Against a backdrop of nuclear power, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted Thursday that Offutt Air Force Base personnel are on the front lines of defending the United States from foreign threats.
These same military troops and civilians also face struggles on the home front, he acknowledged.
During brief remarks outside U.S. Strategic Command headquarters Thursday, Hagel devoted equal time to reinforcing Offutt's leading role in providing a nuclear deterrence and the impact of budget cuts and unpaid furloughs on the men and women staffing the Bellevue base.
"I know these are difficult days," Hagel said to 200 personnel from StratCom, the 55th Wing and the Air Force Weather Agency. "I'm not unaware of some of the hardships that some of you are dealing with in furloughs."
The first enlisted combat veteran to lead the Department of Defense, Hagel said he appreciated the sacrifices made by the personnel and their families. "We will work our way through this," he said. "We're all going into this together, and we'll come out together." Hagel said the difficult budget decisions made at the Pentagon are not done lightly or without considering all options. "But in the end," he said, "we have to do what is most important to our country, and that is defend our country." Civilian workers at Offutt face 11 furlough days this summer, according to Pentagon plans released in May. The unpaid days begin the week of July 8 and must be taken before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The furloughs are a response to congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts, commonly known as the sequester, and affect most of the department's 800,000 civilian employees. Crews from Offutt's 55th Wing have had flight hours rationed in response to the sequester. Hagel spoke to brass and rank-and-file service members and civilians standing on the historic missile deck in front of StratCom headquarters. Towering behind him were an Air Force Minuteman missile and a Navy Trident missile. Two blocks away, construction cranes marked the site of a new $1.2 billion StratCom headquarters scheduled for completion in 2016. Hagel lauded the front-line and behind-the-scenes contributions of Offutt personnel. He noted President Barack Obama's speech Wednesday in Germany saying he would seek to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal by a third. "These are defining times," Hagel said. "These are difficult times. But these are times that allow us tremendous opportunity to help shape a new world order with our allies, with our friends, with our partners as we build new early-21st-century relationships and partnerships around the world."
Hagel said America's nuclear arsenal and policy of deterrence have kept global peace since the end of World War II.
"But we are living in a different time, with new threats," he said.
Hagel said previous generations "did not fail our country, as you have not failed our country, and will not."
He said StratCom will remain a foundational piece of U.S. nuclear security for a long time.
Hagel took four pre-screened questions from the troops.
Navy Petty Officer Minette Allen asked Hagel's opinion about how having women in combat, especially special operations forces, would affect mission success.
Hagel said training standards would not be lowered. He said women who are qualified should be allowed the opportunity.
"We're working toward that," he said.
Hagel used the question to reiterate his dedication to ending "the scourge" of sexual assault in the military. He said it is a "very, very dark mark" on the military.
"We will fix it," he said. "There is no higher priority than to make everybody accountable, up and down the line, all the time."
Navy Petty Officer Richard Keele asked about the House Armed Services Committee's call for a joint combat uniform. Hagel asked Keele for his opinion. Keele said each branch of service is unique and its uniforms should be unique.
Hagel said that if he is asked for an opinion, he would listen to what the troops say.
Hagel was at Offutt for briefings with Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, StratCom commander. He spoke Wednesday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The two appearances came during his first visit to Nebraska since taking office nearly four months ago. Hagel is a native Nebraskan and a former two-term U.S. senator.
Hagel wrapped up his appearance by presenting souvenir secretary of defense challenge coins to everyone in the audience.
Hagel's wife, Lilibet, accompanied him to Offutt. Hagel planned to return to Washington Thursday evening.