SEOUL, South Korea, Oct. 26, 2011 — The United States remains steadfast in its resolve to provide security support for South Korea, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told service members here today.
The secretary outlined his objectives for his visit and responded to troops’ questions during a town hall meeting at U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison featuring an audience of U.S. and South Korean service members. The secretary said the message he brought to South Korea is simple.
“The United States of America is committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea,” he said.
Panetta said the message he has brought this week to leaders throughout the region — in Indonesia in meetings with defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and in Japan — is that the United States is a Pacific nation, and will remain a Pacific power and a force for regional peace and prosperity.
“The only way we can do that is, frankly, with men and women like you — willing to serve, willing to help defend our nation and willing to defend [South Korea],” the secretary said.
A lot of blood was spilled by U.S. and Korean forces during the 1950–1953 Korean War that established today’s alliance, Panetta said.
“As a result of that, we have a South Korea that is a nation that has grown strong and independent, and really represents the kind of nation that will be an important ally to the United States in the Pacific region,” he said.
Panetta told the troops that they and their counterparts have accomplished much in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
“Bottom line, the successes in those areas are because of you,” the secretary said.
The United States will maintain a strong presence in the Middle East to deter aggression from Iran and other nations who seek to destabilize that region, Panetta said. Successes there, he added, create an opportunity to focus on the Pacific region.
“We are a country that wants to promote peace and prosperity in the world,” he said.
America’s military presence in South Korea and the larger Pacific region allows U.S. forces to work with allies and partners, Panetta said, to preserve peace, allow for free and open congress, and afford young people the opportunity to succeed.
Panetta reiterated that he will not break faith with U.S. military members by cutting benefits promised to them when they signed up. The president and the chiefs of the military services have made that clear as well, he added.
The audience applauded when the secretary said any potential changes in military retirement benefits will not apply to those now serving.
Panetta acknowledged the nation’s budget struggles require that cuts be made, but declared he believes the right budget approach now can result in a better defense force in the future.
The secretary responded to audience questions on troop drawdowns, education benefits and the possibility of future military retirement options for those who serve less than 20 years.
Reductions in force will take place, Panetta said, noting they would have occurred even without a budget crisis, as combat forces leave Iraq and troop numbers decrease in Afghanistan. Over the next few years, he said, the Defense Department likely will see troop decreases of 10,000 to 15,000 a year.
“We’ve got to be concerned about that … [and] make sure that those who have served … make that transition back into [civilian life] in a way that preserves their dignity,” the secretary said.
Panetta said the president and first lady, as well as officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere, are involved in helping transitioning veterans reintegrate successfully to the civilian sector.
The GI Bill, small-business incentives for veterans and private-sector agreements to hire returning service members are avenues that can help reintegrate today’s troops when they leave the military, he noted.
“There’s a lot of effort to reach out to the private sector, [and] this is a time when we’ve got to ask America to support those that have supported our country,” he said.
Panetta said that while he believes no new fees will be attached to GI Bill benefits, health care and other areas may see some fee increases.
Partial retirement may be an option for those in the future who serve less than 20 years in the military, the secretary said, but those currently serving will not see a change to the benefits they signed up for.
Before the town hall, Panetta met with Army Gen. James D. Thurman, U.S. Forces Korea commander. The secretary also participated in an hour-long roundtable discussion with three enlisted and three junior officer service members and their spouses, as well as a Defense Department civilian and spouse.
Panetta’s South Korea visit will continue through Oct. 28. The secretary has meetings scheduled with South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan.
Panetta also will take part in the executive session of the 43rd Security Consultative Meeting. The meeting is an annual conference of U.S. and South Korea government defense leaders and delegations.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)