Hagel praises JBER troops, highlights joint mission success


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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to JBER troops last week during his first stop on a 12-day trip through the Pacific to Europe.

SSGT. SHEILA DEVERA

More than 200 active-duty, Reserve, National Guard and civilian personnel from all military branches gathered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Wednesday, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke about the challenges the U.S. military faces in the coming years and JBER’s critical role in homeland and regional security. The event marked the first stop on Hagel’s 12-day trip through the Pacific to Europe.

The ability of JBER units to integrate is a benchmark for the DoD, Hagel said. The close coordination of the Air Force’s 3rd Wing and the Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division enhances America’s capability of projecting significant air and ground power anywhere in the world. JBER units have also focused on forming strong relationships with allied nations throughout the Pacific, laying the groundwork for combined operations.

“How you work together is a model for how active duty can integrate with the National Guard and Reserve,” the secretary said. “It works how it’s supposed to. You probably take it for granted here, but you’re laying the foundation for the future.”

Hagel began his remarks to the gathered crowd by expressing gratitude. He said he recognized the achievements of the JBER units and people -- and their critical role in providing security for the U.S. and strategic power projection regionally and worldwide.

“I want to thank you for your service and your sacrifices,” Hagel said. “And thank your families. They’re important – as much as anything, they’re an anchor for you.”

Hagel also brought greetings from the commander-in-chief.

“(President Obama) wanted me to convey his best personal regards and thanks for all you do.”

Hagel also addressed issues currently facing the Department of Defense and related to the military, such as challenges with the Veterans Administration system, budgetary constraints, and the impact of reductions on troops.

Hagel said his top priority is people.

“We always begin with people. Regardless of the weapons or the systems, without capable people, without committed people, it won’t matter. People are priority number one.”

Despite challenges like the budget, the commitment of the DoD to service members will not waver, he said.

“We’re committed to people,” he said. “We will get through this. It’s not unusual – we’ll always need an active, agile and ready force.”

Hagel also emphasized the importance of caring for service members despite budget difficulties – including quality health care.

A soldier from the 4-25th mentioned a fellow soldier who recently took his own life after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and asked Hagel about the way forward in caring for those facing the invisible wounds of war.

“In the DoD, we produce the veteran. At the end of that service, we hand them off to the VA. That transition -- preparing them for the next phase -- that’s a big responsibility,” Hagel said. “We’re not perfect. We can do better, and we will do better.

“The suicide issue is particularly horrendous. We’re doing more. We’ve got medical facilities set up, and we’ve trained all our senior enlisted [personnel] and officers on this. We’ve got to be able to sense and see when someone’s on the edge. Please, always be open to those who need help. They should be encouraged, not ostracized. Embrace each other.”

Hagel also fielded questions about how service members voluntarily separating from the service would affect retention boards.

“We recruit and retain the best,” he said. “We do that by first recruiting people committed to the country, committed to their belief and purpose. And they stay not only because of those beliefs and purposes, but because they adjust to the demands – of education, training, of opportunities and fair compensation – things people want for themselves and also for their families. This country is committed to that; the president and Congress are invested in recruiting and retention.”

The significance of meeting the Secretary of Defense was not lost on some of the military members gathered.

“It was a really great thing for the secretary to reach out to soldiers,” said Spc. Anthony Velez of the 109th Transportation Company and a native of Beacon, N.Y. “I appreciated it very much. He gave us some inside information on the future. The questions were intelligently asked, especially regarding downsizing. What’s in the future, as we’re pulling out of Afghanistan?”

Velez noted the still-struggling economy and the questions many service members have as they prepare to leave active duty – whether there will be jobs, and how veterans will be taken care of.

“They’re doing everything possible,” Velez said. “Things are developing – they’re not there yet, but they’re getting there.”

Senior Airman Lisa Zishka, a budgeting specialist with the 673d Comptroller Squadron and a native of Lone Grove, Okla., received a challenge coin from the secretary.

“It was a great experience,” she said of the event. “It’s something that will probably not happen [to me] again; this is definitely going in my book for safekeeping. It was an honor to be here.”

Hagel’s 14th international trip will take him from Alaska to Singapore, where he will attend the Shangri-La Dialogue and host a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings with other ministers of defense. The next stop will be Brussels, where he will attend the fourth NATO Defense Ministers’ Meeting. It will be the first such meeting since Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, and the last before the NATO Summit in Wales in September, said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary, during a briefing May 23. From Brussels, Hagel will continue on to Romania, then to France for the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day with President Barack Obama.

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