Defense secretary addresses budget woes, sexual assault in Colorado Springs stop

June 28, 2013 Updated: June 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talked about sexual assault, military readiness, budget cuts and overseas threats during a swing through Colorado Springs Friday.

And to an audience of more than 100 soldiers at Fort Carson, he added something that top defense leaders seldom say.

"I'm sorry," Hagel told the troops about recent attacks in Afghanistan that have claimed three Fort Carson lives this month. "Our prayers are with you, we acknowledge and we're sorry about it."

Since taking his post four months ago, Hagel has been traveling to meet top commanders and American allies. He came to Colorado Springs to see U.S. Northern Command boss Gen. Chuck Jacoby and tour the command's facilities including the underground Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center.

The Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska also tried to allay increasing anxiety about a budget standoff that could see the Pentagon's budget cut by $1 trillion during the next decade.

"This is the time to be creative," he told Fort Carson soldiers who learned this week that the post's 3rd Brigade Combat team is being disbanded. "I think Army leadership is right on this."

The brigade cut will leave the post with 24,500 soldiers in 2017, down from a projected population of more than 26,000.

Other cuts will be felt in the Pikes Peak region sooner. Starting July 8, thousands of Defense Department civilians at area bases will begin taking the first of 11 unpaid furlough days. The workers will lose two weeks pay by Sept. 30 as the Defense Department cuts $47 billion from its 2013 spending.

Hagel said the cuts and furloughs won't leave the country inadequately defended.

"I can't take it any closer to the readiness line," Hagel said.

Hagel wants Congress to cancel an estimated $50 billion per year in planned future Defense Department spending reductions that came under sequestration.

He expressed worry Friday that the sequestration cuts will harm the military's ability to field a force that's ready for battle. "I don't think you can choose between education and training; and modernization and equipment," he told soldiers. "You have to have both."

Hagel addressed a series of stories in The Gazette that found that Army misconduct discharges have spiked by 25 percent since 2009, including discharges for soldiers suffering combat-related illnesses or injuries. Hagel said looking into the issue is a top priority.

He said he's working with the Veteran's Administration to ensure all troops get adequate care when they return from war.

"There's no higher priority for me," Hagel said. "We produced the veterans we hand off to VA - we have some responsibility here."

Hagel has faced a firestorm over a rapid rise in the number of sexual assaults in the ranks. A Pentagon survey found that 26,000 sexual assaults took place in the military last year.

"It's a scourge on this great institution," Hagel said,

"We're better than that. We don't break the law. We don't assault our own people."

Apart from telling soldiers they each had responsibility to stamp out sexual assault, Hagel outlined no grand plan to counter the crime.

"It isn't going to be fixed by a directive, a training session, or a new law being passed," Hagel said.

While he's facing plenty of challenges in the Pentagon, Hagel said troops in Colorado Springs have given him something to smile about.

He praised the response of Pikes Peak region military units to the recent Black Forest fire, which consumed more than 14,000 acres and at least 511 homes.

Air Force bases in the region sent firefighters and C-130 aerial tankers. Fort Carson sent firefighters, bulldozers and helicopters.

"It isn't exactly in your job description, but it's who you are," Hagel told soldiers who fought the fire.

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