SAN DIEGO, Aug. 13, 2010 — A trip that started with presiding over the assumption of command for a four-star Marine Corps general ended with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates presiding over a Marine Corps Recruit Depot graduation ceremony today.
Gates also observed Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
The secretary presided Aug. 11 at the assumption of command for Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, who has almost 40 years of military service, as the commander of U.S. Central Command. Today, the secretary met servicemembers on the other end of the personnel pipeline, participating in the graduation of A Company, 1st Training Battalion, and of sailors striving to be SEALs with Class 84.
In a news conference at the Marine base, Gates said it was important to him to visit these Marines and sailors. “They are all volunteers, and they volunteered at a time when the United States is at war,” he said.
And it is personal to him, the secretary added.
“I think going from being a university president to this job actually made it harder,” he said. “I spent four and a half years [at Texas A&M] watching 18- to 25-year-olds walk around campus in flip-flops and shorts and T‑shirts, wearing backpacks and having fun going to class,” he said. “And then in an instant, I was watching kids exactly the same age – 18 to 25 – in full body armor in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
He said the surge in Afghanistan is only just now reaching its full force. The United States soon will have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, with allies deploying another 50,000. Casualties have risen in Afghanistan, the secretary said, that’s not a surprise.
“We knew if we became more aggressive in areas where the Taliban had ruled undisturbed … casualties would be higher,” he said. “My hope is that we will see in Afghanistan what happened in Iraq — that is, early in the surge, casualties rose as we were in the thick of the fight. Then, as we started having success, the casualties began to decline significantly. That’s my hope.”
Gates said that’s another reason he is so impressed with the young men and women joining the military today – they know they are going into battle.
The recruits who graduated today will be the beneficiaries of savings that come about from his push to eliminate duplication of capabilities, a bloated and top-heavy hierarchy and unnecessary overhead in the Defense Department, Gates said. “I want [the savings] to go to force structure, I want it to go into modernization and investments in future capabilities, and I’m especially concerned that we don’t have inadvertent consequences as this is implemented up and down the line,” he added.
Top leaders must study the situation and look at the second- and third-order of effects before implementing any changes, Gates explained. “I want the maintenance guys to have the tools and equipment they need, I want trainers and recruiters to have what they need,” he said. “The whole purpose is really to slim down on overhead and bureaucracy and large staffs, and try to convert that from tail to tooth.”
The secretary said he has met with service leaders on the plan and he is pleased with their proposals. “I think the initial look is they are all taking this seriously. They are leaning forward,” he said. The service secretaries and service chiefs are excited about the program, Gates added, because they get to reinvest any savings back in their services. Savings at defense agencies or at the combatant commands will go back to Gates for redistribution. “I want to know what they are going to invest in,” he said. “For example, if I was able to give the Navy a billion dollars more a year, what is their highest priority? Ship-building or what?”
The services have some very ambitious and aggressive plans, “and they look good to me,” Gates said.
Gates left the Recruit Depot and moved to North Island. On one end of the beach is the Hotel del Coronado – a world-class resort. At the other end is the Navy’s Special Operations Command, where 67 sailors were in the midst of “Hell Week” at BUDs. The class started four weeks ago with 180 sailors, and now has 67. During Hell Week, the sailors are stressed physically and mentally. The have timed runs, timed swims, countless exercises, small-boat exercises, little food and even less sleep.
The 67 remaining candidates were on the beach exercising with Zodiac boats when Gates walked over the sand dune. The young men were covered in sand and crud from earlier exercises. The sailors gathered around the secretary, and he thanked them for volunteering to serve their nation and for further volunteering to be a SEAL. Then the secretary said what all the young sailors wanted to hear: “Class 84, you are secured from Hell Week.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)