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'You're the best I have,' Panetta tells USS Stennis sailors

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.

"You're 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 Syria's 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 nation's military, but public visits from the Pentagon's 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-McChord's Madigan Army Medical Center.

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The Army has reinstated Madigan's 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.

"We've made some changes," he said Wednesday. "I'm awaiting further recommendations as to what we can do to do everything possible to make sure that that kind of misdiagnosis doesn't take place."

He outlined to sailors his priorities for maintaining the military's 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 Pentagon's 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 Bremerton's 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. "We're 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 it's 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.

"Deployments are fun. They say it's like a big, floating city, and it really is," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Vanetta Randle, 24, of Silverdale.

One sailor characterized the past two years of life on the Stennis as unusually busy. Panetta said the ship has been at sea about 70 percent of the time over that period.

"It's tough," said Petty Officer 1st Class Ricky McCaig, 29, of Belfair. Frequent deployments "can harm both sides with family and service members; both can lose morale."

He and other sailors said they're accustomed to changing plans at a moment's notice. McCaig said he appreciated seeing Panetta just before the next assignment.

"We're trained to just follow orders and go where we're told," he said. "It's definitely a privilege to have someone doing all the telling come to talk to us about where we're going."

Naval Base kitsap project gets OK

The Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday cleared the way for the largest defense construction project in Washington state -- a $715 million effort to improve the wharf that serves eight nuclear submarines at Naval Base Kitsap.

The corps issued a final construction permit for the project. The Navy plans to break ground next month, a spokeswoman said.

The Defense Department's 2012 budget included $280 million to begin the work, and the Navy gave its final approval in May. Washington lawmakers including Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, have endorsed it as necessary to sustain the base's eight Trident ballistic-missile submarines.

Anti-nuclear advocacy groups in June sued to block the project, arguing that the Navy should have considered other alternatives.

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