WASHINGTON, June 23, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has served for four-and-a-half years — longer than all but four of his predecessors — but he still has some unfinished business.
Gates remains concerned about the treatment of wounded warriors. He regularly visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, the site of the Defense Department’s burn center. At Brooke, he said, he noticed the effect of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles he had worked so hard to field quickly.
“One of the advantages of the MRAP is, compared to the first year I was in this job, the burn unit is almost empty,” he said. “So many of these kids were getting horribly burned in the Humvees. The last time I was in Brooke there was no one to see in the burn unit.
“It may be the worst ride in the world — I think it may be like an old buckboard,” he continued. “But it has saved lives.”
Fiscal challenges remain for the department. Health care costs are skyrocketing — from $19 billion in fiscal 2001 to $51 billion this year. “It’s eating the department alive,” Gates said.
He doesn’t disagree with those who say the significantly lower cost of the TRICARE military health care plan for working-age retirees is one of the benefits of their service. But nobody made any promise that it would never change, the secretary said. Annual premium costs for working-age retirees could go to $520 from $460 and then be indexed to keep the costs at one-seventh, one-eighth or one-ninth what their civilian counterparts pay for health plans, he said.
“I’ve got no problem with retirees paying a fraction as part of their benefit, but there’s nothing to say it has to stay at the same dollar figure forever,” Gates said. “The department simply can’t afford it. There’s just no two ways around it.”
Rumors have the department changing service member compensation as part of its belt-tightening, but this is not true, Gates said.
“I’m actually more intrigued by some of the possibilities on retirement and on working-age retiree health care than I am on compensation,” he said. “The truth is, the retirement system as it exists today really is not fair to about 70 to 80 percent of the force, which does not [serve the length of time necessary to] retire.”
The system also works against good personnel processes, Gates noted. Lieutenant colonels or Navy chief petty officers are at the top of their games at the 20-year mark of their service, he said, with excellent skills and an enormous ability to contribute. “We make it impossibly attractive for them to retire,” he said.
But any change to retirement would have to be grandfathered, Gates said, so no one in the service today is affected.
In addition, the secretary said, there should be something for the 70 to 80 percent of those who serve and walk away with nothing — a 401(k) for example.
“When they leave at five or 10 years [now], they walk out the door empty-handed,” he said. “What kind of reward is that? This is where we are behind the entire private sector.”
With his own retirement nearly at hand, Gates said, he may not be in office when the process of implementing repeal of the law that bans gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military reaches the point of certification that the military is ready.
“On ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ I’ve basically told the services to keep moving,” he said. “We want to do this as fast as we possibly can. I don’t want to rush it just so I can sign it. I also don’t want to push it off so I don’t have to sign it. I’m basically letting the process go, and if it’s ready for me to certify before I get out of here, I will. If it’s not ready, that will fall to my successor.”
During his last visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Gates met in town hall-style gatherings with troops — something he didn’t do during his first two years in office.
“I always felt they were staged, and I didn’t think I’d get candid questions,” he explained. “The one thing I have never been willing to do in this job is use troops as props.
You’ll never find me in an event with troops behind me on the stage. It always makes me nervous. Another thing I don’t like about town halls is how long they have to be there before I get there. They’d rather be in bed.”
Gates gets candor from lunches he has with junior service members at bases at home and abroad. He gets questions and comments that run the gamut from personal to general. “I heard from an E‑2 whose wife stepped on a nail and was refused treatment at a military facility because she wasn’t on TRICARE Prime or something,” he said. “I went absolutely nuts when I got back home, and I think we got that problem fixed.
“The funniest one I’ve heard about a number of times is the weak crotches in the [Army combat uniforms],” he added. “I loved the comment one of the kids made. He said, ‘You know, it’s not too bad in the summertime, but in the winter, it can get to be a problem.’ ”
The lunches are totally off the record and no one from the chain of command attends.
“That really rubs them raw,” Gates said. “But they really have nothing to worry about. In four-and-a-half years, I’ve never had a kid say something negative about his commander.
“I am more candid with these young people than I am with anyone else,” he added. “It’s because I trust them and believe in them. They are the only thing I will miss about this job.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the third of a four-part series.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)