Transcript

Senior Department of Defense Leaders Host Global Virtual Town Hall

Sept. 24, 2020

STAFF: Welcome to another town hall live from the Pentagon briefing room in Washington, D.C. I'm Commander Morgan Murphy.

This week, we asked for questions from around the force on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Hundreds of you submitted not only questions, but videos as well, so in addition to written questions for our three senior leaders today, we'll be hearing recorded messages straight from military members around the world.

To begin today's town hall let's turn now to the secretary of defense for opening remarks. Sir?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Well, good morning everyone and thank you for joining us today for our latest town hall. I'm pleased once again to be joined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, and also by the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman, Master Chief Colon-Lopez. So thank you both for joining me today.

Before we take your questions, I want to first thank you all for the support that you've given in terms of making implementation of the National Defense Strategy a success. We're making great progress with regard to implementing the NDS. As you know, we have three lines of effort. One is to build a more ready and lethal force, the second is to strengthen our alliances and build new partnerships, and third is to reform the department to free up time, money and manpower to put into those other two priorities. We have distilled those three lines of effort into 10 broad objectives. I've reported on them this summer. Again, we're making very good progress and continue to make progress on these.

For example, just in the past few weeks alone I've traveled to the Indo-Pacific, our priority theater, to meet with friends and partners in the region. I had the chance both there and in my tour last week to the West Coast, where I visited the Navy and the Marine Corps to meet with our sailors and Marines to talk about diversity and inclusion. I've probably held two dozen meetings on that so far to talk about those issues very important to the force.

But also, we continue to think about, how do we discuss -- , how do we expand our presence in the region? How do we compete in that strategic gray zone that we find ourselves in with the the People's Republic of China these days?

I also want to talk about when we speak to diversity and inclusion. As you know, in June I put out a directive that included three initiatives to advance where we are today on diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity. The first was a quick-actions item that we put out immediately. That is underway, and I'll talk about that as we hit the questions in a moment. The second was to stand up for the Defense Board for Diversity and Inclusion. That is well underway also, and making good progress. And third is the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services, and that is on track to be stood up by December 1st. So I'm very pleased with the progress we're making on that, and again, we'll talk further about that in a few minutes.

The last thing I want to do is to thank everybody for your support and your patience as we've made our way through COVID over these past nine months. As you know, the Defense Department was on this early in mid-to late-January. We issued our first force health protection memo in late January, implemented our pandemic plan, Global Pandemic Response Plan immediately thereafter. And for the most part, we've been working through and updating these memos and this guidance as we go on.

I'm very pleased with how the -- the department has performed. We've focused and maintained our three priorities: number one- take care of our people; and number two- maintain our national mission readiness and capabilities; and number three- provide support to civil authorities. And again, our statistics tell the story. We have the lowest mortality rates, infection rates, hospitalization rates one could possibly have. So thank you for your cooperation there.

Lastly, with regard to COVID, I just want to do a shout-out to the National Guard for all the support the National Guard has provided the country over these past nine months, whether it was support to COVID during the many months of that crisis, some of which is still ongoing; the support to civilian authorities for civil unrest; or just recently, support for national disasters. I was out last week in California and met with many of our fine Guardsmen from the California Guard who have been out fighting wildfires.

So again, hats off the National Guard. Thank you for what you do. It's been a busy year for you, but we deeply appreciate all that you've done.

Finally, I want to thank our military service members who are serving alongside their loved ones in these challenging times. Thank you, as well, for your patience. We recognize that in many ways, this is a family business, and certainly, a family effort, and you've stood tall through all this. So thank you for what you do, and we look forward to doing everything we can to get us back to a new normal, if you will.

So with that, I'll turn it over to the chairman. Thanks, Commander.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary. I appreciate that, and ditto the comments to everybody out there about the National Guard. We have a remarkable organization in the National Guard that rises to the challenge every year, all the time, whether it's overseas deployments or domestic, so thanks to all of them.

Hey, today's discussion really focuses on a couple things, but most importantly is this diversity and inclusion theme that was started quite a bit ago with the secretary's initiatives a few months back. I want to be clear that it in my view, we have challenges to be sure, but the military has been and remains the largest meritocracy in the world, in my view. And we promote, we advance, we select based on your knowledge, your skills, your attributes and the content of your character, and we'll continue to do that in a wide variety of means. And we think, and I think it's absolutely true through a variety of studies, et cetera, but we know internally, all of us, about the saying of "e pluribus unum", and the idea that we are stronger together; the idea that diversity builds a better team.

So it's all about the readiness of the force, the defense of the Constitution, the defense of the American people, and we want to present the absolute best military in the world, bar none. And we do that through a merit-based system and through a system that promotes also a diverse, interactive team that is exceptionally strong, and stronger together, rather than separately. And that's really the fundamental theme for today.

The second point I'd like to just make in opening comments, and the secretary mentioned it, we are in challenging times. There's a lot of things going on. We've got COVID happening here. We've got wildfires. We've got a lot of issues here in the continental United States. And then overseas we've got, you know, China and Russia and Iran and North Korea and the Middle East and Afghanistan and Iraq and so on and so forth. We, the military, have been and will continue to be an incredible steadying force through all of the various challenges.

And my last point is we are, right now, in the midst of a general election, and each of you have earned your right to vote. So I would strongly encourage that everyone exercise their right to vote when the time comes and use the rights that have been granted to you in the Constitution, and remain faithful to that document called the U.S. Constitution.

So thanks, Secretary, for the opportunity to be here and I look forward to the discussion.

STAFF: Turn now to the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman.

SENIOR ENLISTED ADVISOR TO THE CHAIRMAN RAMON COLON-LOPEZ: Thank you, sir, thank you, Chairman, and thank you, Mr. Secretary.

You know, echoing both the SecDef and the chairman's comments, you know, we want to thank you for your continued support and resiliency during these tough times that we have been facing. But most importantly, your commitment to the defense of the nation and support to the Constitution.

And in appreciation, the least that we can do is we want each of you to rest assured that we're going to do everything in our power to ensure that your needs are met for the military members to keep you focused on the mission, and for the family members to know that your welfare is first and foremost in our minds, to ensure that we're doing everything possible.

As an avenue to get to that point, we remain committed to hearing your voice. And just as an example, your comments during COVID, during the pandemic helped us shape policies and benefits for people.

And now, most recently since my public service announcement in August regarding the diversity and inclusion, we have received over 70,000 comments from the force to be able to go ahead and implement better policies and make sure that we are accounting for actions of people that do not believe in diversity and inclusion. And most importantly, to keep making sure that everybody's engaged and has equal opportunity to do what the department is designed to do.

So with that, Mr. Secretary, I would like to just go ahead and open the floor for questions.

STAFF: Yeah, well let's get right into it. The first question this afternoon was submitted via Twitter by Dr. M. Crenshaw of northern Virginia. She writes, quote, "What programs and policies will be implemented to reflect diversity and inclusion? What is the pedigree behind this effort?" End quote.

I'll turn this first question over to the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman, who serves on the department's new Diversity and Inclusion Board.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: Thank you, sir.

And thank you, Dr. Crenshaw. And one of the main things that we're doing is, first and foremost, coordinating with the services to ensure that we are adopting similar policies across the board, because that continuity and similarity is really going to be our champion.

So as an effort, we have evaluated policies and offer over 34 recommendations from the services. Additionally, RAND surveyed the industry and academia for best practices, looking outside of the department.

And third, Office of the Secretary of Defense reviewed over 83 past reports and studies, dating back to 1942. And the purpose for doing that is to find the common themes, not only to identify the problem but also to identify the future, our progress, and where we need to be.

So with that, we're going to make sure that we exploit every opportunity to ensure opportunity, accountability and respect for all members and their families in the Department of Defense.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, would you like to weigh in and update our audience on what progress has been made on diversity and inclusion since our last town hall in July?

SEC. ESPER: Sure, absolutely. First of all, I want to thank the SEAC because I think he gave some good detail on parts of the process that he's intimately involved in.

I will tell you with regard to the macro perspective, as I said upfront, we have moved forward on that initial action, which was to find those quick action items we can implement now, now being the next 30 to 60 days. So there were nine today, four have been implemented and the remaining five are pending. I get briefed on this weekly, and I'm happy with the progress that we're making.

The second is the Defense Board that is being led by Secretary of the Air Force Barrett. It is joined by the SEAC and many others. It's represented or includes representatives of all races and ethnicities, but also of all ranks so that we want to make sure that there's ownership down throughout the ranks as folks progress through their career.

Anyways, earlier this week they briefed me. We have 16 recommendations pending. They are being fine-tuned and I'm confident that they are making good progress on that front as well. Again, I get updated frequently on this matter.

And then on the third, in terms of standing up the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Again, good progress there as well. It's made its way through the various processes, if you will, to be federally announced. I'm confident that it'll be stood up by December 1st, and it'll be well represented.

Of course, it'll be an independent board and it will really be the long-term sustaining effort that will ensure that this is not a short-term item for the department and we move on to something else. This will be a long-term, sustained effort, much like the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services has been for what, now over 70 years I think, since the 1950s.

So I really have a lot of confidence that this advisory committee will give us the long-haul strength, endurance, outside perspective, all those things we need to keep the pressure on, to get to that state where we fully embrace diversity and inclusion and there's equal opportunity for all.

STAFF: Our second question today was submitted by senior airman Maya Maishel. Let's roll her question.

QUESTION: Hi, I'm Senior Airman Maya Maishel, personalist at the 133rd Airlift Wing. Today, my question for you is, civilian corporations are able to seamlessly integrate technology into their day-to-day operations. Are there plans to build and maintain more stable and current technology solutions like our civilian counterparts? If so, when can we expect to see them?

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, I know this is a top priority for the department, so I'll turn her question over to you.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, thanks, Maya. It's a very good question, and I think about this two ways. One is with regard to technologies that we are advancing to ensure that we achieve line of effort, number one, which is make sure we have the most lethal military possible. And I will tell you, we are putting billions of dollars into advanced technologies such as A.I. and hypersonics, directed energy, space, 5G, quantum science.

And I think in those areas, we are leading. We are world-class, we work in close partnership with the private sector, and so I'm very confident in what we're doing there.

I think where Maya was going though, is more in terms of individual users' technology or business systems. I think we have a lot of work to do on that front. It's still not where I want it to be. We need to catch up to where the commercial sector is, the private sector when it comes to business systems, I.T. systems and the like.

I met just last week in California with a group of small and mid-size company leaders. We talked about some of these solutions. I met with another small innovative company, we talked about solutions along those same lines. But we got work to do.

Now, I have seen bright spots in the past year. So for example, the Air Force, I'm sorry, Northern Command made very good use of its ABMS and JADC2, if you will, to collect real-time data from our service members; Guard, Reserve and active, who were deployed during the COVID crisis, to understand occupancy rates of hospital beds, the presence of patients, other data, very good use of it on that front.

I've seen very good use within the Pentagon in the last several weeks of Advana, which is a business software that allows us to draw data, real-time data, directly from our systems and not have people going through the process of building PowerPoint charts, so my aim is to get away from PowerPoint charts.

And then I've also seen it in other areas, whether it's people at bases I visited in the past couple years, were able to do maintenance requests through an online app that will track the time and date by which the actual maintenance worker will arrive at their home to do that.

So I see progress, it's not fast enough, we need to do better. And I want to move as quickly as the private sector. Of course, there are issues of scale there that the private sector doesn't have, but that is my ambition as well and I hope we can do exactly what I think Maya's asking about.

STAFF: I know getting away from PowerPoint would make some people very happy. This third question comes from Facebook user Joe Vitt. He asks, quote, "can DOD not leave COVID-19 response up to local commanders? Guidance is one thing but an official policy by base commanders is another, as it leads to misinterpretation of protocols and requirements."

Mr. Vitt, I truncated your question there but I think I captured the crux of it and I'll turn it over to the nation's highest ranking military officer to answer, General Milley.

GEN. MILLEY: Well, Joe one of the principles that we've all grown up with is mission command, if you will. A commander's intent is another way of putting that. And what that implies is you have centralized planning and decentralized execution and that's what we've attempted to do and we have a wide variety of memos, guidance, policies that have been promulgated by DOD and the services and they go eventually down for execution to local base commanders and local commanders for decentralized execution. And each of those commanders then is required to actually execute and implement those policies and guides that are coming from the Secretary.

So they do that through their own policies and orders and local regulations, et cetera, which is appropriate. That's the way the military operates. So I think that is an appropriate way of doing it. We have issued a considerable amount of guidance and policies out of the Department of Defense.

At last count, I'm tracking 13 force health protection policy memos. There's been 60 memos totally written, maybe there's too many of these things coming out, but the bottom line is I don't think that we are abdicating our responsibility to set policy and have it de-centrally executed at the local level.

I think that's the appropriate way to go about doing things and I think that entrusts our commanders with execution, implementation of policy, which I think is appropriate.

STAFF: The next question this morning comes from Lucinda Martinez, who asked on Facebook, quote, "please speak to the freedom and protection of religious liberty for our service members. Will the chaplaincy remain a vital part of the U.S. military? Will partnering and cooperation with the civilian religious community near bases be encouraged in the coming days?"

Ms. Martinez , yours is a policy question for the department so I'll turn it over to the Secretary of Defense to return.

SEC. ESPER: That's a very good question from Lucinda, so thank you. Look, we all have the right under the Constitution to freedom of religion and you certainly don't surrender that right when you join the military. In fact, it's something that's very important to many military service members.

We've all sworn an oath, both certainly the military personnel in the department and civilians too, and I've sworn that oath nearly a dozen times, to support and defend the Constitution and we're fully committed to that. And that includes all of the rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.

So the freedom of religion is very important. We need to make sure that all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines understand what their rights are, the freedom to exercise them. This summer, we've undergone a process where we're educating our commanders, our JAG Corps, our chaplains, if you will, in terms of what those rights are and how to make sure that we meet them, if you will, and so that every service member can exercise their right to practice their faith, whatever faith that is, or to not exercise that right and we need to do our very best, as appropriate, to accommodate to make that happen.

And II still recall nearly 30 some years ago, if you will, as a young lieutenant going through Ranger School on a Sunday, we would pause and we would have religious services for those who wanted to participate.

So it's enabling those types of things for folks to practice their faith, which is very important. We just also put out a new policy, fully consistent with laws that have been passed over the last several years, that outlines what those rights are for freedom of religion, religious liberty, strengthen some, if you will, so that all service members again have that right.

Last thing I'll say is I've always found that during my time in the military, chaplains to be a great resource to commanders, to the chain of command and to, of course, the service members, as well. So I believe strongly in the importance of the chaplain corps and to the degree that engaging with faith providers off-base strengthens the faith community on base, it would be something that I of course I would support.

I think, again, it's something that all members of the military have, is that freedom of religion, and the other rights, if you will, embedded in the Constitution that we have all, again, sworn an oath about, to protect and defend.

STAFF: Let's turn again to a video so our principals can hear directly from you. This next video is from Sergeant Major Champ who works for the -MEDCOM G3/5/7. Let's roll her tape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Afternoon or good morning, depending on your time zone. This is Sergeant Major Champ and I work in the MEDCOM G3/5/7. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to ask questions. My question that I have for you, has there been any kind of survey done on the perceived level of racism or racial discrimination in the Army between different racial groups and different categories like enlisted versus officer?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STAFF: SEAC Colon-Lopez, I'll put the Sergeant Major's question to you.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: Well, absolutely and thank you for the question, Sergeant Major Champ and it's really important that we understand exactly what we're doing with the data that we currently have on the history of the department and where we're trying to go.

So first of all, it's t the perceived comment of your question. We're really looking into the facts of what has happened over the years and then we're looking at each group separately just to make sure that we have a good sense of what's happening in the enlisted force and in the officer force. But, like I previously mentioned, we have to look back at studies, all the way back to the 1940s, just to make sure that we do not get this wrong.

And at the end of the day, we need to first define what those problems are, whether it's racism, discrimination, bias or other forms that actually segregates a specific group of people based on the unlikeliness to the other group that they're being addressed by.

And then we're going to go ahead and take that information here soon, like the Secretary mentioned by 1 December we're going to have some changes implemented to see if we need to rewrite policy, to see if we need to better identify what is being done by the department, what else we need to put out there so commanders can make those decisions and account for people that deviate from the expected behavior.

But I hope that that answers your question.

STAFF: This next question came from Facebook and is from Scott Wortius of Jacksonville, Florida. His question centers on the budget. He wrote, quote, "Do you foresee any financial impacts to military funding in the next fiscal year due to the current and any subsequent COVID stimulus packages being proposed by Congress? The Navy cannot afford any more cuts to maintenance or similar sequestration-esque cuts."

Mr. Secretary, I know you've spoken frequently on budget pressures and the impact they have on how the department fulfills the National Defense Strategy so I'll turn this to you, sir.

SEC. ESPER: That's a very good question and he makes very good points there and as you said, I've spoken a lot about this. We pay a good deal of attention to it. Let me just give a little bit of history first of all. I will tell you over the past three years, we've gotten incredible support for our budget increases under this administration, which have really helped us restore readiness, helped us make those important modernization investments, helped us take care of our families and, bottom line, helped us implement the National Defense Strategy.

So I believe that needs to continue. That needs to be continued is what I've said, an annual growth rate of three to five percent. If we're going to implement the National Defense Strategy, which means making all those investments in readiness, modernization in our force, in our families and education, all those things that are very important, but also more specifically, if we're going to compete with the People's Republic of China over the coming years. So we need to see that continued growth.

We also cannot afford to see a return to sequestration. I think there's bipartisan agreement that sequestration did harm to the military, that it took years, and is still taking us time to dig out of. But it's also aggravated by continuing resolutions which prohibit us from making new starts on programs or other investments that kind of delay our funding. And so I've constantly urged Congress that what I need from Congress is a predictable, adequate, sustained and timely budget. That means by October 1st of each year we can see our budget, and we can count on that happening because otherwise, I lose spending power. DOD loses spending power.

Now, I say all that realizing, of course, that we likely will have a continuing resolution here in a week, and also recognizing that the country has spent trillions of dollars, if you will, to deal with the COVID crisis, and it was important to do that to address the pandemic, to keep the economy afloat, to help many Americans who were suffering, and still are, in many cases. It adds additional fiscal pressure to the country, and we need to deal with the fiscal situation the United States faces. But I don't think you pay for that on the back of DOD. I think economic security and national security go hand-in-hand, and we need to make sure we continue those investments in our defense budget to make sure that the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, Marine Corps or whatever doesn't face budget shortfalls that leaves us in a bind.

That also means that we have a responsibility under line of effort number three to reform and to free up money and manpower to do the right things. We need to get an audit accomplished. We need to be better stewards of the taxpayers' dollars, and that's something we in DOD as a leadership have approached very seriously and feel strongly about doing our share, when it comes to fiscal management.

STAFF: We received hundreds of questions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for our principles today. And yes, we do read your comments. One of the more thought-provoking was, quote, "What would the consequences of diversity and inclusion have on the DOD's ability to serve and protect the values of the Constitution?" Mr. Chairman, I'll turn this question over you, sir.

GEN. MILLEY: Well, the whole purpose of the military, the uniformed military, is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. So we're committed to do that. And how do you do that? You do that through an exceptionally strong military that has extraordinary capabilities and capacity.

So the issue of diversity is about the readiness, the capability, the capacity of the U.S. military in order to defend the Constitution, and it's my belief, and it's been the belief of our country from the very beginning, "E pluribus unum," back to my opening comment- "From the many come one." We are stronger together. Think of it as a strong rope with many strands all coming together to create strength. Think of the Joint Force. So the Army is better with the Air Force, when the Air Force is better with the Navy and the Army and the Marines, and the Marines are better with the Navy. So we're all better together.

And the truth of diversity and inclusion is also the same. In general, you get better solutions when you have diverse opinions, diverse backgrounds coming together to focus on a single problem. So put young people with old people. Put folks who are from various backgrounds, infantry and armor and Navy and Marines, but also, people who come from diverse backgrounds, urban and rural, black and white, Asian and Indian, and all kinds of different viewpoints come to solve a problem together. And generally speaking, you get a better solution at the end of it when you use the techniques of diversity and inclusion.

So it's not just diversity for diversity's sake; it's diversity to improve the system, improve the military, improve our problem-solving capabilities and improve our warfighting readiness in order to protect and defend the Constitution. And that's why it's so important, so fundamental, that we have this as one of our elements as we move forward to continue to develop the Joint Force.

STAFF: For this town hall, we received more video questions than ever, so I want to quickly thank those of you who took the time to record and send in your thoughts. This next video is from Petty Officer Third Class Ikenna Tanaka, who serves aboard the USS Stennis. Let's roll his video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Petty Officer Third Class Ikenna Tanaka, stationed on the USS John C. Stennis in Norfolk, Virginia, and I have a COVID-related question for you. Do you see the restrictions for military personnel being loosened in the foreseeable future?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STAFF: I'm going to turn PO3 Tanaka's question over to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs again.

GEN. MILLEY: Well, the short answer is yes, at some point in the future these restrictions will be lifted. But for right now, and you said ‘the foreseeable future,’ for right now, it's conditions-based, and it depends on where you are, what the situation is at your local camp, post, station, ship, et cetera. But we have to be mindful that the number one priority is the health and safety of the force writ large. So we know, we know factually that masks work. We know that social distancing works. We know that proper sanitation and hygiene and washing of hands, we know those things work, so we're going to continue to do those.

In the meantime, we're also developing a vaccine. You've heard about Operation Warp Speed. That is on the fast track. I fully expect that we're going to have successful, safe and effective vaccines in the near-term. I don't know what that means in terms of exact numbers, but sometime in the fall and towards the end of the year you're going to see vaccines rolling out that will be administered to various parts of the population and the military. The numbers will increase as we get into the winter and the spring. You've heard, probably, the CDC and other officials talk about that.

So you've got the vaccine out there, and that'll eventually be a great solution, and it will defeat the COVID virus over time. But in the meantime, we're going to have to maintain our restrictions that we have and continue to enforce the self-discipline that we use for masks and hygiene and social distancing and so on and so forth. And it's all very, very locally-dependent. It depends on where exactly you are, and the commanders will make those calls.

STAFF: This next question is along the same lines, and comes via Twitter from Aaron Halverson. He writes, quote, "When will there be an official memorandum put out to the force and to senior leaders about travel restrictions lifted for PCS travel, and back to usual business?" Mr. Secretary, I'll pose Aaron's question to you, sir.

SEC. ESPER: Sure. This is a good question to have back-to-back with the question that the chairman just received. So let me go back again and say that we've issued over a dozen force health protection memos now since late January when we first began this in mid-January, and they have proven very successful in terms of providing that centralized guidance and direction, while allowing for decentralized execution, if you will, based on local conditions.

So one that we sent out several months ago, in fact in May of this year, spoke to the issue of PCS travel, and what we said is, based on local or base-specific conditions and the local state-level conditions of where a person is located, and based on the installation conditions and the local and state conditions of where they are going, if both are what we call “green”, right, in terms of COVID rates being very low and, we believe, suitable for travel, then there are no restrictions with regard to PCS moves associated with COVID.

However, if one of those two sites does have an issue that we would call either "yellow" or "red," if you will, then there are restrictions on PCS travel. Now, that means there's always room for exceptions and waivers and we've allowed commanders to issue exceptions of waivers going back to the early days, but we're going to continue that kind of conditions-based approach as we move forward.

And by the way, we see conditions changing across the country all the time, and so you will see, in some cases, condition levels going up or going down based on what they see, again at the local installation and the capabilities they have at that installation, and then what's happening in the state in which they are located. Or if they're overseas, if they're OCONUS, what's happening in the country in which they are located.

So that'll continue to be the basis until we get to the point where we have a vaccine and enough people are vaccinated that we can fully loosen up and then get back to, again, normal or near-new normal.

STAFF: Our next question came from Twitter, and was posted by Orlando Cabrera. He asks, quote, "Sir, have you considered keeping the officer promotion photos? In my vision, the board would be required to see all the selectees as a group. If the group is too male or too white, consider re-screening. Thank you, sir. Very respectfully, Commander Cabrera, USN."

Mr. Cabrera must be the most polite person on Twitter, signing with full military courtesy.

I'll turn this question over to the chairman to answer.

GEN. MILLEY: Well, Commander, each of the service secretaries and service chiefs have weighed in on this particular topic. And all the services have decided, and they're either executing right now or are soon to implement the removal of photos, and not only just photos, but all other indicators of personal identity and characteristics, and any of the files as you go before a promotion board.

Again, this goes back to the comment about we are the world's biggest meritocracy, and we take great pride in that. And certainly we have areas to improve in, but on balance, we recognize that knowledge, skills, attributes, and the content of your character are what should advance you through the system, not any particular personal identity characteristics.

So to do that, we have to essentially sterilize the board files without any identifying characteristics so that you're removing unconscious and conscious bias from the system, that's the idea behind it.

All the service secretaries think this is the way to go, they made recommendations to the secretary of defense and those actions are being implemented as we speak, and I fully support them. I think it's a good way to go and I think the results will be telling in the future.

And we'll still be able to determine diversity through statistics et cetera, but the actual promotion of a given file, I think that should be done in a very neutral way, and based on merit.

STAFF: Here's another Navy question, but I suspect it applies across the services. Eric Rick of Mount Clemens, Virginia, writes, "Is there a chance to consolidate all DOD e-learning onto one website? The Navy alone uses at least five Navy e-learning, ESAMS, ECATS, TWMS and JKO. This seems a huge waste of I.T. resources, plus the administrative distraction that comes with so many additional accounts."

Mr. Rick, I'm going to turn your question on e-learning over to the SEAC to answer.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: Thank you there, Chief Rick and I appreciate your question. And yeah, the first thing that I will say is that there's too many acronyms in there to understand what the systems are, and I can appreciate the frustration.

But first, I have to say for Navy-specific training, that is a Title 10 responsibility- man, train and equip, which belongs to the master chief petty officer of the Navy. But I want to assure you that I will go ahead and discuss this with him here shortly after we conclude this session.

But on the joint side, we have our chief management officer right now conducting an initiative to consolidate all joint training initiatives in JKO. So as we progress with that, we're going to capture the lessons learned from it, what worked, what didn't. And then we can share that with the services to adopt like systems, to be able to get after that.

But in the meantime, I will make sure that I get your question over to the master chief petty officer of the Navy to address. Thank you.

STAFF: We received this next video from Master Sergeant Tom Wheeler of Task Force Spartan. Let's roll his question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: I'm Master Sergeant Tom Wheeler with the 42nd Infantry Division and Task Force Spartan. With the recent drawdown in forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd like to know how that affects future deployments for the Guard and Reserves.

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STAFF: Mr. Secretary, can you tell us what Guard and Reserves members might expect in the future?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I think what you'll see as we draw down forces, that the Guard and Reserve will still be active participants in any deployments we are doing.

I will tell you when I entered the military in the '80s and certainly in the early '90s, the Guard and Reserve, the Guard was a strategic reserve, if you will. And then over time, moved to be an operational reserve and now is an integral part of the operational force, and have proved themselves, again both the Guard and Reserve, amazingly well.

As you know, as others may know, I served in all three components- active, Guard and Reserve. So I understand what each brings to the table, and what that means for the force. It gets to the diversity issue we talked about later at a personal level, but you also get diversity at a unit level, at a component level in this case.

So I think as we draw down in various locations, you will see proportionate drawdowns as well. But that doesn't mean as we deploy that you won't see the Guard and Reserve deploying. I think we will continue to see the Guard and Reserve deploying along with the active components. That will be part and parcel, I think, of the strategy going forward.

But something unique about both the Guard and Reserve that we have to always remain conscious of, something that I was when I served in those components, is the impact on employers.

And so as I go around and speak to Guardsmen and Reservists, I always ask that question, "How are your employers holding up? How are you holding up in terms of managing both your responsibilities in uniform and your responsibilities out of uniform?" And we want to make sure we address all those issues as we continue on implementing the strategy we're on and what that means in terms of deployments.

STAFF: The next question comes from Marianne Olivia Downs of Virginia. She asks, quote, "Why hasn't the department more widely publicized or made the policy and implementation guidance more clear for DOD components regarding the availability for civilians to utilize emergency paid sick leave for dependent care due to school and daycare closures under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and Families First Coronavirus Relief Act?"

Mr. Secretary, I'll turn her question over to you.

SEC. ESPER: Sure, it's a good question, and I think we should continue to try and get the word out. You know, those laws were passed earlier this year, I think it was put out by DOD in April, it was publicized, so we put it across the force, across the department. Civilian supervisors are aware of this, but we could always do better to make sure everybody is aware.

In fact, what I'm going to do is ask for my chief of public affairs to put out, in the next 24 hours or so, on social media, an update as to where we are and what those various benefits are so that more people know, because it's very important that we make sure that's all available to our civilian employees in addition to our military service members as well, and that they have what they need to make sure that we can accomplish our mission.

STAFF: Our last question today is a video submitted by ABH2 Heinz, who is aboard the CVN-78, the Gerald Ford. Let's roll her question.

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QUESTION: My question is in regards to how we are all handling the social distancing due to the COVID-19. This instruction has taken a huge toll on many sailors. Their morale has plummeted, but most importantly, their mental health, as well. Fast-cruising seven to 14 days and then immediately going to an underway for two and a half to three weeks can really do some damage, and it most certainly has, especially to our junior sailors who have not fully adapted to this lifestyle. What does the Navy plan to do to help raise and maintain the morale across the fleet?

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STAFF: I'll turn this final question today to the secretary of defense to comment on ABH2 Heinz's message. Sir?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. Well, you know, I've a good deal of time with the Navy recently to talk about, you know, the deployments of ships, how we're making sure they're clean of COVID. So I've been from Kings Bay, Georgia, where I visit with our submarine fleet down there. I was on the USS Essex out in the Pacific about four weeks ago, and then just last week, I was on the Carl Vinson with our sailors out on in the Eastern Pacific, right off the coast of California. And each time I'm briefed, in terms what the Navy is doing, I think the priorities are in the right place, fully consistent with what we've put out, and that is, take care of our people first.

So whether it's pre-deployment COVID testing, entering into a 14-day ROM period after which you test again, and then you go onboard the ship. And then onboard ship for many cases, at a minimum of 30 days, if not for the entire cruise, folks are keeping their masks on and doing social distancing the best they can. And it is tedious. I understand that, but I think it's showing, in terms of the Navy's results in terms of infection rates, that they're doing a very good job.

And so I also know that they're taking heed to what they see with regard to morale, keeping spirits up, and I have confidence that the Navy leadership will do the right thing.

I also get a good sense from all the sailors I talked to in these past eight weeks alone that they're really glad to be getting back to sea and doing their jobs. So many people tell me, look, they joined the Navy to operate on the high seas, to do their mission, to ensure freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce, to launch jets off of carriers, to shoot standard missiles off of ships, all of which I've had the chance to see and experience with the Navy out there.

So they're doing a great job. I commend the Navy, but I think it is important, as the sailor says, that not just the Navy leadership, but the leadership of all the services pay careful attention these days to the impacts of COVID and the policies and conditions we've placed on everybody to keep them safe, that at the same time, we're conscious of what the impact it has on morale. And then not just for our service members, but for the families also, and that's a message I will continue to reinforce with the leadership team here at the Pentagon.

STAFF: We're going to close today with some final remarks from each of our principles. Let's begin with the SEAC.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: No, again, Mr. Secretary, Chairman, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today addressing our troops and our families. But I would just like to go back to 1968 at a time to where the Department of Defense was in a really, really tough spot regarding racial issues. And if we remember, back in 1968, we had something called "the times of troubles," to where we had over 300 racial incidents across the Department of Defense, including 71 killings inside bases because of racial issues, and also, in 1972, two aircraft carriers that were brought to a halt because of racial incidents.

We have learned quite a bit since those days, and whatever we do today, whatever actions we take, we cannot regress back to that. We're better than that. We have respect for each other, and we need to start enjoying the same freedoms of the people whom we have sworn to protect. So let's take care of one another. Let's continue the march towards progress. We owe it to each other, and we owe it to generations to come.

STAFF: General Milley?

GEN. MILLEY: So what I would just close with is thanking the entire force for what you do out there every single day to support and defend this great Constitution, the idea that's America. And it's remarkable. We have an amazing military whether it's overseas or here in the continental United States, whether it's active duty, Reserve, Guard, it's a phenomenal organization.

And it's phenomenal because we're standards-based, we're merit-based, we are inclusive, we take advantage of the diversity of the force and we have an extraordinarily talented force. So thanks to every single one of you for what you're doing every single day.

Lastly, I would just say, we didn't mention it in the session today, but it is National Suicide Prevention Month, and I'd ask that every one of us take care of each other. We are in fact our brothers' and sisters' keeper.

If you see the signs or indications, as one of the questions indicated about some mental health and some morale issues, et cetera, if you see those signs and symptoms, please intervene. There's no shame in that, take away the stigma. It's a very, very important thing and there but for the grace of God go I, so any one of us is susceptible to the pressures and the stresses that can lead someone to believe that that's an alternative to solving your problems.

So please, keep that in mind and take care of each other every single day. Stay apolitical and keep the Constitution close to your heart. Thanks for what you're doing.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary?

SEC. ESPER: I want to thank the force once again for everybody's efforts, pulling together to help us implement the National Defense Strategy, to help us provide support to civilian authorities, to help us to do all the many tasks that we have, and I think it goes back to the basics of our training and discipline, but also our vow to support and defend the Constitution, and I urge everybody to keep that in mind in everything you do.

2020 has been a historic year for the United States military. In my 30-plus years in and around DOD, I can't recall another year like that. We have forces engaged around the world, we have forces engaged here in the United States.

All components active, Guard and Reserves, doing everything from standing guard watch abroad on the DMZ in South Korea and North Korea, to helping our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world, to sailing the high seas or patrolling the skies above Alaska or above in the Arctic Circle.

At the same time, as I said earlier, we see our forces also here at home, delivering supplies, helping with COVID-19, providing support to civilian authorities, fighting wildfires and assisting with floods and hurricanes. It's just been a very challenging year, but I'm very, very proud of how everybody has stood up and really pulled together and helped us deal with all this while in the midst of a pandemic.

And again, I think our numbers show the results of the guidance we've put out, they've showed the leadership of our commanders and our NCOs and our service members in terms of following that guidance and keeping the entire force safe while performing all these various missions, it's truly a great accomplishment. I think it will go down in history as one of the legacy moments for this department, for this military.

And I'm just very proud of everybody and I will tell you, I know times are challenging, they're difficult. But please, keep an eye on one another, take care of one another whether it's concerns about early signs of COVID or if you think that somebody may have mental health challenges. Keep in mind suicide prevention and things like that.

But we will get through this. There will be a better day ahead, and we will get back to as normal as possible in due course. But in the meantime, stay steady, stay fixed, do your job, focus on all those things and we'll get through this well. So thank you all very much.

STAFF: Thank you, sir.

To our online viewers on behalf of the Department of Defense, thank you for tuning in and thank you for your thought-provoking questions and videos. That concludes our virtual town hall for today, Thursday, September 24th, 2020.