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Ombudsman

As Hagel made his rounds, let’s hope he noticed how Stripes matters to GIs

Last week, just after he announced a plan to cut $1 billion from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary Chuck Hagel headed downrange to visit the troops. Offshore of the 5th Fleet’s expanding base in Bahrain, he spoke to sailors and Marines aboard the USS Ponce. Heading on to Afghanistan, he met with troops in Kabul, at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province and at Kandahar Air Field. In Qatar on Tuesday, he stopped at the Combined Air Operations Center.

At every stop, along with declarations about the U.S. commitment to the region, carefully calibrated geopolitical gestures, and expressions of confidence and thanks, the Pentagon’s top civilian reassured the members of each service with some variation of the message captured in Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll’s reports from the trip: With the continuing drawdown of troops abroad and the relentless budget pressure back home, something’s got to give, but we’re going to take care of our people.

One of the ways the Defense Department does that, especially downrange, is by making sure the troops have a free flow of information about what’s going on back home. That’s the unique and critical mission of Stars and Stripes. I hope the secretary noticed how troops downrange look forward to that touch of home and snap up the paper when they see it.

Stars and Stripes has been delivering an independent news report to American troops for generations, helping them stay informed so they can exercise their rights as citizens. Hagel, the only enlisted combat veteran to become secretary of defense, can no doubt recall what Stripes meant during his days as a squad leader with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam.

All this is by way of saying that Stars and Stripes’ free press mission has mattered historically, it matters today and it will matter in years to come. It won’t be shielded from any impact of that $1 billion Hagel wants to cut from OSD over the next five years, but it shouldn’t suffer a crippling cut — and certainly should be spared any further consideration about whether to shut it down entirely.

Chances are, to take the optimistic view, those shutdown considerations were of the pro forma sort that accountants and finance managers can’t resist, whether in government or in private business. “Everything is on the table” — the repeated description of the Pentagon budget review that opened up speculation that Stripes might be shut down — is a textbook starting point in a search for places to cut a budget.

Trouble is, what’s a baseline for bean counters can open options that really shouldn’t be on any table.

So, when a mindless money crunch like sequestration crumbles a rational budgeting process, irrational choices can follow. Opportunists can be tempted to work out their private wishes. In Stripes’ case, that could look like a chance to get rid of a nettlesome news operation — one that Congress mandates should be free of command interference.

Ray Shepherd, the director of Defense Media Activity — of which Stars and Stripes is one element — told me he thinks there are a few people who would want to shut down Stripes, but not many. “You see one-offs here and there,” he said. “But the majority of people want that service and value it.”

Shutting Stripes down? “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that,” Shepherd said.

Stripes Publisher Max Lederer worries about continuing budget cuts, especially blind, across-the-board cuts of the kind produced by sequestration, but he doesn’t see the people who might want to eliminate Stripes as having the influence to pull it off. “I don’t think those people are sitting in the positions that will actually make the decision,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of support for us at the Joint Chiefs and with the senior NCOs who support the chiefs.”

Still, it’s worth being watchful. In my role as Stripes’ “complaint department,” I’ve talked with servicemembers at many ranks in every branch, including a lot of public affairs officers. A small few have been direct in saying they’d be glad to see Stars and Stripes vanish, but far, far more say they appreciate it for its coverage independent of the command message and its usually well-chosen general news report and other content of the kind they’d get from their local paper back in the States.

Here’s how Ray Shepherd puts it: “I tell people, ‘Imagine yourself going on vacation for two weeks and you haven’t had contact with home. How do you feel? Disconnected. Now amplify that by three years.’ ”

Put simply, deployed troops look forward to Stars and Stripes, and they rely on it for a taste of home.

I hope Secretary Hagel got a good taste of that as he made the rounds downrange — enough to spike any further speculation about shutting down Stars and Stripes.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.com, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to Ernie Gates’ blog.

 

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