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Esper Visits NAS Pensacola

Department of Defense

Defense Sec. Mark Esper toured Naval Air Station Pensacola on Wednesday, his first visit overall and the latest in official visits in the wake of last month’s shooting that left four dead, including the gunman, and eight other wounded. WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody reports.

After finishing the tour, Esper met with the media to talk about the decision made by the Department of Defense in vetting foreign military trainees in the U.S.

“Credentialing differently foreign students; also a new weapons policy and other measures we’re taking to prevent such acts from happening again,” said Esper. “So, all in all a very good day; had a lot of good discussions with the sailors, with the commanders, the chain of command.”

While not going into great detail, Esper said the changes in vetting foreign nationals before training them will be “far more comprehensive.”

“It will look at every aspect of their background; they’ll look at social media, and it will involve continuous monitoring once they’re here in the United States,” said Esper. “We’ve taken any number of measures like that to make sure we have a much higher degree of confidence with regard to each of the students.”

One measure is the issue of access cards to students, granting access to where they need to be, but not everywhere aboard the base.

“I think much safer, higher degree of confidence that we know who is here, we know who they are [and] we know what they’re doing, etc.” said Esper. “Not just Saudi students, but all foreign students will undergo these procedures.”

Part of the Secretary’s tour was meeting with some German students training at NAS. Students from that nation have been here for a number of years.

“It’s another important aspect of the fact that the DOD annually trains thousands of students from over 150 countries,” Esper said. “It’s very important to us, building alliances and partnerships – all of which makes [sic] us more safe and more secure.”

Bottom line, says Esper, is safety for both military personnel and their families. The command, he adds, is working aggressively toward that end. Additional actions were discussed during Wednesday’s meeting.

“We talked about maybe increasing roving patrols, stationary patrols, to give both students, permanent party, and families a greater sense of confidence that their security that is in place and can be even more responsive that the team that was there on the site.”

Another question yet to be answered is when the base attractions – Barrancas National Cemetery, the Lighthouse, and the Museum of Naval Aviation – will reopen to the public.

“We talked about that; I had a chance to drive past the cemetery; I saw the museum, things like that,” Esper said. “It’s a challenge, [but] it’s not unique to this base. There are other bases with other services that have that same challenge that they’re open or semi-open, or aspects of them are open. It’s one that each installation has to address individually, unique to the circumstances.”

Meanwhile, DOD has given the U.S. military branches conditional approval to resume training Saudi Royal Air Force and Navy students – about 850 nationwide. But Esper says as of now, there’s no timetable for their return.

“It’s going to be the call of the service to determine when that is,” said Esper. “I think we’re making good progress in getting to a higher degree of confidence, but acting sec. [of the Navy Thomas] Modly will make that call. Obviously, it’s interactive between what the base feels, what their readiness is to take the students back on, if they feel they’ve addressed that. So it’s something that works up and down the chain of command.”

The investigation into the attack aboard NAS Pensacola, says defense secretary Mark Esper, had a very important impact on their ongoing efforts in security.

“I would say that within a day or so of the [attack], I had already formed a team to begin looking at vetting procedures, screening, and stuff like that,” Esper said. “All the things we need to do to have a higher degree of confidence in the students. But we learned a little more of course, in the wake of the investigation that was conducted by the FBI, NCIS and others. I had a chance to meet with them today, and there were some more lessons learned to be taken from that session today.”

Also during the visit, Esper met with the first responders who ran into the building and returned fire, killing the shooter, thanking them for their courage.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.