Gen. Martin Dempsey is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about the impact of sequestration cuts and recent cultural shifts in the U.S. military.
Dempsey is now responsible for reshaping the U.S. military after 10 years of war, which means scaling the forces down. At the same time, he's fighting to stave off across-the-board cuts to the defense budget — the so called sequester — that could happen in a couple weeks if Congress fails to reach some kind of budget deal.
On the risks of sequester:
"Two words: time and casualties. The way this plays out, when you hollow out readiness, it means that when the force is needed, when an option is needed, to deal with a specific threat ... it would take us longer to react to those. So time is the issue. Some people would say, 'So what?' Well, time generally translates into casualties in my line of work.
"We will weather this. The military is never going to fail to answer the call when the nation is threatened. So we will weather this, but shame on us all if we weather it at the expense of those who choose to serve in uniform."
On cultural changes in the military:
"The reason that we have taken these steps is that we actually do foresee a military that has to adapt to a changing world, [and] not just a socially changing world but literally a demographically changing world.
"I think it's fairly common knowledge that our population of military-age young men who qualify for the military is declining. So as a very practical matter, we decided [that] if in 2020 we're going to need these young ladies, and we're going to need to attract as much diversity and as much talent as we can possibly attract, if that's going to be the case, then what are we waiting for?"
On updating military standards:
"There are currently 66 military occupational specialties that are not open to women. So what you've seen us do is invert the paradigm. The paradigm was: 'These are closed to women so we don't need to explain why.' Now the paradigm is: 'These could be open to women, so we'd better explain why not.' ... What that's done is that it will actually make us wrestle standards to the ground and figure out if we've got them right.
"There are existing standards, many of which haven't dusted off in a very long time, [and] many of which have been narrowly focused just on physical standards, but without the companion piece of potentially psychological and intellectual standards. All I'm suggesting is taken holistically ... I think this will be a very healthy thing for the institution. And it will also have the added benefit of allowing a greater part of the population to compete."
President Barack Obama's pick to be defense secretary is unsuited to head the Pentagon, but Republican senators should stop stalling the nomination and allow a vote on Chuck Hagel, a leading opponent said Sunday.
"No, I don't believe he's qualified," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "But I don't believe that we should hold up his nomination any further, because I think it's (been) a reasonable amount to time to have questions answered."
Republicans have angered Obama by delaying the formation of his second-term national security team, which includes Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, and John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser who's awaiting confirmation as CIA director.
Critics contend that Hagel, who snubbed McCain by staying neutral in 2008 presidential race when McCain ran against Obama, isn't supportive enough of Israel and is unreasonably sympathetic to Iran. The nomination also became entangled in Republican lawmakers' questioning of how the White House handled the Sept. 11 attack against a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
GOP senators also have challenged his past statements and votes on nuclear weapons, and his criticism of the President George W. Bush's administration lingers.
Republicans last week held up a confirmation vote but have indicated that they eventually would relent and permit a vote when they return from their break on Feb. 25.
Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran, said was the right person to lead the Pentagon, and "has one thing in mind: How do we protect the country?"
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's led the opposition with McCain to Hagel's nomination, said critics were "doing our job to scrutinize ... one of the most unqualified, radical choices for secretary of defense in a very long time."
"But at the end of the day," said Graham, R-S.C., "this is the president's decision. I give him great discretion. I can't believe one Democratic colleague is not upset by this choice enough to speak out."
Graham referred to a letter he received from Hagel in response to questions about past statements on Israel, and the senator said, "I'll just take him at his word, unless something new comes along."
McDonough was on ABC's "This Week," while McCain spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Graham was interviewed on "Fox News Sunday."
North Carolina National Guardsman Tracy Johnson is an Iraq War veteran and an Army widow.
She is also one of the first gay spouses to lose a partner at war since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
On Feb. 14, 2012, Tracy married her longtime partner, Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson. But eight months later, Donna was killed by a suicide bomber while serving in Khost, Afghanistan.
"That day, I had a bad feeling," Tracy tells her mother-in-law, Sandra Johnson, during a visit to StoryCorps. "I immediately starting scouring the news websites, and it said that ... three U.S. soldiers were killed in Khost, Afghanistan, and I knew, obviously, that's where she was stationed."
But she had to wait to find out if her fears were legitimate.
"I knew that any communication about Donna was going to come to you guys because even though we were married, I wasn't considered her next of kin," Tracy says.
Donna's sister called and told Tracy that people from the military were at her mother's house. Tracy grabbed a copy of their marriage certificate and went to the house.
"I said, 'You know, I am her wife and I brought documentation,' " she recounts. The notification officer looked at it and asked for a copy.
Tracy then asked if she could be the military escort who brought her wife's body home.
"He goes, 'Well, we'll see.' Well, I know it wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for your insistence," she tells Sandra.
The idea of strangers bringing her daughter home was upsetting.
"I wanted her coming home to family," she says.
Tracy was flown up to Dover, Del., to escort her wife home.
"Honestly, I can't tell how great of an honor it is to escort a fallen hero home, and when that hero's your wife, it means a lot more," Tracy says.
Tracy was given all of Donna's awards and personal documents to turn over to Donna's mother.
"And one of the hardest things for me was our wedding ring. I actually slept with it that night. I put her ring on with mine because I thought it was going to be the last time I was going to get to see it."
Sandra gave the ring back.
"I thought that was only natural," she says, " 'cause I don't know how the Army or any military does it, I just know what's fair is fair."
Tracy thanked Sandra for allowing her to be named as a spouse in Donna's obituary, for the private ceremony where she received a flag, for the copy of Donna's awards, for a seat in the front pew at Donna's funeral. For treating her like family.
"In reality, you married my daughter and that was it," Sandra says.
But someone else in her shoes may have been shut out and not had anything, Tracy says.
"So I understand how blessed I am to be a part of your family," she says.
"Well, I want you to know that I am very proud of you," Sandra replies. "I consider you mine because Donna considered you hers. And I wouldn't have it any other way."