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Medal of Honor recipient: Panetta trips a 'boondoggle'

Wednesday - 4/18/2012, 11:22am  ET

AP: 5f0c450c-73b9-43db-bc89-a3ae9dcc6cd5
FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2012 file photo, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Panetta says he regrets the cost to taxpayers of his weekend trips to his California home, which cost about $32,000 for reach round trip. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

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Retired Col. Jack Jacobs, MSNBC military analyst

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Alicia Lozano, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta might be reassessing his costly trips to the West Coast, but a Medal of Honor recipient is stunned by their hefty price tag.

Retired Col. Jack Jacobs, military analyst with MSNBC, called the news that Panetta has been flying to his family's home in northern California on taxpayer dollars a "boondoggle."

"This is really bad news when the Secretary of Defense is talking about cutting the fat from the budget -- getting rid of sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines, cutting our defense, and then to spend $8,000 on trips home is really disgusting," he told WTOP's Mike and Bruce.

At a Pentagon briefing on Monday, Panetta said he regrets the cost to taxpayers, which averages $32,000 per round trip, but said it is important "just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight" by spending time with family.

Still, Jacobs points out that during his entire tenure, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates only traveled home to Washington state three or four times a year. Panetta is already up to 27 visits since July.

"It's really quite annoying when somebody, particularly at the top of the food chain who is supposed to be setting an example for everybody else, does what can only be described as abusing his position," Jacobs said.

Panetta is required to travel on military aircraft so he can remain in constant, secure contact with the White House and other top civilian and military leaders. He routinely works, makes phone calls and, when necessary, travels a short distance for secure video conferences while he is at home at his family's walnut farm.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, jumped to the secretary's defense at Monday's briefing.

"Let me help the boss here, because if I couldn't get a hold of him, we'd have a really different relationship," he said, adding that Panetta "doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him."

He also noted that Panetta often couples his trip home with visits to military bases.

"This is not about him just using that airplane to get himself back and forth to the West Coast every weekend," he said.

Panetta has reimbursed the Treasury about $17,000, or $630, per round trip. The total cost since July is $860,000.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP and the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)