RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. This week Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed a line of visitors into his office at the Pentagon.
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: OK. Ready?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ready. Let's do this.
INSKEEP: The visitors were members of the military and Hagel greeted them one by one, in a way that reminded him of the start of an old TV game show.
HAGEL: It's like "Hollywood Squares" here. How are you? Welcome. Nice to have you.
INSKEEP: You hear Hagel's pat on the back of the uniform.
HAGEL: Sergeant, good to see you. Welcome.
INSKEEP: All six of the visitors were non-commissioned officers, NCO's, enlisted men and women who after years in the ranks are now corporals, sergeants, petty officers or specialists.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello. Nice to meet you.
HAGEL: Nice to have you. Welcome.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: They posed for quick photos in an office they'd surely never seen before. They rank far below the generals and admirals who usually visit. But NCO's are regarded as the keepers of military culture who make sure a commander's orders are carried out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning, sir.
HAGEL: It's always good to have a Marine around. Good to see you.
INSKEEP: Since becoming Defense Secretary this year, Chuck Hagel has been asking the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, even the National Guard and the Coast Guard, to send NCO's to lunch in this office once a month. He bantered easily with a man in a sailor's uniform.
HAGEL: There's special Navy food for you over there for you, sailor. But no Navy coffee, by the way. I don't allow it in here.
INSKEEP: The NCO's loaded their plates with potato chips and sandwiches and cookies, and poured coffee into gold-rimmed cups.
HAGEL: Pick what you want.
INSKEEP: In this setting, Hagel hoped to get some sense of what's on the minds of more than one million enlisted personnel around the world. Hagel has a personal interest. This former Republican senator and businessman was once an NCO himself, an Army sergeant in the Vietnam War.
If you had been brought in with the Defense Secretary of your day, what would you have asked?
HAGEL: I probably would have stuttered my way through my chocolate chip cookie, but I may have asked, if I would have had the courage to ask, what is our objective in Vietnam?
INSKEEP: I wanted to know what NCO's are asking in this time of tremendous change. So the secretary let me come to lunch. We were asked not to record the lunch, so the service members could speak freely, but were able to listen to the full conversation, and talk with the secretary afterward.
HAGEL: You can't build institutions, you can't build national security for this country, unless you have the right people, motivated in the right culture, and they believe they're being treated fairly.
INSKEEP: And that's complicated at a time when the Pentagon is allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly and preparing women for front-line combat roles.
HAGEL: When you're breaking new ground on these issues to make society fair and more equal, there is always going to be a certain questioning and - is this good enough? Are we doing enough?
INSKEEP: Over lunch, Hagel talked with the NCO's about the problem of sexual assault. Last spring an Air Force officer in charge of preventing sexual assault was accused of it. One of the NCO's told Hagel it's not good when you see your leadership doing it. Hagel said, quote, "The system is broken," though he's ordering additional protections for assault victims. One woman at the lunch table mentioned that she's deployed twice to Afghanistan, a reminder that women are already under fire.
Now for the first time, women are being trained for formal front-line combat roles. In a Marine Corps exercise, 15 women began a training course at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. Only four are still in the course. It's a test of the military's determination to hold women to the same standards as men.
If because of that determination you end up with very, very few women in combat roles, is that OK?
HAGEL: It is a critical issue and I have never heard a woman Marine or a woman Army, enlisted or officer, individual say to me, well, we should lower the standards or expectations for women. And so we have to balance all of this in a way that makes sense to give women a fair and equal opportunity to participate in all these jobs. And we are. And it takes some time to work our way through that.
INSKEEP: I don't want to prejudge what will happen here. Maybe it will end up being 50/50 women and men, we have no idea over the stretch of time. But given some of the early results, I'd just like to know, if it ended up being in a couple of years that combat infantry units were still 98% men, would that be a problem?
Well, I think I will reserve that answer and judgment to see where we are in couple of years.
Is it important that you get a large number?
HAGEL: Well, I don't think there is any set number you want. You have a certain percentage of women in our military today, but I don't think you come at this saying we are going to absolutely have a quota system and we're absolutely have so many Marine women officers in combat roles and so on. The main point is that women have a fair opportunity.
INSKEEP: Sitting through Hagel's lunch with the non-commissioned officers, it was apparent that the military is more than a force - it's a microcosm of society. The NCOs at the table have deployed from Okinawa to Iraq. But they were also thinking about their careers, the difficulty of promotion, and their family lives.
Hagel is thinking about the cost of paying their salaries and benefits. The United States is reducing its force from post-9/11 levels, and may have to reduce it more.
One of your predecessors, Robert Gates, fingered a specific thing that he thought was driving that and that's rising health care costs for current and former military personnel. He said they were eating the military alive. I don't think very much has changed about that. And I'd like to know if you're at a point where health care costs are almost as large an enemy, as some of your potential enemies around the world.
HAGEL: Well, health care costs are consuming a larger and larger percentage of our budget every year. Personnel costs, right, now including retirement compensation and health care, are about 50 percent of our total budget. We know what the trend lines are on that. We know we can't afford it. And we have made a number of recommendations, the administration over the last few years on their budget presentations, on the budget presentation that I made.
But Congress has to be a partner in this. If we don't make some tough choices here along the way - and it needs to start now - then we'll have a military that's heavily compensated but probably a force that's not capable and not ready. I mean that's where it's going. That's not a subjective comment. So we can deal with it, now, in a fair way that doesn't hurt anybody. It's like Social Security reform and Medicare reform; if you start adjusting now to the future.
INSKEEP: Hagel says the U.S. military is still by far the most powerful in the world. But when those six non-commissioned officers talked over lunch, another theme emerged. Even though they've served overseas, several suggested this country needs to spend more time and energy on problems at home. They'd rather focus more resources on drug problems, or domestic security and less on being so deeply involved in so much of the world.
Hagel gently reminded them of a point he is also making in speeches to a skeptical wider public: He doesn't think the United States can safely withdraw from the world.
I wonder if, as you sit behind this desk that we're near here, if you feel that you're really conscious of the limits as well as the possibilities of American power. Do you think that it is harder and harder for the United States to get things done that it wants to get done?
HAGEL: Well, every power, great power on Earth has limits to its power. We have limitations to our power. The world is more complicated today. The other countries are developing their own capacity, economic capabilities and their military capabilities. It doesn't mean that we're becoming any weaker. But other countries are evolving and becoming stronger.
It's an imperfect world. There are a lot of uncontrollables out there. But that's the world that we live in. So we don't have any option but to strategically manage our way through those big challenges. And we can fix our weaknesses. We can adjust to those weaknesses.
INSKEEP: Secretary Hagel's job is to adjust an immense organization to prepare for whatever comes next. It's a balancing act for him, and for the enlisted men and women who shared a meal with him this week.
One of the men at the table had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but during the lunch his mind was elsewhere. He told Secretary Hagel his wife was pregnant and going into contractions. He'd have to rush away as soon as lunch was over.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.