Panetta praises region’s military support

Published 10:49 pm Friday, October 19, 2012

In Norfolk Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta honored the Hampton Roads community for its “unflinching support to thousands of men and women in uniform,” pledging to “do everything I can to keep this community strong in terms of its military for the future.”

Panetta was a guest speaker, along with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, at the inaugural Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce State of the Military Forum, held under tight security at the Waterside Marriott.

Speaking at the Waterside Marriott in Norfolk Friday for a Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce event, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised the Hampton Roads community’s commitment to the military, and pledged to do “everything I can” to protect military assets here.

A son of Italian immigrants, the former CIA director, chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton and Democratic congressman delved into the story of his boyhood in Monterrey, Calif., a military town, where his father was a restaurateur before the family started farming walnuts.

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“Believe me, I know the importance of the military to the local economy and I also know the impact when a facility is lost,” he said.

“I remember my parents invited a lot of the soldiers to our house for dinner and gave them a taste of Italian food and good company before they went off to war.”

The family later bought a piece of land and planted walnut trees, and in 1977, when he was elected to Congress, his father told him he was prepared for Washington, “because you have been dodging nuts all your life,” Panetta joked.

The humorous anecdote had a serious edge while the nation looks to Washington’s current batch of “nuts” as it approaches a fiscal cliff, the result of last year’s failed deficit-reduction efforts.

As the result of a breakdown in negotiations by the congressional “super committee” charged with cutting spending to avoid a default on the $14 trillion national debt, if Washington can’t reach a bipartisan deal on reducing spending by January, automatic cuts will carve $500 billion more from defense through 2021 than the $487 billion already assured.

The military is “now at a turning point” after the “relatively blank check” it has run on since 9/11, but must still “remain agile … (and) on the cutting edge of technology for the future,” Panetta said.

When Panetta cited ending the Iraq War and pursuing al-Qaida’s leadership — “One of the great honors of my career was to work on the operation that went after Bin Laden,” he said — his visit to Hampton Roads had the ring of a proxy campaign stop in a battleground state for President Barack Obama.

Future defense challenges, Panetta said, include the ever-present threat of terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation, new world powers rising in the Asian Pacific, Middle East turmoil, and “the whole new threat” of cyber attacks.

“This can’t be all about cutting; you have got to invest in the future,” he said. “I will be damned if I’m going to contract out to any other country to protect our defense in this country,” he said.

“I’m going to have to rely on an American industrial base … As part of that we will continue to invest in the unique capability of military and industrial facilities, like those in Hampton Roads.”

Panetta recalled the Civil War “clash between the Monitor and the Merrimac” at the confluence of the Nansemond, James and Elizabeth rivers, which “signaled a new era in naval warfare.

“Ever since, this area has been on the leading edge … Those shipyards are national treasures and they are the backbone of this country’s naval power.”

But the specter of automatic cuts jeopardizes all this, Panetta said, adding, “If we don’t do what’s right, it’s going to blow our heads off … and now the damn gun is cocked.”