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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Marriott Wardman Park, Washington, DC, Monday, March 11, 2013
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you. Thanks. Please, have a seat. So I am the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also known as the only thing standing between you and happy hour. (Laughter.) So you’ll have to gauge how many questions you want to pose based on that little factoid in your lives. 

First of all, congratulations for your leadership, for taking on the task. Leadership is always difficult. It is especially difficult these days, it seems to me. And so your willingness to take positions of leadership in your cities is quite encouraging to those of us who are committed to trying to make America safer, more stable, more secure and more prosperous. So thanks for that. 

A little bit about this day in history. I always remind myself that the challenges that we face are not unique. They come and go throughout our history. On this day in history, in 1986, Popsicle, the company that makes those wonderful, tasty ice treats, decided to go away from the double popsicle and exclusively put all of their investment into single-stick popsicles. (Laughter.) That’s true! And by the way, from that day forward in our history, we’ve forgotten how to share. (Laughter, applause.) And I think we’re seeing that play out today, somehow. That’s true, though: 1986, Popsicle from two to one, and here we are. We’re stuck with it. 

Let me introduce you to somebody here. Put up my slide, would you? I don’t normally rely upon PowerPoint, and this is no exception, but I do want to introduce you to this young man. This is an image – I try to carry around in my head images to remind me of why what I do is so important – why what we do is so important – and this is one of those images. And it could be – this happens to be an Army staff sergeant serving in Afghanistan. It could just as well be an Air Force parajumper. It could be an F-18 pilot in the Navy landing on a carrier. It could be a Marine on patrol in Helmand province or anywhere else in the world. It could be somebody on the DMZ in North Korea. 

This happens to be an Army sergeant in Afghanistan, and let me tell you why I carry around this image in my head and I’m sharing it with you today. The subtitle of this image is what’s important. It’s the subtitle of “trust.” Trust is what binds together those who serve, but I would also suggest to you today it’s what binds us together – those that wear the uniform and those of you that serve in your communities. Let me point out a couple of things about the image. 

First of all, you can see – by the way, are there any retired, noncommissioned officers in the audience? Okay, you’re going to hate the picture because, you know, he’s got his sleeves rolled up. He doesn’t have his eye protection on. He’s got a scarf around his neck. There’s always some noncommissioned officer in the audience that says, look at that guy. He’s out of uniform. 

Just get over that for one moment, if you wouldn’t mind. (Laughter.) Take a look at his eyes. You can see in his eyes those conflicting emotions that always occur when you place someone in harm’s way. He’s got courage and fear all working together. He’s got confidence, and he’s got concern. He’s just got those conflicting emotions that occur in that kind of an environment. 

Secondly, if you look to his left – your right – you’ll see that someone is watching his flank. That’s another soldier. And that squad leader, that sergeant right there, doesn’t have to worry about what’s happening on that side because he knows that he has a soldier on that side that’s taking care of him. And by the way, vice versa: The soldier isn’t worried about his back because he knows that squad leader is behind him. 

By the way, think of the power of that in an environment where you could be shot at any moment. These two men, in this case – could be men and women – but these two men have such trust in each other that they don’t worry about what’s going on around them. They can concentrate on their job because they know that, as part of a team, they’ve got their wingman or their battle buddy just off to their side taking care of them. 

He’s got a hand mic. You can’t really see it, but he’s got a telephone receiver in his hand – a radio – and he’s calling for something. Now, based on the fact that his eyes look like they do, you can be sure that it’s something he really needs. And it could be close air support. It could be a medical evacuation. It could be logistics. It could be almost anything. But here’s what sets us apart as a nation. And I’ve got almost 39 years of service, and I’ve traveled around the world, and I’ve met dozens of my counterparts from every nation on the planet. Let me tell you what sets the United States military apart – many things, by the way, but let me tell you the one I’m thinking about right now. 

And that is this: What that guy needs, what he’s calling for, he’s going to get it. And he’s going to get it because the people of the United States have made a commitment that, when they send that young man into harm’s way, he will be the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led on the planet. (Applause.) And we have to consider that to be the imperative as we go forward and figure out these budget challenges. We can’t ever forget that if we’re going to ask some young men and women from your communities, from my military to go out and do that kind of work, we have to support them. It’s just not an option. And it’s not an option because of that word trust. 

He also – and some of you might be able to see it if you’re up close – he’s got a wedding band on his finger. And that reminds me of many things. It reminds me, first and foremost, that, that bond of trust that we have with that soldier has to run back to his family. It must. He’s got to believe that, were something to happen to him, that his family would be cared for. Because you just can’t ask a young man, or a woman for that matter, to put themselves in that kind of situation unless you also provide for them the confidence that if something happens, they’ll be cared for. And that’s part of this bond of trust that runs from the battlefield, it runs back to the institution of the military, and it runs out into your communities. 

And now let me segue for just a minute, before I take your questions, and tell you how important it is and how encouraged I am that, as part of your agenda here this week, you’re taking on this issue of welcoming back into your fold the veterans who we have asked to do such heavy lifting over the last 10 years. (Applause.) And let me also say, because I want to be clear about that veteran you’re getting, this is not – you know, there have been many studies and many people have written and spoken about the plight of the veteran. 

And by the way, those that need help, need help, but you know, going into conflict can also be an act that builds strength and builds resilience and builds confidence. And we’ve seen it work both ways. Mostly, by the way, these veterans have actually grown in the experience. And when you get them back, most of – now, again, the ones that need help, need help. The wounded, the disabled, those that suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injury – there’s no question they need help. But what a veteran needs who hasn’t suffered those wounds – he just needs or she needs a chance. They’re not looking for charity. They’re looking to be challenged. (Applause.) 

So what I would ask you to do as you kind of wrestle with this issue is recognize that the veterans that come back, I believe, can become an enormous resource for your communities as they bring back those skills of courage and commitment and discipline and strength and can be part of your communities in a very extraordinary way. They can be – they already are this next generation of great Americans. And with your help, they’ll be even greater. And so I really do appreciate you taking this task on. Look, if you don’t remember anything else that I’ve said here today, you’ve got to remember the popsicle thing, for sure, okay. (Laughter.) How could you forget the popsicle thing? 

But I also want you just to burn that image into your own memory because that image and what it requires to sustain that bond of trust – it requires all of us working together – not just those of us in uniform but you, the citizenry of the United States and its leaders, who have to make the same commitment to maintain that bond of trust. And I promise you, you’ll have a partner in those of us that are leading the military at this point in our history. So that image and then the other piece of it, which is, as we downsize – and make no mistake about it, we will – we will be placing many of these young veterans back into your communities. 

And I want you to see them for the incredible resource that they are and embrace them as fellow citizens and someone who just wants a chance to continue to develop and raise a family and earn a living. So thanks very much for everything you do. (Applause.) Now, in an uncanny way, I was supposed to talk for 10 minutes and then ask you for questions for 10 minutes, and by my observation of the clock, I hit it exactly on the nose. (Laughter.) 

MR.: That’s called military precision. Yeah, thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. We have a number of questions, and we may not be able to get to all of them, so I apologize if we don’t get to your question. But General, thank you so much for being willing to accept some questions. The first question that I’m going to ask you from our audience is what effect will sequestration have on veterans’ services, particularly TAPS? 

GEN. DEMPSEY: TAPS is one of – TAPS is actually one of those organizations that I have embraced, along with Gold Star Families and Wounded Warrior Project and some of the others. If you don’t know about TAPS, it’s the survivors assistance effort. And in particular, they do great work with not only the spouses but also children of those who are killed in action. 

What effect? Well, sequestration – and you heard the secretary before me say it – sequestration was, you know, the thing that was never supposed to happen. So when people say to me, you know, are you not, now, going to just get on with it and figure it out, well, of course we will. Look, we’ve got to defend the nation, and we will. And we’ve got to maintain that bond of trust, and we will. But there’s going to be some long-term readiness issues that will affect the force. 

I mean, you can’t take $500 billion out over nine years, 46 billion (dollars) over six months. I mean, Houdini couldn’t figure that out. So when I get – when I get asked about why we’re not figuring it out, it’s because I’m just – I’m not Houdini. I’m – you know, there are some things we’re going to have to do to sweep up every bit of money we can find in the next six months because a lot of it – those of you that are businessmen know – most of a budget – more than half of it is generally burned in the first half of the year, especially when you’re looking at long-lead acquisitions and things. So it’s going to have an effect. 

Look, what – the commitment I’ve made is we’ve got to keep faith and make sure that the force that we’re deploying, the one that’s there now and the next to go, they will clearly be the priority, as will the wounded, because we’ve made – you know, they’ve made a commitment to us; we’ve got to make a commitment to them. And our commitment to partnering with organizations like TAPS – I mean, you can count on me to continue to be a strong advocate of that. 

But there will be things we don’t even know that happen, so I say I’m going to make sure we’re committed to Wounded Warriors, and then a wounded warrior’s spouse tries to go to the commissary in Fort Carson, Colorado, and it’s closed. That’s going to happen because this issue of sweeping up the money we need to get through the year – there will be things done at the local level that we won’t have any visibility on, but – this is going to shock you – people in Washington don’t know everything. (Laughter, applause.) There’s a corollary to that that would probably get me in trouble – that people in Washington know – anyway, you can figure that out. (Laughter.) 

But I’m telling you, there are – there are going to be things that we don’t see at this level that will affect your communities. And what I’ve encouraged, you know, the military members and families to do is we’ve got to stay in touch with each other so we actually understand the effect. 

But look, I – you know, there’s a cliché we use in the military that sometimes you just can’t put lipstick on a pig, and this is a pig. (Laughter.) 

MR.: Thank you. Appreciate such a good and direct response, and we’re all with you on that. (Applause.) 

So, next question. What is the essential role from local government in partnering with the federal agencies like the Department of Defense, the VA and others, and other community stakeholders? Do you see something very specific that you can help us help you? 

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. I mean, first of all I think the commitment that you would expect me to make is that we will become better stewards of America’s resources. You know, after 10 years of budgets that were extraordinarily generous – and they were generous because we were sending that kid and many like him out to fight – but America is in a different economic position now. And you have to expect me to appreciate the economic challenges that we all face as America, and in that context to do better with the defense budget. And you have that commitment. 

As we do that, by the way, I think – to answer your question, I think that private-public partnerships become more important, and that is to say, you know, our ability to find partners to help us with the issues that maybe the central government can’t solve by itself – that becomes more important – and then the relationship of the central government and states and counties and cities in taking on issues like the care of veterans. 

You know, I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey in the ‘50s, and so – I know that some of you don’t believe I was alive in the ‘50s – (laughter) – but I remember vividly – I was born in 1952 – I remember vividly, you know, my uncles, my father, you know, those veterans of World War II, and I remember the identity. They had a – they had a particular identity, that World War II generation. 

And then I remember being at West Point as the Vietnam veterans came back, and they had a particular identity. And the nation wasn’t as kind, by the way, to that group of veterans coming back. (Applause.) You know it because – no, they weren’t. And they weren’t because they had – they had blamed the warrior for the war. And you know, that put us in a really difficult position, not only as a military but as a nation. 

And then, you know, the Desert Storm veteran had a particular identity. 

And what I’m suggesting to you is that, first of all, the identity is generally shaped by you, not by me. I can tell you who I want you to – how I want you to think about this veteran from this conflict, but the way you embrace them back in your community will actually be what establishes that identity of this decade’s warriors, this decade’s soldiers, this decade’s sailors, airmen and Marines. 

So I guess what I would suggest to you is as we go forward we ought to have that discussion collaboratively about who do we want this generation’s veteran to be, because it will happen if you let it. You’d actually, I think, want to shape it, and I think the way you shape it is by committing to making sure that that image of this generation’s veteran is the one you want as an American citizen. 

And again, the fact that you’re taking this up on your agenda is actually quite encouraging to me. 

MR.: OK. Thank you. (Applause.) 

So if you have time for a couple more questions – 

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, sure. 

MR.: This is another question from our – a member of our audience out here. What is a soldier going to look like in 10 years? What do you think that’s – what do you think we’re going to look like in terms of what your needs are? And we have a lot of young people here as well. 

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, they’re not going to be nearly as good looking as this generation’s soldier. (Laughter, cheers.) 

MR.: We’re – both joined the 60s club last year. I want you to know that. So – 

GEN. DEMPSEY: (Laughs.) Right. 

That’s a great question. First of all, important to note that the nature of warfare never changes. Whether it’s a knight on a horse or an infantryman with a bayonet or someone with a remotely piloted aircraft, the nature of war doesn’t change. It is fundamentally a contest of will between nations or groups. That will never change. And what will change over time is the character of it, how it is waged. 

You know, if you’d said to me 10 years ago – so you want me to look 10 years in the future – if you’d said to me 10 years ago that we would have – that we would have the kind of challenges we’re having today with the Internet, cyber; if you’d have told me that there would be such a proliferation of ballistic missile technology; if you’d have told me that we’d have, you know, 7,500 or so remotely piloted aircraft – robotics, I would have said you’re out of your mind. There’s no way that kind of change occurs at that speed. And it did. 

And in fact my prediction is that in the next 10 it will be exponentially faster than the last 10 years. 

And so it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what will happen, although I would suggest to you that robotics will play a bigger part just because they’ve become, you know, this artificial or semi-autonomous – artificial intelligence, semi-autonomous – algorithms that can – that can make – help leaders make decisions at a faster rate – all that will – all that will kind of establish the requirement to stay ahead technologically. 

But fundamentally – fundamentally that same image you see or you saw on that screen will be the essence of what it means to be a soldier, a sailor, an airman, a Marine or a Coast Guardsman. You have to be willing to personally put yourself in harm’s way at some times to defend this nation, and that will never change. (Applause.) 

MR. : Great. Thank you. 

So, final question: As one of only 18 military officers in our country’s history to serve at every officer rank, which one gave you the most pleasure or did you have the most fun at? 

GEN. DEMPSEY: Which what? 

MR.: Which one of those ranks or positions gave you the most pleasure? 

GEN. DEMPSEY: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s got to be second lieutenant. (Laughter.) You know, second lieutenants – I mean, anybody – where’s those noncommissioned officers? Did you have any expectation of getting anything out of a second lieutenant? (Laughter.) 

So it’s the last time I met expectations. (Laughter, applause.) 

Now, the truth is – you know, it has been a genuine – honest to God, I can – I actually know when I’ll – you know, I mean, I can see the end of my career. And every day – literally when I get up every morning I put the uniform on and I know that my days are numbered in uniform because, you know, the great generation behind me is, you know, getting ready to push me off the top of the pyramid. And that’s great, by the way. 

I’ll tell you what, we’re going to be well served for many years with the kind of young men and women we’ve got in the ranks today, and thank God for it. (Applause.) 

But so the job I’m in now is not a lot of fun, frankly. I mean, that’s probably shocking to some of you – (laughter) – but it’s just not – there’s a lot of things going on, a lot of challenges. But I’ll tell you what, many of us came in the military – all of us I think, all of you who’ve served – you come in and you say, you know, I want to make a difference, I want to serve my country, I want to – I want to believe in something bigger than myself and I want to belong to something. That’s kind of the motivation really. 

And people will say to me now, man, it must be an awful time to be the chairman. And I said, you know, not really. When I came in the military I thought I really wanted to try to make a difference. Well, if that was my motivation then, I’ve arrived because now – and I’m telling you this because you also have chosen – the mayors in this room, the city councilmen and women – you’ve chosen to lead at a time when it really matters. 

Anybody can lead – you know, anybody can lead when the resources are flush, the security challenges are insignificant, the nation’s economy is booming. You know, that would have been fun, probably, to see what you could do in that environment. 

But we’ve got a real problem on our hands now, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re going to solve it and we’re going to solve it with leadership, and I’m proud to lead with you. 

Thank you very much. (Applause.) 

MR.: We honor your service, the representation you give us for all in the military who are serving us. And we will stand up for you as we stand up for our cities and look forward to that partnership extending as long as we’re around and we can do that. 

So greatly appreciate you being with us tonight. It’s an honor. (Applause.) 

GEN. DEMPSEY: Thanks very much. Thanks. Good to see you. (Applause.)