WASHINGTON — As U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel jets to far-flung locales in his new job, he can count on a ride from the folks at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
The former GOP senator from Nebraska arrived Friday in Afghanistan as part of his first overseas trip as secretary.
Hagel plans to meet with his own military commanders and Afghan leaders to assess the overall situation there as the United States withdraws its troops and hands over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
As is typical for defense secretaries, Hagel flew to Afghanistan on an E-4B militarized version of the Boeing 747-200 that is based at Offutt.
Air Combat Command provides the air crew, maintenance, security and communications support for the plane, while operations are executed by U.S. Strategic Command.
The crew onboard for this particular mission represents a combination of personnel from StratCom and the Air Force's 55th Wing.
While briefing reporters aboard the plane, Hagel noted that it was “crewed by an Omaha crowd” and indicated that they should find that fact comforting.
“So I just wanted to restate the fact that you should have absolute confidence in the Nebraska leadership and the quality, and the capability that is displayed every minute of every day,” Hagel said. “So I want to thank the guys who are out of Omaha and Bellevue and Papillion. I found one of our communications guys is from Fremont, Nebraska, and he wanted me to know that his parents had voted for me twice.
“So he's obviously one of the smarter guys, and better-looking than most.”
According to the military, the E-4B serves as the National Airborne Operations Center for the president, secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“In case of national emergency or destruction of ground command control centers, the aircraft provides a highly survivable, command, control and communications center to direct U.S. forces, execute emergency war orders and coordinate actions by civil authorities.”
Hagel plans to spend a couple of days in Afghanistan, a country fast fading from political debate and public interest at home, but where 66,000 U.S. troops continue to experience what he described as “the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle.”
“We are still at war,” said Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts while serving as a combat infantryman in Vietnam.
Hagel has visited Afghanistan four times before, while serving as a U.S. senator. His most recent visit was in July 2008, when he accompanied a Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who as president nominated Hagel to his current post.
The small U.S. military force that carried out the invasion of Afghanistan, ordered in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, grew to more than 100,000 under Obama's troop increase. But it has dropped to 66,000 and by early next year will be cut in half.
Obama has made no decisions on the size of a possible U.S. military presence beyond 2014, and Hagel said this trip to Afghanistan would put him in a better position to advise the president.
This report includes material from the New York Times.
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