By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 23, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today briefly escaped from Capital Beltway budget discussions to land squarely in the center of what he said framed his strategy behind the fiscal year 2010 defense budget proposals. With his suit jacket off and wearing a U.S. Marine Corps hat, Gates was surrounded by young Marines here as he posed for pictures and handed out coins while visiting with some of the 8,000 Marines who are slated to deploy to southern Afghanistan in the next few weeks with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
It was, Gates said, a visit that struck at the core of his proposed budget changes that would shift billions of dollars in warfighter programs away from traditional supplemental funding and into the base budget and cut some big-ticket weapons programs, as Gates tries to balance the need to plan for future conflicts while providing for today's troops and families.
"One dollar of pork in our budget is a dollar I can't spend to support these Marines," Gates said at a news conference during his visit. "One dollar spent on capabilities we don't need is a dollar that I can't spend in getting ready for future threats. One dollar spent for equipment excess to our military requirements is a dollar I can't use to help protect the American people."
Gates spent last week traveling to each of the service's war colleges explaining his budget thinking, but this was some of the strongest rhetoric yet from the defense secretary as Congress returned this week to begin its budget deliberations.
"I'm hoping that the Congress will take a careful look at this budget and the changes that we're trying to make, in no small part, to provide the necessary support for these men and women who are about to go into combat," Gates said.
Gates left Washington at about the time many in the Pentagon were just arriving for work and landed under sunny, spring skies at this 156,000-acre coastal training site that prepares Marines for deployment to combat and humanitarian missions. Camp Lejeune has three state-of-the-art training facilities for military operations in urban terrain, or MOUT, and 80 live-fire ranges.
True to its mission of training Marines for war, the sounds of rapid gunfire could be heard in the background as Gates talked to the media.
"I actually haven't given a press conference with that kind of a background since my first visit to Baghdad in December 2006," he joked.
Earlier, perched on a railing overlooking the newest of the urban training facilities, Gates watched as about 30 Marines from the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion assaulted the makeshift metal buildings. Mock insurgents peppered them with blank-fire from the rooftops as the troops advanced.
Smoke and sounds of gunfire and grenade blasts filled the air during the 10-minute assault, which served as the final exercise for this stage in the Marines' pre-deployment training.
Gates also got a first-hand look at the training that will prepare the Marines to deal with the latest in countering improvised explosive devices. In a metal building with camouflage netting draping from the walls, Gates watched as a combat veteran flipped through slides detailing the latest threats and how to avoid them.
He also pinned achievement awards on the chests of four Marines. At one point, Gates detoured from the dusty training area road on which his entourage was walking to shake the hands of some Marines training in the nearby tree line.
The secretary also had his customary luncheon with Marines, ushering out the media and key leaders.
These Marines are the first wave of the 17,000-troop build-up that President Barack Obama ordered to bolster the 38,000 American troops already in Afghanistan. Many in the brigade already have deployed, or are on leave before deploying.
Officials said many are on their third or fourth deployment, and Gates called the Marines part of the "most battle-hardened force the United States has probably ever seen in its history."
Gates said he hopes that the overall increase in the Marines' end strength by 27,000 Marines, along with the continued drawdown in Iraq, will help to alleviate some of the burden of frequent deployments and to increase time at home with their families. Marines should see some relief by the end of this year and the start of next, Gates said.
But still, Gates said, those he talked to were eager to join the fight in Afghanistan. All have volunteered to serve since the war in Afghanistan began, he noted.
"For months [Marine Corps Commandant] General [James T.] Conway has been telling me that the Marines in Anbar province in Iraq are, frankly, bored and want to get in the fight," Gates said. "And that certainly was the impression that I got this morning."
Marine Corps Cpl. Bryan Goldberg, who shook hands with the secretary, said he was looking forward to the deployment.
"It's going to be pretty hectic over there. It's a kinetic environment," he said. "We're just going to do our best, and come home safe."
Marine Corps Cpl. Jeffrey Haertling was one of the recipients of the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal. He said Gates' visit underscores the importance of their upcoming mission, and that having the defense secretary present his award was a special treat.
"It meant a lot," he said. "Any time you get an award it means a lot, but to have the secretary of defense come, it was nice."
But, it was the defense secretary coin that was the real prize of the visit for Haertling and others. The Marines walked away eyeing their coins, flipping them over in their palms.
"Not many people can beat that coin. That's definitely the highest coin that I've seen," Haertling said.
And, in keeping with the long-held military tradition that whoever holds a coin from the highest-ranking individual drinks for free, the young Marine said he likely will not have to buy another round for his remaining time in the Corps. "No, I will not," Haertling said with a laugh.