PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today returned to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center he championed as a congressman to praise the next generation of military linguists he called critical to the United States’ future.
Panetta told an assembly of about 2,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines standing in formation on Soldier Field overlooking Monterey Bay that the language and cultural training they are receiving here is critical to the nation’s economic, diplomatic and security interests. “It is absolutely vital to what the United States is all about,” he said.
“We live in a global world,” the secretary said. “We have to understand that world if we … are going to be able to not only defend this country, but to extend our relationships to others so that we can work together to defend the world that we live in.”
“The reality is that we have to reflect the nation we live in and we have to reflect the world we are a part of,” he continued. “Languages are the key to understanding that world.”
It’s also critical, he said, to the effectiveness of current U.S. military operations.
“If we are going to advance stability in some of the countries we are fighting in today, we have to be able to understand what motivates those countries, what motivates their people, and to understand their culture, beliefs, faiths, ideologies, hatreds and loves. “So it is crucial to our national security to be able to have a strong language ability,” he said.
Throughout his career – while in Congress, as director of the CIA and now as defense secretary — Panetta has been a staunch advocate of foreign language training.
While in Congress, he served on a commission then-President Jimmy Carter appointed to determine the state of that training in the United States. The commission identified what Panetta called “a national scandal,” noting that foreign language training at the time “was not supported, students weren’t learning the kinds of languages they should be learning, and much more needed to be done.”
Representing the district that includes the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center while in Congress, Panetta played a big role in ensuring the school got the support and resources it needed to promote its training programs.
Despite advances in promoting language and cultural training throughout the United States, Panetta acknowledged today, “frankly, more needs to be done.”
The secretary offered high praise to the center for helping set the standard for foreign language training, and the faculty he called the heart of that training. “This is a remarkable institution,” he told the students. “I consider the Defense Language Institute as a treasure in the ability to be able to train you, to give you that language ability so you can better defend this country in what you do.”
Panetta offered special thanks to the students who will take the training they receive here to support U.S. missions around the world. “Thank you for your service. Thank you for giving back to this country,” he told them. “Thank you for caring enough about this great country of ours to be willing to put your lives on the line in order to defend this country and what we represent to ourselves and to the world.”
Democracy in the United States has always depended on the willingness of its citizens to “roll up their sleeves and serve this country,” Panetta said. “Thank you for being willing to do that.”
The son of Italian immigrants who left behind everything to begin a new life in the United States, Panetta said his father told him his motivation was to give his children a better life. It remains the American dream, he said, motivating and inspiring Americans to do what’s necessary to ensure their children have a safer and better life.
“It’s your dream, it’s your mission, it’s your duty, ” he told the service members, “to make sure those we care about, those that we love, are able to enjoy a more secure America and are able to enjoy the freedoms and liberties that we provide.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)