Saying What Could Not Be Said

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Leave it to a German army colonel who is a student at one of the U.S. war colleges to pose the question to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that many in those colleges would have loved to ask -- but couldn't for obvious reasons.

At what served as the end of Hagel's much-touted speech and question-and-answer session at the National Defense University (NDU) at Fort McNair in Washington, the colonel stood to thank the Pentagon and America for the opportunity to broaden his horizons by coming to the U.S. for professional study. He then suggested Hagel delay deployment of a warship, stealth fighter or other expensive piece of equipment in order to continue funding such opportunities for U.S. defense personnel overseas. The NDU crowd roared in approval and Hagel played the moment well and gamely -- he told the colonel he was well on his way to making general and then used the laughter to exit the stage.

Still, the question has serious undertones, of course, as the Pentagon said in February ahead of sequestration taking effect that it was delaying deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman and the guided missile cruiser USS Gettysburg, which had been slated for the Middle East. Indeed, much of the Q&A revolved around furloughs, future entitlement cuts and other budget changes that will impact defense workers.

As for the German colonel's suggestion, Hagel addressed it but earlier, as might be expected of a veteran politician. At the beginning of the Q&A an NDU student asked Hagel why furloughs were going forward -- many other federal agencies have decided not to -- and Hagel responded by noting the unique mission of the Defense Department: i.e., defend the nation.

"Our readiness and capabilities have to always come first," Hagel said.

In other words, right or wrong, defense workers may have to bear the brunt of cuts more than other federal workers.

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