WASHINGTON (May 4, 2012) -- It is more important than ever that service members exercise judgment in the age of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, iPhones and Facebook, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told troops at Fort Benning, Ga.
The secretary spoke to the men and women of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He spoke about how the actions of a very small number of service members have affected crucial operations.
Today, it can take only seconds for a photo to become an international headline, Panetta said.
"And those headlines can impact the mission that we're engaged in," the secretary said. "They can put your fellow service members at risk. They can hurt morale. They can damage our standing in the world, and they can cost lives."
When videos can go viral overnight, the actions of a few can impact the lives of many, Panetta said. For example, he said, once word that Soldiers at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, had accidently burned Muslim holy books got out, more than 30 Afghans died in the rioting that followed. The Taliban seized that incident -- and others such as Marines urinating on enemy corpses, and Soldiers posing with body parts of suicide bombers -- to recruit Afghans to their side.
"I know that none of you … deliberately acts to hurt your mission or to put your fellow Soldiers at risk," the secretary said. "You are the best. And that's why I'm here today. To tell you that I need you, that I need your leadership, that I need your courage -- that I need your strength to make sure that we always abide by the highest standards."
The incidents that occurred in Afghanistan are the work of a tiny percentage of service members, Panetta said.
"I represent 3 million people, 2 million in uniform," he said. "It's a very small percentage of people who sometimes make these terrible mistakes."
Still these incidents concern leaders all the way to the Pentagon and White House. This is because "a few, who lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership can hurt all of us and can hurt all of those men and women who serve this country with distinction," the secretary said.
Panetta stressed that the incidents concern leaders because "our enemies will seek to turn … these incidents in their favor at the very moment that they are losing the war."
The 3rd Brigade will deploy again -- the unit deployed to Iraq for four tours -- and the secretary said he needs all service members to live the values of the United States. "Always remember who you are and the great country that you serve and that we are all part of," he said. "You are part of the best fighting force on the face of the earth. Never forget that."
Panetta emphasized that the members of the brigade have a responsibility to look after their comrades and to properly represent the American people.
"I know that all of you can meet this challenge," he said to the gathered troops. "You are the best, and I have the greatest confidence in your ability to make all Americans proud by demonstrating the very finest character, integrity and judgment and willingness to fight."
The secretary also discussed recent events in Afghanistan, noting last year was a "turning point" there.-
The Taliban, he said, have lost momentum as coalition and Afghan forces have secured many areas in Afghanistan. And despite great efforts, he added, the Taliban and their terrorist allies were not able to recapture a single square acre.
"Al-Qaida's leadership, including bin Laden, has been decimated," the secretary said. "We recognized the first-year anniversary taking down bin Laden. Let me tell you, that was due to the military professionalism of Soldiers who went in there and did a mission that they do time and time and time again in Afghanistan. It was for that reason that I was confident that that mission would be accomplished."
Afghan forces have grown in size and capabilities, Panetta said. Today, Afghan forces protect more than 50 percent of the population. Later this month a further tranche of areas will begin the transition process.
"By the end of summer will mean that 80 percent of the Afghan population will be under Afghanistan security and control," the secretary said.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this week "sends a clear signal to our enemies and to our partners that we will finish the job right in Afghanistan," Panetta told the troops.
Service members need to keep their minds in the game, the secretary said.
"If we keep our eye focused on this mission … we will defeat al-Qaida," Panetta said. "We will deny them the ability to rebuild; we will deny them the safe haven that they used to plan an attack on our country.
"Too much precious blood has been spilled, too much progress has been made to lose sight of the mission now," he added.