TACOMA, Washington -- Leon Panetta used his first visit to the Puget Sound area as U.S. defense secretary to thank a Bremerton-based aircraft carrier crew that accelerated its deployment schedule because of Middle East unrest.
He also took the opportunity to foreshadow budget decisions that could reshape the military in Washington state.
Panetta is sending the 5,500 sailors in the USS John C. Stennis carrier group back to the Persian Gulf four months ahead of schedule to meet threats in nations such as Syria and Iran. The Stennis is due to leave port on Monday.
Youre the best I have, Panetta told about 2,200 sailors who assembled for an all-hands call on the Stennis.
The ship returned from the Persian Gulf in March and anticipated another mission at the end of this year. Panetta in July expedited the deployment because of the uncertain security situation across the Middle East.
The ship will play a role in monitoring Syrias apparent civil war and in protecting shipping lanes from Iranian threats in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Puget Sound area is a major hub for the nations military, but public visits from the Pentagons top civilian are rare. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Fort Lewis in 2002; his successor, Robert Gates, came to the post in 2008.
Panetta did not go to Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Wednesday. He said he was up to date on ongoing controversies about behavioral health diagnoses at Lewis-McChords Madigan Army Medical Center.
The Army has reinstated Madigans commander after a six-month hiatus and eliminated the widespread use of forensic psychiatrists who checked and sometimes changed post-traumatic stress diagnoses among war veterans.
Panetta asked each service branch to review and standardize its procedures for PTSD diagnoses.
Weve made some changes, he said Wednesday. Im awaiting further recommendations as to what we can do to do everything possible to make sure that that kind of misdiagnosis doesnt take place.
He outlined to sailors his priorities for maintaining the militarys strength even as the nation prepares to cut defense spending. He said he aims to:
Sustain promised benefits to current service members.
Provide training and incentives so the force does not become hollow.
Turn the Pentagons attention to challenges in the Pacific region.
Invest in cyber warfare and technology.
Develop rotations for military units to train with and cultivate foreign allies.
Ensure U.S. forces can defeat more than one enemy at once.
In remarks to reporters, he said the Puget Sound defense community is positioned to thrive as the Pentagon turns to the Pacific.
I would assume that Bremertons going to stay busy for a long time to come as a result of having to focus and project our force into the Pacific, he said. Were going to need the kind of shipyards and maintenance and backup that Bremerton provides.
Panetta said he understood he was asking a lot of sailors who only recently returned from seven months at sea.
I know it can be tough, but its also something that makes us proud, knowing that the sailors are ready to deploy, he said.
Many sailors had their minds on their last days at home before leaving on another long mission. They cheered when they learned most would have Friday off.