SecDef looks to future during Fort Campbell visit
March 12, 2012
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (March 12, 2012) -- The Secretary of Defense came to Fort Campbell March 2, telling 101st Airborne Division Soldiers they help fulfill the American dream.
Leon Panetta spoke to a group of Soldiers and Airmen enrolled in the Sabalauski Air Assault School, in between observing training across post and meeting with Gold Star Families and redeployed troops.
"I think this country, our democracy, was based on men and women who are willing to give something back to this country," he said.
As the son of Italian immigrants, Panetta said he used to question his father as to why they chose to move oceans away from their homeland.
"My father used to make very clear, that the reason was because my mother and [he] believed that they could give their children a better life in America," Panetta said. "And that's the American dream. What you do is basically fulfill their American dream, by your willingness to go in, to sacrifice, put your lives on the line [and] if necessary, to die on behalf of your country."
This sacrifice is evidenced by the 400 Screaming Eagle Soldiers who have lost their lives during 10 years of war, a thought Panetta keeps in mind every time he writes to the family of a fallen service member.
With multiple deployments and more on the horizon for some 101st Soldiers, Panetta praised them for their service, calling them heroes and patriots.
"Because of the men and women in uniform, I think we're at a historic turning point after 10 years of war," Panetta said. "Many of you have been on those front lines. As a result of it, we are seeing some very important successes."
These successes include the end of the war in Iraq, as well as the weakening of Taliban control in Afghanistan.
"Because of you, 2011 was a key turning point in Afghanistan," Panetta said. "We are transitioning more areas in Afghanistan to [local] control and security. That represents 50 percent of the Afghan population now under Afghan control and Afghan security and we're going to continue that process."
Even with the drawdown in Afghanistan scheduled to be complete by 2014, U.S. military presence throughout the world remains more important than ever, Panetta explained.
"We will always maintain an enduring presence in Afghanistan," he said. "We've taken down bin Laden. We've taken their key leaders and made it difficult for them to plan the kind of attacks that we've seen in 9/11. Terrorists are still out there. We still have to keep pressure on them."
Budget concerns continue to loom as the Department of Defense cuts $487 billion in spending over the next 10 years, a task that's "not easy to do," Panetta said. However, he assured Soldiers they would receive all they have been promised for their service.
"We are going to focus on the strategy we need to maintain the strongest military in the world," he said. "I don't want to hollow out the force."
While the U.S. military of the future will be "a smaller, leaner force," Panetta is adamant about making strategic cuts, not across-the-board changes like the ones implemented in past years that ultimately weakened the nation's defense.
"We have to be agile, we have to be flexible, we have to be deployable and we have to be technologically advanced," Panetta explained.
Despite budget constrictions, Panetta is focused on maintaining a "rotational presence" in Europe, Africa and Latin America, as well as monitoring activity in the Asia-Pacific region.
"It's extremely important that we are able to defeat any adversary, any time, any place," Panetta said. "So it's going to be extremely important that we have the capability, the technology to confront more than one adversary at a time."
Investing in opportunities such as unmanned systems and Special Forces operations are also key, as new threats emerge, including the very real possibility of cyber attacks capable of freezing the power grid and financial systems.
"The next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber attack," Panetta said.
After his address at the Air Assault School, he took questions from the service members in the audience. Topics addressed included TRICARE co-pays as well as the way forward in Afghanistan.
"On TRICARE, we're probably going to recommend increasing some fees for retirees," Panetta said. "We haven't done that since 1990.
"Healthcare costs are about $50 billion of my budget. We're not going to impact the quality of healthcare, we're not going to impact the benefits."
While these changes will affect retirees coming from the higher ranks, Panetta explained costs will remain lower than deals in the private sector.
In reaction to Panetta's visit, Sgt. 1st Class Tyler Arnold, the chief instructor at the Air Assault School, echoed the pride of the 101st Division as Air Assault Soldiers ramp up for future operations.
"It was nice to see him come to Fort Campbell. It meant a lot to the Soldiers," said Arnold. "I think he hit the nail on the head when he said the 101st Airborne Division is an agile force, based on the fact that we can use our rotary wing assets to deliver highly trained Soldiers anywhere on the battlefield."