RAMSTEIN AIR BASE and LANDSTUHL, Germany, Feb. 3, 2012 — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta paused today between a NATO defense ministerial and the annual Munich security conference to visit what he called the U.S. military’s “unsung heroes” here.
Panetta spoke at Ramstein with some 65 airmen assigned to the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility, 10th and 86th Aeromedical Evacuation squadrons, 721st Aerial Port Squadron and 786th Force Support Squadron.
The secretary offered his thanks on behalf of the Defense Department and the American people to the ground transporters, medical evacuation crews, mortuary affairs specialists and USO volunteers gathered to see him.
“You literally save lives,” Panetta told the troops. “In addition, you help — for many of those that don’t make it — to give them the dignity and the respect that they need as we return their bodies back to their families. And I appreciate that, as well.”
As he spoke, Panetta stood beside a large wall-mounted poster showing the silhouette of service members carrying another over his or her shoulder. The poster read, “Wounded Warrior Project,” and “The greatest casualty is being forgotten.”
Ramstein Air Base, roughly 10 miles from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, is home to troops who manage much of the work in getting patients from medevac flights to the hospital for treatment, and from the hospital to onward movement after treatment, according to base spokesman Juan Melendez.
Panetta said while U.S. forces have reached a turning point after 10 years of war, Ramstein and LRMC still perform critical missions.
“There’s going to continue to be some heavy fighting … and we will continue to depend on you to do what you do best, which is to take these lives and give them a new life,” the secretary said.
In both locations, the secretary outlined the defense strategy and budget decisions announced in January, repeating here in Germany words often heard in the Pentagon about tomorrow’s military: a smaller, agile, highly technical force , rebalanced to the Pacific while maintaining a focus on the Middle East. This force, while maintaining and developing partnerships around the world, will be able to defeat any adversary anywhere, as the department invests in cyber, space and mobile capabilities.
Panetta assured the troops all service chiefs and secretaries had helped develop the spending priorities as part of the new strategy.
“In the end, we are unified,” the secretary said. “We feel very good about the strategy we are putting in place.”
Panetta reaffirmed he will not cut military pay or raise health costs, and will not change retirement benefits for people now in uniform.
A retirement commission will study possible alternatives to the current system, he said, “but changes will not affect those now serving.”
During a question-and-answer session with the Ramstein troops, the secretary responded to queries about basing in Europe, the likelihood of U.S. military action against Iran, his career in public service — – and, based on his intelligence contacts, which team will win the Super Bowl.
U.S. troop strength in Europe will remain the world’s largest outside the United States — some 37,000 service members — even after two brigade combat teams leave, he said.
“Plus, we’re going to develop a new brigade in the United States where we’re going to have battalions rotate to Europe to do … training, do exercises twice a year,” he added.
The U.S. approach to Iran has not changed, Panetta said.
“We’ve made clear our concerns with regard to Iran,” he said. “This is something that worries us … we’ve made very clear that they cannot, they cannot, develop a nuclear weapon.”
The world community agrees on that position, Panetta said, and has jointly applied “very tough” diplomatic and economic sanctions on Iran.
“We’ve isolated Iran from the rest of the world … [and] we have to continue that kind of pressure,” he said. “The most important thing is to keep the international community unified in keeping that pressure on.”
Panetta said he believes international sanctions eventually will convince Iran to bring its nuclear program into compliance with “the rules we all operate by.” However, if Iran continues on its current course, he added, “all options are on the table.”
The secretary said he’s been fortunate to spend his career in public service, first as an Army intelligence officer, then in Congress, as well as in cabinet positions and in agencies furthering education, civil rights and national security.
“I can’t hold a job,” he joked. Turning serious, he said he views service members’ work much as he does his own: “There is no more important role than what we do to protect the safety of our country … and we’re able to give our children a better life.”
One airman thanked the secretary for “fighting for our benefits,” then asked for any inside intelligence Panetta might have on the Super Bowl.
Panetta ruefully acknowledged his disappointment when the New York Giants beat his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. Still, he said, “I’m going to sit back and watch it, and I think it will be a good game.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)