Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team at U.S. Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy, on Jan. 17. (Jacquelyn Martin / The Associated Press)
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VICENZA, Italy — The soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team have gone to war five times since 9/11, and 84 have been killed — including 13 during their current deployment to Afghanistan.
But when members of the unit had a chance to ask Defense Secretary Leon Panetta questions Thursday, the top issue on their minds was jobs.
How would the impending budget cuts affect civilians at their post? And what will it all mean for their spouses and family members who work on the base?
Panetta had few answers, as Congress continues to struggle to reach an agreement that would avoid massive budget cuts. But as he looked out across the somber lines of battle-hardened troops, his condemnation of Capitol Hill reached new heights.
"You guys go out and you put your lives on the line, you take the worst risk of all — which is that somebody may shoot you and you may die," Panetta told the roughly 150 soldiers at the U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza. "All we're asking of our elected leaders is to take a small part of the risk," he said, that maybe they would make some constituents mad.
Making what is likely to be his last official visit to a military base to meet and lunch with troops, Panetta all but called lawmakers cowards and said that by not governing they would be undermining democracy and "the strength of everything that we hold dear."
Lawmakers, he snapped, "just got to suck it up" and do what's right for the country.
Panetta is stepping down after about 18 months as Pentagon chief. President Obama has nominated former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to take his place.
Panetta has routinely criticized Congress for failing to find a way to avoid significant budget cuts for the military.
The Defense Department is facing a spending reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade. An additional $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs will take effect in early March if no agreement on avoiding the cuts is reached. As much as $55 billion of that would hit the Pentagon.
If the so-called fiscal cliff is not averted, defense officials have said they would have no choice but to implement unpaid furloughs for civilian workers, slash training and maintenance, ground some aircraft and ships, and delay or cut contract awards.
On many of the military bases, spouses of the servicemembers work as civilian employees, often struggling to balance families and jobs while their husbands or wives are deployed overseas for up to a year at a time.
The 173rd brigade has gone to Iraq once, conducting an air assault into the north. And members are now on their fourth deployment to Afghanistan, serving south of Kabul in the embattled Logar and Wardak provinces.
The brigade's combat exploits have been well documented. Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, a member of the brigade, became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Giunta stepped into a "wall of bullets" and chased down two Taliban fighters who were carrying his mortally wounded friend away.