Defense secretary visits Eglin AFB Published July 14, 2014 By Samuel King Jr. 96th Air Base Wing Public Affairs EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- "You make a difference. You are defining history," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, flanked by two F-35A Lightning IIs, during a troop call here July 10. Hagel's four-hour tour of the 33rd Fighter Wing's F-35 integrated training center included the mission simulator, a hands-on tour of an F-35A static display as well as a discussion with joint strike fighter pilots and maintenance chiefs. After the meeting, Hagel said the pilots and maintainers were clear about what they thought about this aircraft. "They told me this is the best aircraft they've ever flown and some said it was easiest they've ever flown,” he said. “They gave me a very good sense of this aircraft, (its) capabilities, what it can do (and) how important it is going to be for our national security. I was particularly happy to hear that, because I believe this aircraft is the future fighter of our services." During his visit, Hagel focused on safety first, with reassuring words after a recent F-35 accident here which temporarily suspended F-35A flying operations. The incident is still under investigation. "We are not going to put aircraft in the air or ask anyone to risk their life on any platform for any reason unless we feel absolutely secure that it is safe," he said. "That is what we are evaluating now." The Defense Secretary moved on to address financial matters because he said he knows it is on troops' minds, especially how it affects their career, future and family. "We are undergoing as intense a budget reduction process as this department has seen in many years," he said. "We are going to have to be smart about how we prioritize our resources, be clear in our missions and be effective in how we operate. I know you are doing that and I'm aware of it. We are making progress in some areas. "People are the highest priority of our enterprise," Hagel said. "(The) quality of the people makes the institution. This base represents that quality of people and priority. The base is defining a new dynamic of world affairs and of security. This platform is going to do that as much as any platform we've had in recent times, but this would never work would work without you." Members of the 33rd FW realize the significance of the defense secretary's visit. "It's always an honor to have decision makers visit from D.C.," said Lt. Col. Eric Smith, the 33rd Operations Support Squadron commander. "It signifies how important the program is to national defense."