Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addresses sailors aboard the USS Blue Ridge at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on Oct. 26, 2011.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addresses sailors aboard the USS Blue Ridge at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on Oct. 26, 2011. (Chris Carroll/Stars and Stripes)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — A clear theme emerged at two town hall meetings held Wednesday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Japan and Korea: The heated rhetoric of budget cutting is weighing heavily on the minds of overseas troops.

Tuition assistance, military job cuts and retirement benefits were among the issues raised by troops at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, and later at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea.

“You’ve heard things on the news, you’ve heard things that maybe leak out of briefings, you keep hearing everything is on the table,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Nate Chine, stationed at Yongsan. “But I can tell you I’m excited to hear what I just heard.”

What Chine — who’ll be retirement-eligible in four years — heard was Panetta swearing up and down that he would guard servicemembers’ benefits, and that any changes to promised benefits such as retirement would be grandfathered so as not to affect current servicemembers.

It’s nothing more than what the country owes a group that Panetta called a new “greatest generation” that has fought through the longest series of conflicts in U.S. history, he said.

“You’ve been asked time and time again to deploy to wars, you’ve been asked to deploy away from home, you’ve been asked to put your lives on the line,” Panetta said. “And we asked you to do that on the basis that we promised you certain benefits, for you and your families, and we are not going to pull back on what we promised.”

Army Sgt. Daniel Barea, who asked Panetta at Yongsan about possible cuts to tuition assistance, said he hopes the defense secretary will be as vigilant on that issue as he’s promised to be on retirement.

“He seems to be in touch with what we’re facing, so I hope he does something to stop this,” said Barea, 31. “For an enlisted guy like me, having to pay an extra 25 percent is a burden.”

But the Marines, who recently saw tuition assistance cuts of 80 percent for classes taken during off-duty time, have it worse, Barea said.

At Yokosuka, Panetta spoke to troops who gathered around him on the deck of the USS Blue Ridge under a breezy blue sky, where he proclaimed, “We are here to stay.”

Panetta’s promises about the increasing emphasis the United States would place on Pacific operations reassured one young Navy officer who recently had wondered if he might lose his job.

“It was good to hear a vote of confidence in us, and especially good to hear about the continued presence in the Pacific,” said a junior lieutenant who asked his name not be printed. “We sort of started wondering where we were going after the rumors about the (decommissioning of the) George Washington.”

At an earlier troop town hall on Panetta’s three-nation Pacific trip, which has taken him to Indonesia as well as Japan and Korea, a Japanese sailor asked Panetta about those unconfirmed reports the Navy was considering cutting the aircraft carrier.

Panetta said the United States would not cut back, but would likely expand its military might in the Asia-Pacific region, but did not specifically say he would save the George Washington from extinction.

At Yongsan, Barea said he is discouraged by what looks like a lack of regard for sacrifices by troops. He said he hopes Panetta’s message about keeping faith with military members catches on with more Americans.

“We’ve all been out there doing what we need to do, and then this is happening back home,” he said. “I see the political rhetoric about what’s happening with the budgets, and it scares me.”

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll

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