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Carter Thanks Troops, Discusses Concerns in Worldwide Troop Talk

WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 — To remain the best force in the world, the U.S. military must maintain readiness and be flexible enough to attract and retain the best talent, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today in a worldwide troop talk.

At the top of the hour-long event from the Pentagon, Carter thanked the service members in the room and around the world for all they do for the nation.

"You are what make ours the finest fighting force the world has ever known. It's our people. It starts with our people," Carter said. "So that's my whole day and all my attention basically centered on our folks."

He took questions through social media and from service members in locations including Baghdad, Kabul, Afghanistan; Guam; on the USS Zumwalt advanced warship; and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

DoD Requires Budget Certainty

Carter pointed out he appears before Congress Sept. 22 for a budget hearing accompanied by Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Carter said he is "pleading" with lawmakers for budget certainty. In the meantime, the department is "managing as best we can," the secretary said.

"We need the resources that are necessary to defend the country and keep our force the finest," Carter added.

The department's top priority is readiness, the secretary said, and that comes from funding that is dependable.

"We never want anybody to go into harm's way who isn’t fully trained for the mission they're going into -- that's got to be job one," he said.

Being Flexible to Retain the Best

Carter talked about how the department has recently instituted a number of positive changes regarding personnel, including the expansion of parental leave, and updated transgender policy.

This is all about building a strong and ready Force of the Future, he said.

"Wherever we can afford to be flexible, we should be flexible, so on maternity leave, for example, we've doubled the length of that [to 12 weeks]," he said. "We've looked at the readiness implications and decided it was way worth it in terms of retention, compared to any impact it had on readiness."

And, he pointed out, openly transgender service members can now serve without worry about being discharged for being transgender.

"I need to make sure as secretary of defense that not only do we take care of you, but that there comes behind you a generation that's as fine as you are," he explained about maintaining a strong, all-volunteer force.

Carter Discusses ISIL, Global Challenges

The secretary outlined a number of global priorities for the military, including maintaining a presence in the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Concerns, he added, include Russia and Iran, as well as the continued fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"In the last 18 months, we've also gotten a lot of results in what will be the certain crushing of ISIL in Iraq and Syria and everywhere else in the world," he said.

The United States will be in the Middle East for a long time, he said, in response to a question from Army Staff Sgt. Rory Radtke who’s serving in Baghdad. 

"It's a big world out there and we're going to be there," Carter said "And you bet, we'll be in your region even after ISIL is defeated -- and ISIL will be defeated." 

Army or Navy Win?

After asking about cybersecurity, and hearing Carter explain how defending the networks is a top concern, West Point cadet Adam Kratch had another pressing question for the defense chief: "Who do you have winning this year, Army or Navy?"

Carter said, amid laughter, that he could not answer that question, but added he will be attending the annual, much-anticipated football matchup.

"It's always a great game, but I can't say. I'm a joint guy here," Carter said.

(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)

Distribution channels: Military