Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh visited Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield on Thursday and Friday. It was his first visit to the installation, and McHugh is the first secretary of the Army to meet with the 75th Ranger Regiment in more than 30 years.
McHugh began his visit Thursday at Hunter, taking the opportunity to talk with aviators of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the Rangers of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, as well as other units.
On Friday, he observed a live-fire exercise by the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team. He even had the chance to fire an M1A2 Abrams tank.
“I think it was pretty cool,” McHugh said of “shooting” from a tank during an afternoon news conference at 2nd HBCT headquarters. “It was a lot more fun than being at the Pentagon. They say I hit the target, but I have to take their word for it.”
McHugh, who spent 17 years in Congress and describes himself as a “recovering politician,” said he really appreciated the opportunity to visit what he called a “legendary” division — the 3rd Infantry Division. He said he wishes he could get out and visit the troops more often.
“It puts a face on the Army,” McHugh said, explaining it helps to meet and get to know the men and women in the Army. “The Pentagon will eat you alive with paperwork. That’s why it’s taken me two and a half years to visit this installation.”
Topics discussed by McHugh and Maj. Gen. Robert “Abe” Abrams, 3rd ID and Stewart-Hunter commander, who assisted him during the news conference, focused mostly on the affects of budget cuts on the Army and, specifically, Stewart-Hunter.
Both the secretary and the general said they wish they could say they know how Stewart-Hunter might be directly affected but, no decision has been made yet. McHugh did explain, however, the Army’s plan to reduce its overall active force to 490,000 during a five-year period. He said the Army intends to reduce its numbers by losing eight of its combat brigades, starting with two brigades in Europe.
He said the Army is trying to make the drawdown easier for commanders and less painful on soldiers. One way it is doing that is to allow commanders at the brigade level to make retention decisions.
“What the secretary is referring to is a decision to empower subordinated leaders to make retention decisions that used to have to be made at the division level,” Abrams said, explaining that the leaders who know which soldiers are the best qualified would now be the ones making most retention decision. “When a soldier met minimum retention standards, commanders used to have to request to retain that soldier.”
When asked about his impression of the soldiers he met, talked with and even shared lunch with, the secretary was optimistic.
“Our soldiers are still focused on the mission,” McHugh said, noting that some mentioned their concerns about how budget cuts might affect them. “Most said they believe we’re going to be better because we’re going to keep the best.”
McHugh emphasized budget cuts would not be made to family support programs and services.
He said he and Abrams had talked about soldier suicides and spouse abuse and said they want to stress to both soldiers and family members that help is available and, more importantly, that it’s OK to seek help.
He added the reduction of deployment lengths to nine months for most soldiers was good news to both soldiers and families.
“If someone had told me on Sept. 12, 2001, that we’d spend the next 10 years fighting a war (on two fronts) with an all-volunteer force, I wouldn’t have believed them,” McHugh said. “I want to express not only my gratitude to our fighting men and women but also to their families and all the people outside the gate. Nobody does it better than what you have here.”