all ranks and of -- of all -- all races and ethnicities.  And the SEAC has joined me on many of those.  In fact, we -- we just held one yesterday at a naval facility down in Virginia.

And what she is saying is -- is the same story we hear -- we hear over and over and over again, and that is the importance of having that conversation and the difficulty in initiating it.  And I know, the SEAC and I have both taken this same note over and over again, which is why in that first action memo that we put out last week, one of the things that I -- I wrote in there is the -- the importance of -- of having a -- giving our folks the lexicon, the words, the definitions, to start talking about things like discrimination and racism and prejudice -- get people comfortable with the terms; and then teach -- help teach practices, whether it ranges from interventions to having the conversation, because they are very difficult conversations. 

We've sat in them.  I've sat in them now several times with well over 100 service members and had these, and what she is saying is spot-on.  I think once you get in a group and you can get over that initial reluctance to have that conversation, people really start talking, and you get great insights into their experiences, their perceptions, and that's where it has to happen.  That's where it begins, where you really start breaking down the problem and -- and getting -- not just sharing experiences, but then getting towards solutions.

So we've put some of this in the memo, the action memo coming out.  I've put out word to commanders, to leaders of -- of -- of all -- of all grade, in all the services, that you've got to have these conversations.  You've got to facilitate them, and you've just got to be able to have that discussion.  People want to talk, and we've got to be able to listen, as well.

So I hope this is something that commanders not only hope, but should do across the force.  I'm glad that she raised it, and it's -- because it's very important.  That's where it has to begin, at that level, to begin those discussions, and we've got to facilitate it from the top down, as well.  So that people -- we open up that space for folks to have that discussion. 

If you don't mind, I'll invite the SEAC, because he's been my -- my battle buddy, if you will, on this journey, and see what he -- he wants to share.

SEAC COLÓN-LÓPEZ:  No, thank you, Mr. Secretary.

So first of all, teammate, thank you so much for bringing that up to us because like the Secretary said, this is something that has been common throughout our travels.  The one thing that I have learned from all of this so far is that, adversity continues to bring opportunity, and this is yet another opportunity for us to get our wrongs right.  Conforming is not the way for anyone out there serving in the Department of Defense.  We should all be -- be valued for what we're bringing to the table. 

But in order to do this, we have to talk about it more and more, and I will say that the more we talk to the troops, the more comfortable we are addressing the issue.  It's coming natural, but repetition is going to be your champion.  You have to be able to put it out there, be transparent, and go ahead and continue the conversation, up and down the chain, to be able to get after the root causes of the problem.  And then that's going to lead to the most important thing that we can do on this, and that is to measure our progress.  Then we're going to go ahead and start looking at the facts and the data, to make sure that we're marching in the right direction, but it takes people like you, courageous enough to voice your opinions, your concerns, to your leaders and then walk the round up to the target, up the chain, to ensure that your voice is heard.  You do that, we have your back, one hundred percent.

SEC. ESPER:  Let me just wrap up by saying, this is about two important things.  One is, showing empathy and respect for one another; and then number two, related to that, is, what we're trying to do is build a more cohesive, a more -- a more capable, a more ready force. 

At the end of the day, we get there by -- by working with our most critical resource, our people, and making sure that everybody feels included; and making sure everybody feels welcome and comfortable and confident in what they're doing; and ensuring that diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity, because that's how we become even better than what we are today.

MODERATOR:  Courageous, indeed.  Thank you, sir. 

This next question comes from Matthew Kershner, an Army automotive maintenance warrant officer from Junction City, Kansas, via Facebook.  He asked, "what's the annual cost and actual benefits to prove to foreign nations that we can deploy brigades rapidly?  Instead of wasting funds on brigade rotations, costing hundreds of millions annually in taxpayer dollars just to ship equipment, not to mention personnel, repair parts, ammunition, et cetera, why don't we use that funding to actually fix our readiness?  Because units are flat out lying to the JCS in order to make a mission happen just to get a good evaluation bullet.  Modernize our equipment sets.  Last I checked, I was still working on equipment nearly 40 years old with issues four pages long."

Matthew, I'm going to turn your question over directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to answer.  Sir, your thoughts?

GEN. MILLEY:  Well thanks, Matthew, for the -- for the comment.  I'm going to try and give you a call, though, I want to find out the equipment that's 40 years old.  I got 40 years in the military; I'm hoping you're not working on stuff 40 years old if you're in the Army.

Them -- there are ships out there that are 40 years old, there's airplanes, but I want to -- I'm going to give Matthew a quick call, there, I want to find out about that equipment.  But having said that, there is a logic to why we do what we do in terms of rotating forces. 

And we do; we rotate brigades to Korea, for example; we rotate brigades to Europe; and we've got to be able to do both.  We've got to be able to fix and maintain our equipment here at home station or overseas, but we also have to project power.

The United States is a -- is a unique global power, in that we have a friendly country to our north and our south, and we have a -- a -- oceans to our east and our west.  And for us to be a global power and influence outcomes around the world and to shape outcomes in the interests of the United States, we've got to be able to project power.  So that's why we do it.

And in order to do that, we have to rotate forces on a very, very frequent basis in order to stretch out the -- the muscle memory, if you will, of the sea and air lift to get forces, heavy forces or light forces, across the oceans and -- and overseas and -- and get them into exercises and training and so on.

Yes, we have been doing that now for 20 years on a scheduled basis or so, into Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it's one of those things that if you don't continually practice it and train at it, then it will atrophy over time and it doesn't take long for that to atrophy.

So we need to continue rotations forward in order to fulfill the -- the tenets of the National Defense Strategy, in order to maintain our commitments overseas. And at the same time we need to maintain all that equipment.  And Matthew, I'll give you a call here.  I want to -- want to find out about the 40-year-old equipment that you're working on, and then maybe I can do something with the Secretary of Defense and get you some new equipment.  But thanks for the question, great question.

MODERATOR:  Look out, Matthew.  Our sixth question today comes from Salvatore Correli, of Stanford, Connecticut.  He asks, "how did the United States fall so far behind Russia and China in terms of nuclear modernization and hypersonic technology?"

Mr. Secretary, would you to care to answer this question on -- on nuclear readiness?

SEC. ESPER:  Sure and I -- I appreciate Salvatore's question.  Let me just, though, challenge the premise up front.  I can -- I can assure Salvatore that -- that we have the most ready, capable force that's out there, bar none, and the fact is we are upgrading them and modernizing our -- our bomber force, our ICBM [inter-continental ballistic missile] force, and our submarine force, and they will not just be more capable than our competitors and adversaries today, they will be even more capable than that as we modernize them.

So -- and there's more to it than that.  We have to also update and modernize our nuclear command and control and communications, but we are putting a lot of money into this, it's important to modern -- continue to modernize and recapitalize the nuclear deterrent because of what it -- because of what it is, that -- that -- that second word I mentioned, "deterrent," because what it does, if you have a very capable triad, you're able to deter conflict, you're -- be able to deter threats to the United States, and at the end of the day, that's what we want to do.  We want to deter conflict, we want to deter war, and failing that, we want to be prepared to fight and win.

But I can assure Salvatore, and anybody else out there that's interested in this issue, is we maintain a highly capable nuclear triad, more capable than our adversaries and competitors, and we will continue to -- to maintain that overmatch in the years ahead.

MODERATOR:  Next we have another video message.  This one is from Lance Cpl. Pham, from Des Moines, Iowa.  Just as a reminder, like our questions, these are real videos from around the force.  In this one, there's a lot of background noise and in true Marine fashion, it sounds like there's heavy armor rolling through at one point.  So to make it easier for our online audience to follow along, we've added subtitles.  Otherwise, it's just as she submitted it.  Let's roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

Q:  My name is Lance Cpl. Pham from Des Moines, Iowa.  I'm here to tell you about my experiences regarding inclusion and diversity in the Marine Corps.  Two years ago, before I signed the papers, I was encouraged not to join by other service members and veterans because of my background as a female and a minority.

I was told that I would be attacked from both angles because of this.  However, I accepted the risk and joined anyway, and upon coming to this unit, I was proven wrong.  I was welcomed with open arms, by people of all sorts of backgrounds. Regarding race, religion, ethnicity, culture, it did not matter.

We’re all bonded by the same standards, the same willingness to perform our duties.  However, other service members might not have had the same luck I’ve had with this wonderful group of brothers and sisters and good leadership, to, of course, include you.  They might feel hindered or disrespected because of their backgrounds.  I plan on progressing my career in order to trample exclusion and encourage inclusion.

I appreciate this opportunity as one to encourage those who feel that they can't choose their own career path because of their background.  To accept the risk and go for it anyway.  Because the Corps, along with the rest of the world, is moving towards a path of inclusion, diversity, making progression.  And anybody can be a part of that movement.  Thank you.

(END VIDEO)

MODERATOR:  SEAC Colón-López, do you want to comment on Lance Cpl. Pham's message?

SEAC COLÓN-LÓPEZ:  Absolutely.  I mean, things like that just get you motivated every time.  So I want to thank the Lance Corporal for her courage and ownership of the issue, first of all.  This is somebody that I can assimilate with, because I -- I too am the minority and I was told about my limitations before I even tried to do anything, and it was all about proving people wrong, but that took action.

When we look at minorities progressing through the ranks, we need to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities regardless of who they are.  And then if they excel, then so be it, open the door.  And if they don't provide them either the training or another opportunity to go ahead and move forward or validate their limitations -- but I will tell you that she is doing exactly what every single member of the Department of Defense should be doing, trampling diversity and inclusion -- and inclusion or promoting it.

And diversity and inclusion are nothing more than a quality control mechanism for us, the Department of Defense, to benefit from the talents of everyone in our rank and file.  So we need to embrace that.  So for everyone listening right now, I believe that Lance Cpl. Pham just gave you a vector – dust off your map and compass, and start marching on. 

MODERATOR:  All right. The next question comes from Rosemary Helton, who works for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency.  She asked, quote, "with the pending memo on OPSEC and CUI [controlled unclassified information], how do you see it impacting not only DOD, but the federal government as a whole?”

Mr. Chairman, sir, your views on operational security and controlled unclassified information? 

SEC. ESPER:  I'm sorry, I need to jump in here before the chairman answers because ... 

GEN. MILLEY:  I was just about to jump on that. 

SEC. ESPER:  I just want to commend Rosemary for her fine choice of sports teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I know it's a very astute question, I'm sure the ... 

GEN. MILLEY:  I think since the Secretary wrote the memo, the Secretary can continue with the answer to the question, since it's from the Pittsburgh Steelers.  But Rosemary, thanks; thanks for the question.  I will let the Secretary answer the question, but from my point of view, operational security is critical and it always has been, always will be.  And – and no matter what labels we put on it, whether it's classified, CUI, FOUO, secret, top secret -- all these code words, et cetera.

The couple of things to remember about operational security: one is, whoever you're talking to with information, they need to have the appropriate level of clearance, don't ever forget that.  So you might be talking to someone about something and they may not have the level of clearance about the topic you're talking about. 

Secondly, even if they have the appropriate clearance, they need to have a need to know.  So that's important, you have to have both things when you're talking classified information.  Operational security is critical and you know, there's been leaks, so there's things that are water cooler talk, and people talk about me, or they talk about the Secretary, or they talk about this person or the SEAC or that person -- other people, et cetera. OK, that's water cooler talk, and that's going to happen – large organizations, Pentagon, military, et cetera. 

But we do have to guard classified information, we have to guard it very, very closely.  Leaks of classified information are matters of life and death.  Not only is it matters of life and death for us in uniform, but the sources of that classified information oftentimes are human beings, it's not all signals intelligence. 

Sometimes there's HUMINT [human intelligence] involved and there’s human beings out there who are collecting critical information.  If that information is inadvertently let out – it appears in a newspaper, on T.V., or a blog site or something like that – foreign intelligence services, adversary foreign intelligence services, can piece that together, and they can go right back to the -- they can figure out the source or the method.  And then they can compromise that; that has happened before with the United States. 

On the flipside we have to balance that against transparency, because we do have a requirement to be transparent with the American people and we want to ensure that we explain ourselves adequately and fully, because we're a very expensive organization -- one of the most expensive organizations in the world, if not just the country. 

And the taxpayer is funding us to a great degree in order to justify the expenses that we are -- as a military we need to be transparent and the medium of doing that is the media, and in things like this, a town hall, et cetera.  But we have to always keep a balance there between classified information, official information, information that might be sensitive in -- and the transparency aspect.

And it takes a high degree of thought to do that.  And I'll let the Secretary talk further about it, but that's kind of my view on it.  So thanks, Rosemary, despite your allegiance to the Steelers, it's a great question. 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, Rosemary’s clearly a very intelligent person with superb judgment, and she knows the importance of this issue, and I'll just foot-stomp what the chairman just said.  I mean, think about it in terms of the National Defense Strategy; if you're releasing classified or sensitive information, what you're doing is undermining line of effort number one, in terms of impacting our lethality and the readiness of the force. 

In fact, I'll go so far as to say, you're not only jeopardizing a mission, but you could be jeopardizing soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines who are on the frontlines; that's number one. 

Number two is, the leak of that type of information also jeopardizes our alliances and partnerships; it jeopardizes our foreign policy, our national security strategy.  Because leaks undermine those bonds, they -- countries come not to trust us, allies doubt whether we can keep a secret, or we could share something sensitive between us.  

So you've got to think about it in those terms, and it really matters.  We all know the phrases from World War II, right?  Loose lips sink ships, that's true today as well.  And maybe in some ways it's -- there's even much more risk because we live in a world where it's not just -- where we're not just talking and we're on the phone, but we’re on cyber.  We have -- people are trying to compromise the integrity of our networks, of the internet, of our cyber capability. 

So we've got to be very careful in what we say and do, and we have to avoid -- and certainly any type of release of classified information, or secure information.  But there is also information that is unclassified that can be sensitive as well, that again, can undermine those things that I just spoke about.  So, I appreciate Rosemary's question. 

MODERATOR:  We received the next question via Twitter from Paul Shrum, in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Paul notes he's not in the military, but wanted to know, quote, "regarding the Bonhomme Richard fire, are you investigating the possible causes of the fire?”

Secretary Esper would you care to comment on the tragic fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard?" 

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.  It very is -- it very much is a tragic fire.  It's -- I'm pleased to report that the fire is out.  I have been in touch with the Secretary of the Navy, and I get reports from the CNO, the Chief of Naval Operations. 

So the fire is out, the CNO is out there today, and the Navy will be conducting an investigation, and that's the right thing to do -- of what happened, but they're also going to look -- conduct a survey of the ship, and assess the damage. 

And then, thirdly, I think they've done very smartly, is to reach out to the rest of the fleet, and to speak to the commanders and make sure that the commanders have all the resources they need, that the sailors are trained and that they are practiced in terms of firefighting, so we are proactive -- they are proactive, trying to stay in front of things in case there's another -- to avoid a fire on any other ships. 

So it's – you know, firefighting on a ship is very dangerous, it's a very demanding thing.  I recently travelled to Great Lakes where we train our sailors -- our new sailors coming in, and very impressed by the training they do up there.  It's live training in terms of putting out fires.  It's that important to the safety and security, integrity of a ship and the crew, that you know how to fight fires. 

And I really applaud the Navy's efforts to -- to put the fire out, to begin an investigation, and then proactively reach out to the rest of the fleet and make sure that they are taking all precautionary measures until we can better understand what happened on the Bonhomme Richard to make sure we're preventing anything happening elsewhere. 

MODERATOR:  We have another video message.  This one is from Sergeant First Class Jonathan Fadeyi, of the United States Army.  Because of our time constraints here today, and the fact that we want to hear from many voices, Sergeant, I'll let you know that we cut your video slightly for length, but not for content.  Let's roll the video. 

(BEGIN VIDEO)

Q:  My name is Jonathan Fadeyi, I am the First Sergeant for Bravo Company, 47th Combat Support Hospital, and I'd like to tell my story.  I am from Nigeria, originally.  My family moved here when I was five years old, and I pretty much grew up in the Midwest Michigan area.  Kalamazoo is the city that I primarily grew up in. 

Ever since I was little, from watching the videos way back in the '80s of, “Be all you can be,” and for commercials that the Army produced, I've always wanted to join the military, so I'm literally living my dream by being a First Sergeant. 

I've had nothing but positive experiences since I joined the Army.  Since I'm a 16-Whiskey by trade, combat medic, I've been able to be in a myriad of units, whether it's light infantry to some special operations units, as well.  In doing that, I’ve been – I’ve had opportunities where I was the single only African-American in that organization, to one of two, to multiple.  And like I said, my -- my experiences have been positive.  Going in some of those units, there's been soldiers who necessarily didn't work with personnel of my complexion growing up, and they had some -- some biases and -- from their upbringing.  But we all bleed the same color, and I -- and -- and to this day, they are my lifelong friends.  I was able to change their perspectives just by daily interactions with them and -- and working with them, turning wrenches with them in the motor pool, or ruck marches, or doing P.T., and -- and -- and now they're, like I said, my -- my lifelong friends.

I'd also add experiences where I've been in cities where my families was concerned because historically, those areas were not very receptive to people of my complexion and skin color, as well.  I was an OCT [observer controller trainer] at JRTC [Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, Lousiana], and when I told my parents that I was going to JRTC, they were like, "You need to be careful, because there is racist activity down there," and -- and things of that -- that nature.  But when I got there with my wife, who is -- my wife is Caucasian, and all my kids are mixed – I got down there and found that that was not the case, you know, that the people in that area were extremely receptive to us.  We had no issues when we were on about -- around town, and -- and we have friends that continue to contact us to this day and find out where we are in our military careers. 

And -- and I think all of that is due to just the military culture as a whole, especially in that -- cities where the military in ingrained in -- in -- in that area and -- and they are patriotic Americans who -- who just love the personnel there in the military and what we do for our nation and certain -- and the fact that we chose to serve our country and defending the Constitution, and that we all chose to raise our right hand to -- for the betterment of our country as a whole.

So primarily my experiences have been great, and I -- I've seen that my junior soldiers are also having similar experiences.  Some of them have not had as great experiences or -- as -- as I have, but they see that what they're doing is for a purpose and for a just cause, which is allowing those personnel who feel differently to be able to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal from -- as they might find in -- in other countries.

If there's a question that I could ask, it would be -- in lines with the redaction of D.A. [Department of the Army] photos for -- for boards.  Is there a possibility that names could also be redacted?  Because with a name, basically, the gender and possibly race of that soldier would be prevalent to the board members.  Is that something that's also being considered?

(END VIDEO)

MODERATOR:  I'll turn this one over to the SEAC for comment.

SEAC COLÓN-LÓPEZ:  First Sergeant, first of all, thank you.  I got to spend three years and a couple of months in United States Africa Command, and I spent quite a bit of time in your former stomping grounds.  And you know, it -- it -- it's -- it's very filling -- fulfilling, and it's -- it's such a proud moment to hear somebody like you that didn't come into freedom, appreciate exactly what the American way of life is all about.

And I would also like to point out that many people that are born into freedom sometimes take it for granted.  So I appreciate you putting that into perspective on how you can compare two different systems and how you have been able to thrive on this.

When it comes to the names and the possibility of redacting certain information, we're taking a very holistic look on the way that boards can look at packages by virtue of merit into promotion, and that is looking at character, demonstrated abilities, and credibility of personnel based on their actions to be able to go ahead and pick the best person for the best -- for the best duty.  And I know that the Secretary and the chairman both agree that we can do better when it comes to those boards.  But also, we want to make sure that once we implement a system, that it's something that is going to benefit -- you know, that it's not going to hinder your opportunities for -- for promotion.

So I want to thank you for that, and I also want to thank you for the comment, for highlighting that all blood runs red, and that is something that we can also not take for granted.

And lastly, one thing that I will close with is that, there are many parents right now that are concerned about the -- the safety of their children, specifically black families.  They have brought this up to us, that they have to talk to them about putting their hands up.  Make sure that if a cop approaches you, the way to act, and everything else.  But that is the product of the history that we have endured over many years.  What we need to look at now is, as we're collecting our thoughts, is for the opportunity to create a different narrative to our families regardless of color, race, creed, nationality -- are able to step out of their front doors into free America and feel safe.

So, again, First Sergeant, thank you, and I look forward to crossing paths with you.  You're definitely an impressive soldier.

MODERATOR:  Mr. Secretary, would you like to weigh in?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, I'd like to add.  I'd like to thank the first sergeant for sharing.  What a great American story; it’s just fantastic, and for him now to be serving in the United States military as a first sergeant, what, over 20 years, and I assume at this point in time.  So it's a great story and he -- he tells a great tale, and it is reassuring in so many ways.  And I want him to know that we are trying to root these, you know, root these practices out that might enable unconscious bias and things like that. 

So we are getting rid of the photos, and in fact, the directive I signed this week also tasks our personnel and readiness directorate, if you will, to go out and come back, I think, within 45 or 60 days and present a plan by which we could -- we could also strike references to names, references to gender -- things like that that may trigger unconscious bias.

So we're -- we're on that.  We -- we appreciate what that means, and the importance is to making sure that we --  it's a merit-based system and solely a merit-based system.

MODERATOR:  Many of you didn't pose questions, but made comments, and yes, we read your comments, too.  Debbie Hoover, via Facebook, posted on our call for town hall questions.  She wrote, quote, "What is wrong with you, DOD?  Why are you discussing these problems in an open forum where all of our enemies can see all the problems of the military?  It's the same you having meetings on Zoom." 

I'll pose Debbie's question to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  Sir, do you think we should be discussing our problems as a force in an open forum like this?

GEN. MILLEY:  I mean, it depends on the problem.  For most of the things we're discussing today, absolutely, yes.  We -- we -- all militaries are a reflection of their society, and we are a democracy, a representative democracy where people have freedom, freedom of speech and so on.  And we, the Department of Defense, we're costing the taxpayer $700 billion, $800 billion, depending on the year, which is a lot of money.  And -- and we have a very, very important job for the American people, which is to protect the common good of -- of the Constitution and the freedoms that people enjoy.

And there has to be accountability.  And so, you have to be transparent with the good and the bad, and -- and you have to do that.  And we as a -- as a nation demand that.  We demand accountability. 

We demand it through the Senate Armed Services Committee, the House Armed Services Committee.  Sometimes those things are uncomfortable.  But the Secretary and I and all the representative senior leaders of the military, we must appear and we -- we do so under oath.  And we must be candid and honest, and -- and that's fair.  That's as it should be.  Those are the people's representatives and they must hold us accountable.  That's part of the deal.

The media -- it's embedded in that document called the Constitution, a free media.  And they have a right, it's not just some -- you know, some nefarious idea out there.  It's a right to challenge us in the military, or the Department of Defense, or the government as a whole, in order to hold us accountable.  That's important.  That's an important and healthy thing for a democracy.

And, yes, not everything is perfect on a day-to-day basis in the Department of Defense, or anywhere else in the federal government, right.  But we must be transparent with the American people, within the bounds of classification.

If we think for a minute that something is classified and it's going to -- and the revelation of that information will do harm to a future operation, or place a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman at risk, or place sources and methods at risk, then we don't talk about it.  But that -- relative to the whole, that type of information is relatively small compared to the whole. 

We get criticized frequently and a lot, but that is the nature of a democracy.  So yes, I -- Debbie, thanks for the question.  But I do think that it's important and that transparency is an indicator of strength, not of weakness.  And if our enemies see that, then they're witnessing strength, not weakness.

MODERATOR:  Our next question comes to us from Senior Master Sergeant Reina Blake, with the 366th Fighter Wing, at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. 

She writes, quote, "In the current COVID-19 environment, and considering most deployed location requirements to have inbound personnel quarantined for a 14-day period, has there been any discussion of adjusting RDDs," that's requirement drive developments, "to reflect this requirement on the front-end, rather than having personnel that are slotted to redeploy on an automatic basis?  Doing so would allow redeployers to head home more or less as scheduled, while also accounting for any home-station quarantine requirements, R&R, PCS orders, et cetera.  Thank you for your time and consideration."

I'll turn this one to the Secretary.

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.  Well, I'll -- I'll -- I'll kind of answer the question more broadly first, and that is -- we talked about it earlier. 

First and foremost, priority number one for me -- going back to January, which is I think when we issued our first force protection measure, in January, and since then we've issued 10, 11, 12 more -- is protect our people.  And protect our people means, not just service members, but also family members, and our DOD contractors and our -- of course, our DOD civilians. 

And by doing that, you can then take care of mission number two -- priority number two, and that is make sure we maintain our mission readiness, our capabilities.  And then -- because that is our core mission, number one, protect the nation.  And then, of course, number three is -- priority number three was the -- participate in a whole-of-government response to COVID.

But with regard to this particular issue, what we've tried to do is be very clear as people -- as either units move back and forth or people move back and forth – that, in addition to testing and other measures that we are taking, that -- certainly, if you are a unit, we want a -- we want units before they deploy abroad, to be tested and to have their -- their ROMs, their quarantines if you will, here on this side in the United States.  

So that once they hit the ground, they are ready immediately to begin their mission, whether it's a security mission, whether it's a partner operation or some type of exercise; they're ready and they don't have to wait 14 days.

In the same way -- in many ways, that principle holds true for individuals that are PCSing back and forth.  And as best as possible, all persons should go -- I shouldn't say as best as possible.  Let me be clear.  All persons should do a 14-day ROM either on this end or on the receiving end, depending on what you have do in between there in terms of transportation.  So that's what we're trying to get to. 

We want to make that system as efficient as possible.  We are giving the services some room within their systems of moving people around to -- to do it as efficiently as possible to address some of the issues being raised there. 

But the important thing is that we move people safely, that they do whatever testing or temperature checks as need be.  And then on either one end or the other, they get -- they do that ROM so that they are not -- if they are asymptomatic carriers or even symptomatic carriers they are not presenting that into what would otherwise be a clean environment.

So again, it's force protection, protecting our service members, our civilians, et cetera.  And we'll -- we'll raise these issues and take a look at any other way that we can either improve the policy or make it more efficient.

MODERATOR:  Today's last video submission comes from Operations Specialist First Class Pierre, who is stationed in Italy.  Let's roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

Q:  With all the recent events that's been going on back in the States, I have to ask myself a simple question.  What does my chain in command see in me when I take off this uniform?

Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to that.  But what I am is unapologetically black, and with that comes that comes a great responsibility to face challenges and adversities of preconceived notions and prejudices of how I'm supposed to act or what I'm supposed to do.

It's sad to say, racism is alive and well around the world and not just back at the States.  With my experience in the Navy -- although it had been a great one -- I ran into some people that only judged me by the color of my skin and not by the quality of my work. 

As a Navy, I feel that we should continue to treat people fairly based off their character and the sum of their actions.  That's how we'll continue to be the world's greatest Navy.

(END VIDEO)

MODERATOR:  I'll turn this one over the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to comment on OS1 Pierre's message.  Sir?

GEN. MILLEY:  Well, Spc. Pierre, thanks, those are powerful words.  You asked what your chain of command would think when you take that uniform off. 

I can't speak for every officer and NCO out there, but you and I -- you're a sailor 24/7, whether you're wearing that uniform or not.  I'm a soldier 24/7, all the time, every time, no matter what. 

And -- and -- and that you are unapologetically Black, that's a good thing.  You should never deny who are, no matter who you are, no matter how you identify.  And you should be proud of that.  Be proud of being a sailor.  Be proud of being an African American.  And all that's good.

And remember -- and -- and this is for everyone, not just Pierre, but, again, going back to the oath -- going back to the idea -- the idea that is America, the idea that every one of us is free and equal. 

Remember the words of Lincoln, that this is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men -- and I would add, all women -- are created equal.  Period, full stop. 

And that's what we're about.  That's what that Constitution -- that what that idea is about.  And we are all free and equal.  It doesn't matter where we're from.  It doesn't matter the color of our skin.  We're going to be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, like Martin Luther King said.

That is what this country is about.  That's the essence of America.  And that is what we in uniform are dedicated to protect and defend.  That's what the Constitution is all about.  And we are willing to die for those principles, for those values.  And again, if we're willing to die for those principles, we ought to be willing to live for them every single day.

So thanks, Spc. Pierre, for what you do and what you do every single day, whether you’re wearing that uniform or not.  Thanks for what you're doing and who you are.

 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have time for just a few closing comments, and I'll call on the SEAC first.

SEAC COLÓN-LÓPEZ:  Thank you again, sir.  And again, Chairman, Mr. Secretary, thank you again for this opportunity.  One thing that I learned a long time ago is the Special Operations Force's truth number one, and that is that humans are more important than hardware.  Well guess what?  We are those humans and we need to treat each other with dignity and respect to make sure that we carry out that mission.

For my shipmate here, I will tell you that those who judge what they don't know are nothing more than fools, so don't listen to them.  You don't have to.  You know your worth and you know your value.  I know that. 

Lastly, I will leave you with two thoughts -- that only the mediocre are always at their best, so we need to continue to improve, and lastly that you deserve what you tolerate, so don't ignore things and don't walk past the issues.  Deal with them head on and prevent them from happening ever again.

Thank you for your time, I look forward for the next opportunity.

MODERATOR:  General?

GEN. MILLEY:  Thanks.  I -- you know, I just -- at the risk of repeating myself over and over and over again, I would just ask that all of us in uniform never forget:  hold the Constitution close to your heart -- that's what we are about -- and remember that diversity is a strength.  It's not a weakness, it's a strength, and it gives us incredible strength in combat, because it builds cohesive forces, it builds good order and discipline, and that's what we're about in order to defend that great idea that's embedded in the Constitution.

So thanks so much for what each and every one of you are doing every single day.  Thank you.  Secretary?

SEC. ESPER:  Let me wrap up by saying thank you once again everybody for tuning in and to participating in this town hall today.  I know that we got a lot out of it and I hope you have, as well.  Secondly, I'd like to thank all of you in uniform, and also our DOD civilians, for your service and your sacrifice and your commitment, particularly in these challenging times. 

It -- it is a difficult moment for our country, dealing with the coronavirus, but you all have inspired us and -- and held the country safe and firm, both domestically and abroad, so thank you once again for that.

Third, I'd like to repeat what we've all been saying, the importance of diversity and inclusion in our ranks.  We must guarantee that we treat everybody with dignity and respect, and ensure that we address issues of discrimination and bias and prejudice, and give everybody, afford everybody an equal opportunity to reach their best and be their best.

That's my commitment, that's our commitment, that's got to be the chain of command's commitment, but inevitably it's everybody's -- we -- responsibility and commitment to push along these themes, because as we said today, diversity and inclusion make us stronger, not weaker, they make us better, not worse.  They are all about what we are and who we are as Americans.

That's why I want to finish up with where I began and that is we have all sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution.  It is that document that embodies those ideas we talked about today, about judging people based on their merit, not on their skin or their ethnicity or their race. 

It's about treating people equally, it's about giving everybody equal opportunity, it's about respecting those rights embodied in that document.  That's what we are all committed to, that's what we are all willing to die for, that's certainly something we almost be willing to live for.

So I encourage you, urge you to think about, day in and day out, as you accomplish your missions, as you go about your tasks, as you serve side by side with people, fellow service members of all races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, et cetera, that this is what makes America great.  So thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary and Mr. Chairman, SEAC.  To our online viewers, on behalf of the Department of Defense, thank you for tuning in and thank you for your questions.  That concludes our virtual town hall today, July 17th.