FORT BLISS, Texas (May 11, 2012) -- Secretary of the Army John McHugh let it be known that he had great admiration for the men and women of Class 62 currently enrolled in the Sergeants Major Course, or SMC, at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas, or USASMA.

"You are the heart and soul of our force-the eyes and ears for all who join to fight for our country," said McHugh. "This class, this campus, and all of you are a testament to the value and importance of the NCO Corps and I am incredibly honored to be here," he said.

The secretary's visit was a means for him to see exactly what goes on inside the walls of the Army's premiere academic institution for the education of noncommissioned officers. His words to the 563 students assembled in the east auditorium of USASMA's Kenneth W. Cooper Lecture Center, were also a means of apprising them about what they face as senior leaders at a time when the Army begins the process of cutting the force.

"I know many of you may be asking yourselves, "What is my future in the Army?"' said McHugh. "I can tell you there will be significant changes-some of the greatest changes ever made, and the transformation in the ranks will require capable NCOs more so than at any other time in recorded history."

McHugh addressed the fact that defense department cost-cutting for sister services like the Navy would mean less aircraft carriers and ships. But making cuts in the Army was a different story altogether.

"Our greatest asset in our Army is its people. Cutting costs means we are going to have to cut people," said McHugh. "By 2017 the ranks will be reduced to 490,000 so that's why it's important that regardless of the strategy or mission, our senior NCOs are adaptive and capable of meeting any and all changes," he said. "And the mission of USASMA will ensure we can meet any change."

The secretary was quick to assure Soldiers that despite impending cuts, the Army will remain properly resourced and there will be money available for operations and modernization. But he also told the students of Class 62 that only those who were truly worthy would be around to witness the modernization.

"Like Sergeant Major of the Army Chandler said, 'Good enough is no longer good enough,"' said McHugh. "If you can't live by the Army values, you shouldn't be a part of the Army.

McHugh acknowledged that the number of Soldiers who do bad things is small, but that their lack of judgment can put everyone at risk.

"Bad order and discipline take away from everything the Army stands for," said McHugh.

While there is no excuse for a lack of discipline, risky behavior is something McHugh recognizes is not only killing our troops, but according to the secretary, is why the Army lost 15 Soldiers last month to accidental deaths. McHugh is very concerned that 10 years of combat and numerous deployments have taken their toll on so many Soldiers.

"We've been at war for a decade and paid a heavy price," he said. "Soldiers and their families are dealing with the aftermath. Post-traumatic stress in our Soldiers is something that is going to require our attention for decades to come."

That's why McHugh said well educated and observant senior NCOs play such an important part in the mental health of Soldiers.

"NCO leaders need to look for the signs," said McHugh. "You are in a unique position to take care of your Soldiers and you must," he said. "You are the backbone of the Army, and just like the first sergeant major of USASMA Bainbridge said, the goal of the NCO Corps is to 'continue to improve the Army' and you want to 'leave it better than you found it."'

Accompanying McHugh on the stage at the Sergeants Major Academy was Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III. When the floor was opened to students questions, both McHugh and Chandler offered answers and insight.

Coast Guardsman Master Chief Phillip Roy, inquired if Soldiers allowed into the ranks when the Army was building the force up and accepting recruits with waivers, would be allowed to remain in the Army and continue serving. McHugh answered Roy by explaining that troops would be "judged as they served as Soldiers," and that if they were great Soldiers "their service will be measured accordingly."

Chandler responded by saying the Secretary of the Army had been given broad guidance about who stays and who goes.

"The Army will be looking at all our quality Soldiers currently serving. So, unless you put yourself in a position of not being worthy, your service will be taken into account," said Chandler.

When McHugh was asked by another student if reducing the number of Soldiers currently serving in the Middle East was a wise decision, McHugh reminded everyone that there was still a "very robust presence of U.S. troops in Kuwait." But he also explained that the way forward for the new national defense strategy provided and required an even more substantive presence in the Pacific.

"We took into account the emergence of new world powers and recognized the need for a greater presence in the Pacific region," said McHugh. "There's a lot of water that the Navy tends to, a lot of air that the Air Force tends to, and a lot of land. The Army has more people in the Pacific than the Air Force and the Navy combined, and seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in the Pacific."

Another student question focused on retirement benefits for Soldiers and whether or not they would change. McHugh said there is talk about exploring and reconfiguring benefits.

"There is also the possibility of creating a commission much like Base Realignment and Closure to look at retirement and examine what can or could be done, McHugh said. "It's the Army's responsibility to ensure Soldier's aren't forgotten and if we don't keep faith with our heroes, how can we expect others to?"

Keeping the duties and responsibilities of Soldiers and the Army mission at the forefront of the American public's mind, Master Sgt. Michael Bennet asked McHugh what Soldiers can do to keep public interest in the Army.

"It's up to everyone to tell the Army story -- to put the Army message out in front," said McHugh. "If there are more base closures, the challenge becomes more uphill, but we have to continue to deliver the importance of the mission of the Army to U.S. citizens," he said. "We will have to work hard to earn the recognition."

After his address to SMC students, McHugh was taken on a tour of the academy by Command Sgt. Maj. Wesley Weygandt, USASMA deputy commandant, who introduced him to academy spouses currently enrolled in the Spouse Leadership Development Course. McHugh also had the opportunity to visit a classroom where students in the Sergeants Major Course use the most up-to-date technology to learn.