US Defense Secretary Hagel Meets With Soldiers in First Afghanistan Troop Visit

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to a question from a US soldier in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, March 9, 2013. The soldier is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. Hagel traveled to Afghanistan on his first trip as the 24th defense secretary to visit US troops, NATO leaders and Afghan counterparts

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Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the soldiers of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division’s “Bastogne” 1st Brigade Combat Team here today (March 9). The secretary spent time with troops at Forward Operating Base Fenty, located near the airfield, and pinned two Bastogne soldiers with Purple Hearts: Sgt. Jeremyah Williams and Pfc. Harry Hikes IV. Each suffered a traumatic brain injury during a December 2 predawn attack on the base.

Following the award ceremony, Hagel told more than 100 of the brigade’s troops he will “always do my best for you, for your families [and] our country. I will always put our men and women in uniform first.” The secretary acknowledged that now is not an easy time to serve in the US military. But those now in uniform, he added, have “a rare opportunity to participate in something that doesn’t come along every day.”

The world is in transition, as Afghanistan itself is, he said. “That presents great possibilities for all of us,” he said, along with the dangers, uncertainty and complicated challenges.

The military mindset is to “see through challenges to find the opportunity to help make a better world,” the secretary said. “And if there’s one thing that defines your service, your sacrifices, it is to help make a better world.”

Hagel said he’s “very proud to be part of your team.” He then asked the soldiers if they had questions or advice for him. Hagel responded to several questions regarding the sequester and the $500 million in across-the-board spending cuts it could mean for the Defense Department over the next 10 years. The soldiers asked if it would affect change-of-station moves, retirement benefits or transition programs for service members leaving the military?

The secretary said he and the Congress are committed to keeping the promises they’ve made to service members. “I will do everything I possibly can to assure those commitments are fulfilled at every level, in every program,” he said. Hagel explained that sequester, along with the continuing resolution that expires March 27, puts tremendous financial pressure on DOD and other federal agencies. “It affects all of our programs,” he added.

If Congress doesn’t alter that landscape, the secretary said, it will become more and more difficult for the nation’s defenders to do their jobs. But, he repeated, he is committed to protecting pay and benefits for those now serving, and for their families. “We will work through it, and we will continue to work with the Congress to … make sure that certainty is there and will continue to be there,” he said.

Hagel also responded to a soldier asking whether he plans on pushing so service members’ same-sex partners get the same benefits as other military spouses. “The quick answer to that question,” he replied, “is yes, absolutely.”

Every military member who serves the United States deserves the same benefits, Hagel said. “It’s the right thing to do,” he added, noting that many benefits already are, or are scheduled to be soon, open to same-sex partners. “We still have more to address, [and] we will,” Hagel added. “But I am absolutely committed.”

As he concluded his talk with the Bastogne soldiers, the secretary asked them to give his regards to their families. “In almost every case, it’s more difficult for them — not that it’s easy for you,” he said. “The families have to … [stay] behind, and worry, and deal with the day-to-day rigors of, in many case, one-parent families and other responsibilities while you’re doing your job for our country. “I recognize that,” he added, “and we very much appreciate it.”

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