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Secretary of Defense says 'thank you' to Total Force Airmen at Seymour Johnson

  • Published
  • By Maj. Shannon Mann
  • 916th Air Refueling Wing
With two months left as the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates spent quality time with active duty and Reserve Airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base earlier this morning.

This is the first time that the secretary has visited this eastern North Carolina wing since he took office in December 2006. He presented the Bronze Star to a Senior Master Sgt. Arnel Abad, a 4th Fighter Wing civil engineer, for his actions in Afghanistan. Immediately following the presentation he spent an hour with Airmen who had just recently deployed, or are preparing for to deploy, from the 4th Fighter Wing, 916th Air Refueling Wing and 567th RED HORSE Squadron.

"Team Seymour Johnson is made up of patriotic men and women serving their country," said Col. Randy Ogden, 916th Air Refueling Wing commander. "His visit communicates to our Airmen that their contributions to defense of this country are recognized at the highest levels."

Several of the Airmen he met returned from deployment yesterday. Master Sgt. Lori O'Connell, a Reserve boom operator, was part of a KC-135R Stratotanker crew that flew the first night of Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya.

Sergeant O'Connell was a bit surprised to learn about the special guest that was coming to meet them.

"We were tipped off about the secretary's visit before we left Spain," said Sergeant O'Connell. "Our wing commander there told us that obviously this was a nod for the significance of our mission."

Secretary Gates, a former Airman himself, coined nearly 300 Airmen after making comments and taking questions from the audience.

"I joined the Air Force on January 4, 1967," he said to the crowd. "I wanted to visit with Airmen as one of my last acts as secretary."

No question was off-limits as he talked to Airmen about everything from Osama bin Laden to the relationship between the military and the CIA.

Senior Master Sgt. Carla Sanders, a first sergeant with the 916th Maintenance Group who just returned from Turkey this week, asked the secretary about the strain on forces in a continued deployment cycle.

"There is no question that our military is stretched thin," said Secretary Gates. "Clearly this is going to continue for a few more years."

Secretary Gates addressed a burning question about defense spending in a time of deficit cuts. He said the Army would need new equipment when it returned from war to replace broken and outdated equipment. He also addressed the need for new generation air assets.

"We have to have a new tanker," he said.

He expressed that the Department of Defense was doing its part to support deficit cuts, but told Airmen that he wanted to ensure all programs were looked at versus making percentage-based cut across all services. "If we have to be smaller, I still want us to be superb."

The secretary wasn't remiss about remembering those behind-the-scenes that allow the military to be successful.

He thanked the Goldsboro community that supports Seymour Johnson, but also asked Airmen to take a message home. "Thank you for your service and sacrifice. I ask each of you to thank your families too."

For Airman Peter Harpster, 916th maintenance scheduler, meeting the Secretary of Defense was pretty exciting.

"At first I thought they picked the wrong person," said Airman Harpster. "He started in the Air Force and now he is the Secretary of Defense. His appearance here today really motivates me."