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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta January 26, 2012

Remarks by Secretary of Defense Panetta at the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, Texas

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thanks, Silver (sp), for that great, warm introduction. I really appreciate it. And I really appreciate the invitation to be able to come down to Fort Bliss and to be here this evening. I really feel honored in a number of ways.

First of all, I’m honored to be here in El Paso and to have a chance earlier to visit Fort Bliss because -- let me be clear -- Fort Bliss is the premier post in America. (Applause.) You are home to the 1st Armored Division. You’ve got a great division commander in Major General Dana Pittard, a native of El Paso. (Applause.) Military population approaching almost 32,000 soldiers, 35,000 family members, 3rd BCT of the 1st Armored is deployed as we speak to east Afghanistan, which is one of the tougher areas in Afghanistan. You have a tremendous expansion here, almost $4.9, close to $5 billion worth of program construction. You’re committed to energy conservation, renewable energy. It’s a wonderful effort that’s going on here. And for all those reasons, this is, as I said, the premier military post. And so I’m honored to be here.

Second, I’m honored to have had the opportunity to visit with the troops and the families. These are the individuals who put themselves on the line for this country, men and women who are most dedicated individuals that I’ve had the honor to meet. One of the things I do as secretary is I make it a point to go over to Bethesda and visit with the wounded warriors that are there.

And I have to tell you -- I mean, obviously, I’ve seen the dedication. I’ve seen the commitment. But I look at these wounded warriors who in some cases have suffered horrendous wounds as a result of these damned IEDs. And they are there and they look at me and basically say, Mr. Secretary, I want to get back to duty. I want to get back to duty. I want to continue to serve. I’m going to get out of here and I am going to be back in the service of this country.

That kind of spirit is what I have seen in the men and women who serve this country. We are as a country honored to have these individuals be able to give something back to this country. I want you to pay tribute to all the men and women in uniform that serve this great nation of ours. (Applause.)

I want to thank the people here at El Paso and also the surrounding communities in New Mexico and the other areas that provide support for this military installation. I know what it means to have a community that is devoted to the military and be there. Your dedication, your commitment, your service, your patriotism is incredibly important to the military and to this post. And it’s incredibly important to me to have communities like this dedicated to ensuring that we can do everything possible to try to keep this country safe.

And I’m pleased to be here because I am, as I mentioned today, the son of immigrants and the son of a family that came to this country, like millions of others, and were willing to take all the chances that went with coming here: no money, no language skills, no abilities, but they traveled thousands of miles in order to come here.

My father was the 13th in his family. And he had brothers that came here to this country ahead of him. His older brother settled -- one of his older brothers settled up in Sheridan, Wyoming, and he had another brother who settled in California. And when my mother finally came over -- (inaudible) -- it’s important that you visit your older brother -- (inaudible) -- and so they went to Wyoming and spent one winter in Wyoming. And my mother said, it’s time to visit your other brother in California. (Laughter.) And, thank God, we ultimately wound up in Monterey, California.

My father originally -- (inaudible) -- opened a restaurant in downtown Monterey. My earliest recollection was washing glasses in that restaurant. And my parents believed that child labor was a requirement in my family. (Laughter.) And then, after that bought a farm in Carmel Valley and planted a walnut orchard. And, again, I worked very hard in that walnut orchard.

I remember when I got elected to Congress -- (inaudible) -- for those of you that are familiar with when you have walnuts -- (inaudible) -- tree and shake the whole damned tree and that’s how you get the walnuts. But in those days my father went around with a -- (inaudible) -- and hook and basically shook each of the branches. And my brother and I used to be underneath picking up the walnuts. When I got elected to Congress, my father said, you know, you’ve been well trained to go to Washington because you’ve been dodging the nuts all your life. (Laughter.) It’s true. (Laughter.)

The opportunity to have been raised and understand the work ethic, but also more importantly my parents wanted to make clear that most -- the real reason they came here was because they wanted to give their children a better life. And that is the American dream. That’s what we want for our children and ultimately hope that our children will want for their children. And that is the American dream. And that’s what keeps, I think, all of us committed to doing what we do.

And I want to say in particular how honored I am to be here with Congressman Reyes. Silver has been a close friend, as he pointed out. He was a great ally when I was director of the CIA. That was -- it’s not an easy job. It’s a tough job. And we were obviously confronting an enemy that had attacked this country and we were going after him with everything we had. And as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, he was tremendously supportive of everything we were doing. And I really appreciate that.

And in particular when we were doing the operation that went after bin Laden, which was a tough operation. It was very risky. We did not have clear evidence that in fact it was bin Laden. We had a lot of factors that pointed out that it was a good chance that he was there and his family was there, but we never really identified. So it was a risk. Not only was it risky on that basis, it was risky when you have to do an operation that has our Special Forces going in 150 miles into a country and conduct that operation. So there were a lot of risks involved. And the president and everyone else made a very courageous decision to do it. And this guy agreed with that decision and I appreciate that support for that raid because the result of that is that we brought this guy to justice and I -- (inaudible). (Applause.)

And, obviously, I also appreciate his support now in this new job for the great support that he provides our troops.

I recognize that the last few years have been a period of rapid growth and transition for Fort Bliss, and, for that matter, for the entire El Paso community. There are thousands of newcomers that have arrived as a result of the 1st Armored Division being relocated here from Germany. Meanwhile, more than 200,000 soldiers have deployed through Fort Bliss since 9/11.

And I know that none of that could really have happened without the support of the good people of El Paso, the people that are here in this room and businesspeople, community, small-business people, people that are associated with the various industry that support our defense establishment. You have been remarkable in showing great strength and inspiration in order to support the men and women in uniform in this area. And I thank you for that.

You’ve done -- our military has done everything we’ve asked them to do, and this community has done everything you can to try to ensure that they could do that -- that they could fulfill their mission. Every troop stationed here also have a mission closer to home. Tomorrow I’ll have a chance to visit with the Joint Task Force North at Biggs Army Airfield and I’ll be looking at efforts involving our border security that are so important to ensure the free flow of commerce.

All told, there was a tremendous amount of important work that is going on in this region that relates to the national defense of this country. And there’s no doubt that these military installations -- places like Fort Bliss -- play an extremely important role in the economy of this area. And I understand that.

In Congress -- when I was in Congress, I represented, as I said, the Monterey area. We were the home to Fort Ord, which was the home of the 7th Infantry Division. We had the Navy Postgraduate School, the Defense Language Institute. And I know how important these installations are to a community. Military installations in my area represent 25 percent of the economy in that area. We’re really depending on it. And so I understand how important it is. Fort Bliss is important to this community.

But let me say something else: this community is important to Fort Bliss. And, for that matter, you’re important to the entire United States military. Your support ensures that our troops can succeed in their mission, they can do what they have to do to protect us and to protect the safety of this country.

Here in El Paso, as the population of Fort Bliss has grown, it has put pressure by the community and local schools, on infrastructure, on housing. I understand that. Our warriors may have deployed but their spouses and their children have remained here in need of your support. This community in particular and this chamber of commerce have stepped up to the plate. And I want to again thank you on behalf of the Department of Defense for all of your efforts to make sure that those serving their nation feel welcome and feel very much a part of this community.

Now, as civic leaders and as strong supporters of our military, I’d like to offer you just a brief perspective on the challenges ahead for our nation and also some thoughts on what will be needed of all of you again as a community in the years ahead.

The United States in many ways is at an historic turning point after a decade of war. The U.S. military mission in Iraq has now ended. We see continued progress in Afghanistan. It remains challenging, but we have begun to enable a transition to the Afghan government and the Afghan security force that has to ultimately assume responsibility for their country. Just as Iraq has to assume responsibility for the governance and security of Iraq -- with our help, with our assistance, with our support -- Afghanistan has to do the same thing.

(Inaudible) -- in Libya, which is a complicated effort by a number of nations. I’m -- (inaudible) -- quite sure whether that mission really has come together, but the reality was that it did. I visited the operation center in Naples to see how that came together and it was incredible to watch how they put together targets and then deployed different countries to send their air force in to hit those targets. It was an amazing example of the coordination and cooperation among a number of nations going after key targets there. And as a result of that, Gadhafi fell and the Libyan people now have Libya to themselves to be able to fashion, hopefully, a direction for that country in the future.

And the targeted operations that I talked about have significantly weakened al Qaeda and decimated its leadership. The reality is we have weakened them to the point that they really cannot put together the command and control operation to develop the kind of plans that they did when it came to 9/11. We have weakened them and we need to continue to put pressure on them, whether they’re in Pakistan, whether they’re in Yemen, whether they’re in Somalia, whether they’re in North Africa.

So we are at an historic turning point. And exactly at this point in time, as we come to the end of a decade of war, this country is facing a serious debt deficit problem that is putting pressure on defense spending after a decade of very substantial growth. You saw the headlines -- some of you may have seen the headlines in USA Today just this last week. We’ve now reached the point where the debt in this country is equal to the GDP -- $15 trillion. And we’re running deficits in excess of $1 trillion. (Inaudible) -- threat to national security, the national debt of this country is one of the great threats to the security of the United States.

So, as these events are occurring, it is important to confront that issue. Congress mandated legislation this last year: the Department of Defense had to achieve $487 billion in savings over the next 10 years. I, as someone who worked on budget issues, I don’t think you have to choose between fiscal security and national security. And defense has to play its role, obviously, in trying to deal with that issue. And so for that reason, we felt we had a responsibility to come together and try to determine who do we get this done in a way that protects the best military force in the world.

Unlike past drawdowns, after we came out of World War II, after we came out of Korea, after we came out of Vietnam, after we came out of the fall of the Soviet Union, what happened was -- (inaudible) -- huge cuts were made across the board in the defense budget. And as a result, the force was hollowed out and it weakened our military. And so one of the things we made clear is we cannot -- we cannot afford to make those same mistakes, particularly at a time when we’re continuing to face threats. I mean, in the past, in many ways, the threats that we had confronted in those wars, you know, moved on.

But, today, we still confront some major threats in the world. We have a continuing threat of violent extremism, of terrorism. Yes, we’ve known a lot of success going after it, but they are still there. They still want to attack this country and we still have to confront them. We’ve got the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of nuclear weapons, of nuclear materials. That’s still happening. We’ve got the destabilizing behavior of rogue nations like Iran and North Korea. We’ve got the rise of new powers across Asia. We’ve got the dramatic changes and turmoil that we’ve seen unfold in the Middle East.

So looking at that work and looking at the threats that remain there, this country has the responsibility to make sure that we have a national defense, that we have a military force capable of taking on those kinds of threats. To meet those challenges and meeting our fiscal responsibilities, the service chiefs, the under secretaries of the department, the leadership of DoD have made clear that savings -- achieving those savings has to be achieved by a strategy, not just simply play a numbers game. You’ve got to tie this to a strategy. Where do we want to go? What kind of defense do we want so that the end result is to shape just exactly what our national military force should look like not just today but in the future?

We decided -- and I made very clear -- that we have to abide by four guidelines. One is that we have to maintain the strongest military force in the world. We’re that today probably the strongest military force in history. We need to maintain that position as we do this. We’ve got to be the strongest if we’re going to confront those challenges I just talked about.

Number two, it’s extremely important that we not hollow out the force, that we’re not just going to cut across the board, we’re not just going to weaken everything. We’re not going to make that mistake.

Thirdly, it means you have to put everything on the table and look at all the areas to determine how best to accomplish that.

And then, lastly, it was very important that we protect the best volunteer force in the world and that we keep faith with those that have served in the military with individuals that have deployed time and time and time again, families have had to support that deployment time and time again. We need to maintain faith with those troops and with their families.

So, with those guidelines, we want to -- working with the defense chiefs, working with the service chiefs, working with the -- all of the combat commanders and -- said what we need to do in order to decide something that will be effective for the future. And, as you know, we announced that strategic guidance and strategic plan last week. And let me just summarize some of the key elements of that because it does represent significant changes for the future as we form the U.S. force of the 21st century.

First, the U.S. joint force is without question going to be smaller than what it’s been during the last 10 years. It’s just a reality. It’s going to happen with or without the budget numbers we are facing. Though its great strength is that it needs to be agile. It needs to be flexible. It needs to be ready to deploy and it needs to be technologically advanced. So handling a smaller -- (inaudible) -- force, but making it more agile, more deployable, more adaptable, capable of moving quickly and technologically advanced -- having that technological edge, the ability to use the latest technology in going to war is extremely important to having an effective force.

Second, we obviously had to take a look at the world and say, where are the potential problems that we’re going to have to confront in the future? Where is it likely that we will face another war? And so as a result of that, we said it was important to focus and emphasize our presence and our posture focusing on Asia-Pacific, the Pacific region and the Middle East.

Thirdly, at the same time, the United States has to maintain its presence in other parts of the world. And so we need to build partnerships. We need to strengthen those partnerships, whether it’s NATO in Europe or it’s working with the Asian nations, whether it’s working with other alliances and coalitions. We need to build those kinds of partnerships. But at the same time we need to have a presence, whether it’s Latin America, whether it’s Africa, whether it’s Asia, whether it’s Europe. We need to have a continuing and rotational presence.

So working with -- (inaudible) -- and working with others, an innovative approach to say what we will do is develop a rotational presence that will have our troops going to places providing advice, providing training, providing exercises, developing partnerships, having a presence throughout these key areas of the world so the United States continues to exercise leadership. So we will have that kind of presence. This is going to be an innovative use of this very agile and adaptive force.

Fourth, we need to modernize how we confront a multitude of aggressors. And this force is going to have the capability to deal with more than one enemy at a time. And that’s what we have to do. If we’re caught in a land war in Korea and suddenly Iran moves on the Strait of Hormuz, we’ve got to be able to confront both of those threats. And we will have the capability to do that. That’s important.

And lastly, we felt it was very important, even as we had to draw down the defense budget, that we have to protect some key investments. And we will. We’re going to invest in Special Operation Forces. We’re going to invest in new technologies like ISR, and space, and cyberspace capabilities. Cyber is one of the important tools for the future. In many ways, it could be the battlefield of the future and we’ve got to be ready to be engaged in that kind of battlefield.

And we have to have a capability and capacity to quickly mobilize, which means that we have to retain a strong Reserve and a strong National Guard. They have been incredibly important to sustaining the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ve given tremendous experience in battle. We can’t lose that experience. So we’ve got to maintain that and be able to use it and be able to keep them operational for the future.

All of these changes are enabling us to craft a military that’s better suited for the 21st-century challenges that we confront -- one that can defeat any adversary on any battlefield, be it on land, be it in the air, be it in sea, be it in space or be it in cyberspace. The force, as I said, will be smaller, but we are going to ensure that the reductions we make in the ground forces are done responsibly and done on a transitional basis. We’re also going to make sure to provide the home-station training needed so that we can be ready and prepared for a full range of contingencies.

We are the strongest military in the world today. The decisions we have made will ensure that we remain the very best and the strongest military on earth. I’m convinced of that. But as we reshape the force one other thing will remain the same. Our military’s great strength, our greatest weapon will continue to be the men and women in uniform. And -- (inaudible) -- supporting our people will require the full commitment of communities like this and communities like this across the country.

As this new greatest generation of Americans begins to return home from war, many will need our support to recover from the wounds, both physical and mental. They will need our support as they seek to transition back into the force or into civilian life. And we must be there for them. We must honor their commitment to this country. The Department of Defense has made it the highest priority to provide support for our troops and their families, and that’s in evidence here at Fort Bliss.

We built world-class facilities, including new housing and education and child development centers. We’ve also built a new hospital, new facilities to help our wounded warriors as they transition back into the ranks and into civilian life. Yet we recognize that we can’t do it alone. We need to have your help in these efforts.

One area in particular where we need to do all we can is helping these veterans find jobs in what is a difficult economy. For those veterans who served after 9/11, unemployment stands at 13 percent. That’s unacceptable to all of us. And so the president has taken the lead on this issue and put out a challenge to the businesses in this country to hire 100,000 unemployed veterans and military spouses by 2013. The Department of Defense is working to strengthen the transition and training programs for deploying service members.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with business leaders to emphasize the importance of veteran hiring. Our service members have the leadership skills, they have the knowledge, they have the capability to be an invaluable asset. And I think you’ll agree that it’s in your interest to do everything you can to hire them.

When it comes down to it, defending America is a team effort. It is a team effort. It’s a -- (inaudible) -- part of our troops and their families, but it also includes the people of communities like El Paso. Together we are stepping up to do all we can to sustain that critical bond between our military and our society, a bond that is such a strong and enduring part of the national heritage of country.

This next great generation of men and women in uniform have, as I said, put their lives on the line and committed themselves to protecting this country. They deserve nothing short of our full support in the years ahead as we build a stronger and more secure country. But to achieve all of this, to achieve what we have to do at the Department of Defense, to achieve what you have to do, we have to be willing to keep fighting. We have to be willing to keep fighting.

There is a great story that I often tell that makes the point of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other. And so one evening they went to a boxing match. And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi looked at the priest and said, what does that mean? The priest said, it doesn’t mean a damned thing if he can’t fight. (Laughter.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country. But very frankly it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we’re willing to fight for it, to fight for the dream that brought my parents to this country, to fight to make sure that America is safe, and to fight most of all to protect the government of, by, and for our people.

Thanks very much for having me. (Applause.)

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