GEN. JOSEPH F. DUNFORD: Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and I think we even have a couple of coast guardsmen out there, and some DoD [Department of Defense] civilians, it's my privilege to introduce our secretary of defense.
I could say a lot of things about Secretary Hagel today. I could talk about his career as a senator. I could talk about his career as a businessman and a chief executive officer.
But I think probably he would agree with me that perhaps what he's most proud about is being a sergeant in the United States Army, being a combat vet [veteran] from Vietnam, and wearing two Purple Hearts.
So without further ado, our 24th secretary of defense, Secretary Hagel. (Applause)
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you. Thank you all very much. And to Gen. Dunford and all of our leadership over here, and to each of you, thank you.
I'm proud of some things I've done in my life, as you all are each proud of things you've done in your lives. But nothing makes me more proud than, as Gen. Dunford noted, to say that I served in uniform, and served in the United States Army.
And I'm proud of that and I want you to know that. And I'm proud [of] you all. I was with President Obama earlier today after he had visited here. And I know I'm a disappointment, I'm not Paisley or President Obama, but nonetheless, you're stuck with me today.
But he very much appreciated the opportunity to be here last week and to tell our troops how much, on behalf of all the people of our country, we appreciate what you do.
This is a happy day, as you all know, for our country, for our armed forces, because we got one of our own back last night. And to all of you and those who are not here who had something to do with that effort, and I know that includes many, many people in all our services, I want to thank you for that on behalf of the American people and the men and women in uniform and those who work for the Defense Department all over the world, we thank you for that.
I know this has been an interesting week for many reasons. As you know, after the president returned from his visit here, he made an announcement about America's role in Afghanistan post-2014.
We all recognize the tremendous progress that has been made over the last 13 years. And that progress due clearly very much as a direct result of the men and women of the United States armed forces.
And how you have helped the Afghan people build their institutions, strengthen those institutions, and put them on a path to be able to defend themselves, govern themselves,
We know our role is not finished yet, but as we phase out at the end of this year our combat mission role, we will phase into another role with our ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] partners over the next two years.
That will be important because we can continue to be very helpful as we help the Afghan people and their military continue to strengthen their efforts to secure their own country.
You should be very proud of that. We're proud of you for being able to do that. So that's important for you to know that. I know more than occasionally that you have to ask yourselves whether anybody is paying attention anymore to Afghanistan. But we are.
The American people want our job finished here, but they want it finished the right way. And you want to finish it the right way. The president of the United States, I want to finish it the right way.
And I think we're on a path to do that over the next two years. Our coalition partners who have been particularly important to us in this effort will -- most will continue to have a role over the next two years with us.
So to that, thank you, again. And I want to pay particular attention to and give recognition to and thank these men here in the front row who, I know your stories, I read each of your stories coming in from Singapore this morning.
We admire your character, your courage, and not only what you did on the battlefield and the contributions you made to our country and this country. But what you're doing now, you are tremendous inspirations to everybody.
And I want to thank you personally for that, and for what you continue to do. And I want to thank your families in particular. I don't have to tell any of you how much your families mean to you, how much our families mean to each of us as they anchor us and help each of us get us through this, and especially men and women who serve in combat.
So thank you, we're proud of you. (Applause.)
I understand we're going to have an opportunity to take some pictures. But I'll take a question if anybody has got a question.
Q: Mr. Secretary, my name is Spc. (inaudible). I'm assigned to Task Force (inaudible) 82nd Airborne.
What do you see as the long-term benefits of the president's strategic shift towards Asia, and some of the challenges we'll face post of Afghanistan?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I just noted, I flew in a little bit ago from Singapore. I attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, which actually I was one of the individuals who helped start that and was at the first three starting in 2002 when I was in the United States Senate.
I mention that, as I answer your question, because the rebalance for America, as we reposition platforms, assets, based always on where our interests are, that's not new. Nations respond in their own interests. America has always done that.
But just as we are rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, as the Asia-Pacific becomes more and more important to our interests, economic interests, security interests, three of the largest economies in the world are Pacific powers: the United States and China and Japan, emerging other powers in Asia and Pacific, clearly we have tremendous interests that are going to grow.
That said, the president made very clear, I'm on my way to Brussels when I leave here for a NATO defense ministerials meeting, to reinforce and reassure, as we do, as the secretary of defense of the United States of America, that we will continue to commit resources and reassure our partners all over the world, including NATO, that we're not going anywhere.
We're not retreating from any part of the world. We have responsibilities in every part of the world. We have interests in every part of the world. We are the world's leader.
Now we do that because it's clearly in our interests. No other nation on Earth has the capability to do that. And for us to have an opportunity to build partnerships, strengthen alliances, build new alliances, build capacities, and strengthen those capacities for our allies, like we have been doing here in Afghanistan, will continue to do the next two years.
That's essential. The president talked about that in his speech at West Point a few days ago. The strength of a nation clearly globally is much about the strength of its alliances and partnerships and friendships around the world.
As strong but smart and wealthy as we are, we can't fix every problem by ourselves in the world. It is impossible. We need partners. We need alliances. So as we rebalance our areas of focus and priorities, it doesn't mean we're retreating from any other part of the world.
As 13 years of war that America has been engaged in, in Iraq and Afghanistan, unprecedented in our country, unprecedented also the first time we've ever fought wars with an all-volunteer force, of course there is going to be repositioning and rebalancing.
That's not new. We've done that after every war. There are shifts and there are changes, new challenges, new threats emerge everywhere.
So I've gone a little bit beyond just the specifics of your question, but I think in order to answer your question thoroughly, and it's a good question, I need to expand a little bit on our other responsibilities and assure the world, as I did in Singapore, as the president continues to do, as I will again at NATO -- at our defense ministers conference, that we're not leaving or retreating from any part of the world.
Q: Mr. Secretary, my name is Sgt. 1st Class (inaudible), and I have a question.
SEC. HAGEL: Shoot.
Q: In February of this year you said this is a time for reality, this is a budget that recognizes the magnitude of the reality of our recent challenges. My question is, since every program, every base, every facet of the budget has a lobbyist or a member of Congress or special interest group protecting it, what can service members do to ensure we don't regress to the point of going to war with the army you have, under-trained, under-protected, with only elite units having the best gear?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, you have framed it pretty well. Let me -- in the interest of time, and I've given many speeches and responded to many questions, been involved in many congressional hearings about your exact points and your question, let me say this.
One of the responsibilities of the commander-in-chief and the secretary of defense and the civilian leadership of our military is to protect our military, is to assure our military, that they will have what you need to stay ready, agile, capable, have the qualitative edge always on equipment, and every dimension of war.
President Obama has committed that. I have committed that. Our leadership is committed to do that. These are tough issues that we're dealing with, with the budget. I've said it pretty clearly and directly. We will work our way through this.
But be assured that first we take care of our people. Second, that means also readiness, the training and the equipment and everything I just noted, we take care of our people.
And also the capacity-building that you require constantly, we'll assure that we get that, these big challenges they are. But I don't want you to worry about that. That's my job. That's the president's job.
Thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)
Good. We'll take some pictures. And take care of yourselves. And, again, tell your families how much we appreciate everything they're doing.