By: Marc Arakaki
"This region of the world is going to have an awful lot to say about how this next world order is built out," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said to nearly 200 troops at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Thursday morning.
In his six-minute speech, Hagel thanked the troops and also talked about how important their service is in Hawai`i.
"We've not seen a time like this in the world since really right after World War II," Hagel said. "The difference is the United States held most of the cards after World War II. We don't hold all of the cards this time. And by the way that's good – it allows other countries to share responsibilities. It allows other countries to prosper. And only when we accept that premise, will the world prosper."
"It was a great opportunity this morning to see [Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel] visit the troops, tell us the importance of our service here in the Pacific theater and explain to us what he's doing," Lt. Col. Todd Emmons said.
Hagel also arrived wearing a t-shirt which was welcomed by the troops.
"It kind of set the tone and gave a relaxed environment for everyone to ask the questions that we really wanted to ask and get answered," Sgt. Nathan Miller said.
Following his speech, SECDEF Hagel answered four questions from the troops. The questions related to financial cutbacks (military retirement), cyber security, a backlog in Veterans Affairs and ramping up forces.
Hagel admitted there are budget cuts but assured the troops that military support is a high priority.
"You take care of your people," Hagel said. "It doesn't make a difference how sophisticated your equipment or anything else. If you don't have good people or you can't keep good people, and you can't continue to educate them and train them and develop them, it won't make a difference."
One of the solutions Hagel provided was related to co-pays for medication.
"We suggested in our budget presentations to Congress this year that we asked [them] to consider things like adjusting prescription co-pays – to increase those co-pays – not very much. Also, TRICARE fees – not very much," Hagel said. "TRICARE and all the benefits that come with commitments we make to you are still the best benefits that I'm aware of anywhere in the world."
Increased cyber security warfare capabilities is something that Hagel noted was presented to Congress.
"We are doing more than just increasing the budget," Hagel said. "That means more people, more sophisticated approaches and more interconnects within our inter-government agencies.
"This is a real dangerous threat and there's no higher priority for our country than this issue."
This issue was something Sgt. Miller closely followed.
"When he said that he had been working on it for the past ten years and now most people in the world, the past five years have been noticing something can happen in cyber warfare, he's already on top of it. So that's a reassuring aspect," Sgt. Miller said.
There are currently over 800,000 cases backlogged with Veterans Affairs – but Hagel noted that most of the cases were before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hagel met with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki within his first ten days since taking office on Feb. 27, 2013.
"I put a hold on everything going forward on RFPs until I could get a better understanding of what we were doing," Hagel said. "We have completely restructured it – we've taken out where it was – put new leadership in charge…and we have made progress helping the VA."
Ramping up forces especially in the Pacific was of high importance for Hagel.
"We are increasing our assets and deployment of assets here," Hagel said. "If you look at our Naval assets – those are increasing.
"We're doing far more bilateral exercises out here than we ever have…we're doing far more than we ever done and that supports with the overall rebalancing which includes moving more assets into the area."
"When he talked about the rebalance of the Pacific and focusing our efforts here, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to bring more forces in a permanent based opportunity but in some cases a rotational basis," Emmons said.
This was Hagel's first trip to Hawai`i since taking office. He left to Singapore immediately after today's event and is also expected to visit Belgium.