Transcript

Secretary of Defense Esper Addresses Reporters at Whiteman AFB

July 22, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Okay, good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for joining me here on this wonderful day at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.  I've had a great visit today, my first actual visit here to the -- to this base.  And I'm very pleased to be here.

This is one of a series of trips I've been taking over the last several weeks.  What I've been doing is this, is in the context of COVID, I've been trying to get out to our forces, to many of our bases, to understand how we are dealing with COVID, how the force is holding up, the adjustments we’ve made and the readiness of the force.

So, several weeks ago, I had the chance to visit our training bases.  I had to go -- a chance to go to Parris Island, I had a chance to go to our bases with the Army, Great Lakes with the Navy and down to Texas to visit the Air Force.

And, again, that was a chance to look at how we are introducing new soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines into the force and how are they holding up under the context, under the environment of COVID.

I've also been going around and looking at the other end, the top tier of our force, and to make sure I understand how they're doing and how they're treating COVID.  And last week, I was in Dam Neck, Virginia, with our Naval Special Warfare folks.  And today, I'm here with our B-2 squadron.

This is a very unique capability.  There's no other capability like this in the world.  The people of this community, the people of Missouri should be very proud of this because it is so special.  And these airmen and officers and NCOs are quite capable.

And I've been very impressed with all the briefings I received today, and the discussions about the capabilities that this force brings and how well they're doing, holding up in a COVID environment, implementing the guidance we've been putting out since January and really taking care of the force and taking care of other folks on the base, whether it's dependents, retirees, et cetera.

So, again, very impressed by what I saw today, a chance to talk to the planners.  A chance, as you saw, to walk around the aircraft and talk to the folks who work -- do the maintenance, who handle the ordnance and I had a chance to actually be in a simulator today as well.

What particularly impressed me too is the close relationship between the Guard and the active duty.  So we have the 509th, active duty, with the 131st Guard, very well integrated.  As some of you know, I served in both active duty and the Guard, Army Guard.  I've never seen integration like this.  It's -- it's hand-in-glove relationship, seamless, and I'm very impressed by what I saw today.  I've got to say, the Air Force overall does this very well.

So very impressed by what I saw.  I also had a chance to, on every trip I go to, to have lunch with a number of junior officers and junior NCOs, airmen to talk about what's happening in the force, what's happening on a base and do a little bit of a sensing session.

And then importantly, this afternoon, after I'm done with you all, I'm going to do another listening session with a diverse group of airmen and probably civilians, to talk about diversity and inclusion in the Air Force.

This may be the 10th of these listening sessions I've done so far, all around the United States and even abroad, to get a better feel for how we can move the ball forward on diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity in the -- in the armed forces.  So I'm very much looking forward to that.  And then after that trip, I go home.

Again, last thing I want to do is thank -- thank all the folks, the service members here at Whiteman Air Force Base for what they do.  I want to thank all the important Department of Defense or Department of Air Force civilians who work here, and of course the wonderful community supporting them.  I've heard nothing but good stories about how supportive the local community is, and it just is a testament to the close bond between the American people and our military.

So, with that, I'll stop and open it up for questions.

STAFF:  We can take a question from Bob Burns.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, a question for you about one aspect of the situation in Portland.  I'm referring to the fact that you have personnel, federal security personnel on the streets who are interacting with civilian protesters,

STAFF: Bob

Q: wearing…

STAFF: Bob…

Q: …military-style uniforms.

I wonder if you have any objections to that practice, are you raising any objections?

SEC. ESPER:  Bob, thanks for that question, but today I'm going to focus on the important folks here at Whiteman Air Force Base and this tremendous capability sitting behind me today.  I've spoken about that before the House Armed Services Committee, so I'm not going to add anything further today.  I want to speak about this visit here today.

Q:  But that was before the Portland situation…

STAFF: Bob, we’ll keep it... (inaudible)

Q:  Secretary --

SEC. ESPER:  Yes?

Q:  -- Mr. Secretary you've visited a number -- number of places.  You said that this is a wonderful Air Force base.  What are they doing here uniquely to target COVID-19 and help our community in the area?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, I find that each base does things a little bit different, and they've adapted very carefully.  So during my listening session -- I don't mind sharing -- a captain raised the point about how they've adapted their pharmaceutical services to enable people to get their prescriptions.  And they don't have a drive-through, they're looking about -- looking at that in the future, but they're able to at least have a workaround system whereby people don't have to come into the pharmacy.

By way, we're doing -- we're hand-delivering it to them at their car, they're texting to note their arrival.  So little things like that are really helping us avoid contact and maintain social distancing, but at the same time looking at efficiencies that I think will probably hold well into the future.

Everywhere I go, and I talk to people about the adaptations they've made, they say, "Yeah, we're probably going to keep this one, going forward, because we found it more efficient, we found it more responsive to the customer."  Or if it deals with a new recruit, they find that it's better for the new recruits and increases their retention rates.

Q:  When you hear COVID-19, I don't think people necessarily think of the military or the Air Force.  Why is the Department of Defense so vital to this virus?

SEC. ESPER:  Look, we've been in it from day one, going back to mid-January, late-January, when I started taking reports on COVID-19.  If you recall, way back then, it was the Air Force -- in fact the Air Force Reserve -- that opened up a base in California, in late January, to bring American citizens back from China to deal with it.

And since then, obviously, we've opened up more bases to take care of Americans that we repatriated.  We've obviously been on the streets of America.  At one point, well over 45,000 Guardsmen, out distributing supplies, setting up testing stations in nearly all 50 states and territories.  Just a remarkable effort by the active duty, and mostly the Guard, to do that.

And now, of course, we're all in with regard to Operation Warp Speed and driving toward a therapeutic and a vaccine to get there.  So, look, DOD stands ready to support the American people.  We've been there from day one, we've been ahead of the curve every step of the way.  We will continue to be there.

We now have teams deployed to both -- medical teams deployed to support folks in California, Texas.  And we're leaning forward with more teams on order, on the ready to go as states request them.  Because we want to be there to assist and help the American people.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, your said you’re going visit China later this year, earlier this week.  Can you tell us what you plan to accomplish with that visit, sort of what the time frame might be and just -- I mean, with the most recent carrier operations --

SEC. ESPER:  Again, I'm going to -- I want to focus today on -- on what I'm doing today and my visit here to Whiteman, and talk about that if you have a question along those lines.

I spoke about this yesterday.  I hope this year, but it depends on the invitation of my guests -- my hosts, I'm sorry.

Q:  Can I ask about diversity -- you mentioned diversity in the conversations --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- that you've had.  How's this base doing with that?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'll -- I'll know more in about an hour, when I sit down with this group and get a good feel.  You know, it was raised a little bit today, folks asked about my -- you know, my views with regard to, for example, removing from promotion lists -- I'm sorry, promotion boards and assignment boards, gender pronouns and references to a person's last name.

All those things we can do to -- to get rid of things that might trigger conscious -- and more importantly, unconscious bias -- I want to do to move forward.  We need to be as meritocratic as possible in the military, that's our commitment.  The -- the military's very diverse.  That's a strength of ours, to be diverse.

At the end of the day, it's all about improving cohesion, morale and readiness.  And the more that we can -- we can have a diverse, inclusive force that everybody believes offers equal opportunity, the stronger we will be in defense of the American people.