Panetta to travel to North Africa, Middle East

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta next week will visit newly elected leaders in two of the countries where the Arab Spring unfolded, followed by consultations with close U.S. allies in the region.

Panetta will travel first to Tunisia, the country that led the series of popular revolts that have rocked North Africa and the Middle East over the last 18 months, followed by a stop in Egypt, where the regime of President Hosni Mubarak collapsed last year. Panetta will meet with the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an ally of the country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement, as well as Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Egyptian military.

The pivot takes a pounding

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s “pivot to Pacific,” a strategy now rebranded with the more neutral-sounding “rebalance,” was in the crosshairs Thursday of scholars and strategists who think the United States should keep its foreign policy center of gravity firmly in Europe.

The Atlantic Council, a NATO-oriented Washington think tank, hosted a daylong conference on the future of U.S. European Command and broader U.S.-European defense ties in an age of tightening budgets and war-weary publics on both continents.

Middle East exercise will focus on seaborne mine countermeasures

WASHINGTON — Militaries from more than 20 nations will practice seaborne mine countermeasures later this year in a multilateral exercise in the Middle East, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.

The Pentagon said the exercise, from Sept. 16 to 27, is not intended to intimidate Iran. The regime threatened late last year to mine the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, as tensions rose over the country’s nuclear program.

Navy security team fires on boat near UAE

A Navy security team aboard a U.S. oiler fired on a small motorboat Monday after it ignored warnings and continued advancing toward the U.S. ship near the United Arab Emirates, according to a Navy news release.

The sailors on the USNS Rappahannock tried nonlethal measures to warn the approaching boat to stop, but the warnings weren’t heeded, according to the release.

Strike group headed to Central Command early

WASHINGTON – The USS Stennis strike group will deploy to the Central Command area of responsibility four months early, just six months after returning from its previous deployment in the region.

Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, asked to move up the strike group’s deployment based on “a range of factors,” and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved it late last week, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

Army reports 23 suicides in June

WASHINGTON—Twenty-three soldiers are believed to have committed suicide in June, slightly fewer than in May, the Army reported Friday.

There were 11 likely suicides among active duty troops last month, while for reserve troops not on active duty, 12 suicides were reported. In May, 16 active-duty and nine reserve soldiers are thought to have killed themselves.

Advocacy group demands congressional hearing on Lackland sex-assault scandal

WASHINGTON – Members of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders are demanding Congressional hearings on the Lackland Air Force Base sexual assault scandal, saying that it shows military leaders haven’t done enough to stop rape and abuse.

“The military has proven that it is unable or unwilling to protect our defenders,” said Nancy Parrish, president of the group. “Our elected officials must do more to end the crisis.”

Panetta's Independence Day message to troops

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday afternoon released the following Independence Day message:

“On this Independence Day, I would like to extend my gratitude and best wishes to our entire military family:  our men and women in uniform who serve around the world, and their families, and our Department of Defense civilians who support them, and their families.  On this day, we honor all of you for your service and the many sacrifices you make to defend our freedom.

“While many Americans will spend this holiday with family and friends enjoying summer weather, fireworks, and outdoor barbeques, others will be on the front lines defending our country.  Today, in particular, the American people pay tribute to those of you deployed overseas for your strength, your courage, and your willingness to put your lives on the line to protect this country.

Military gay rights groups agree to merge, continue advocacy

WASHINGTON — Two of the most powerful advocacy groups behind the military gay rights movement agreed this weekend to combine their operations into a single professional association, moving the groups beyond last year’s repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

Board members from OutServe, a network of more than 5,500 gay servicemembers and veterans, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides legal assistance on discrimination and harassment issues for gay troops and veterans, voted to join the two groups into a new yet-to-be-named organization by October.

Army announces first woman headed for recently opened combat support role

WASHINGTON—The Army on Monday announced the identity of the first female recruit headed for one of the combat support roles recently opened to women.

Cicely Verstein, 21, of Morgantown, W.Va., signed up in June and will enter basic training in November to become a Bradley Fighting Vehicle systems maintainer.

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