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Patriotic Article
By Donna Miles

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People 'First and Foremost' as Military Shifts Focus
(February 12, 2009)

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FORT DRUM, N.Y., Feb. 9, 2009 – As the military begins to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, it can't lose focus on supporting troops and their families, most importantly by increasing the “dwell time” at home stations between deployments, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told 10th Mountain Division soldiers who returned from Iraq in November, others training for a 2010 deployment, and wives of deployed troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan that they're the backbone of the military.

"Thanks for what you do, and your service to your country at this critical time," Mullen said at a town hall meeting of junior soldiers grades E-4 and below. "[You are] the best we have ever had, and [I am] exceptionally grateful for your service to our nation.

"You serve a larger calling than just yourself, as does your family," he said. "We couldn't do it without you, and we couldn't do it without the family support that has been extraordinary."

In a separate session with family readiness group representatives, Mullen and his wife, Deborah, extended thanks to family members whose loved ones have deployed two, three, even five times since 9/11.

"I recognize that we have asked extraordinary things and have seen extraordinary results," he said. "I don't take that for granted."

As the military looks to the future -- one likely to see greater focus on Afghanistan and possibly tightened budgets -- Mullen said it can't lose sight of the basics of taking care of people. "It is first and foremost," he told the family group. "I don't care what we buy. At the core of our future success is our people."

A top priority, he said, is to increase dwell time between deployments. The 10th Mountain Division soldiers currently have as little as 12 months at home between deployments. Much of that "home time" actually is spent away from home, training for the next deployment.

Mullen said he wants to see dwell time extended as quickly as possible, and to make as much of it as possible time actually spent at home.

"I am hopeful that in about 12 to 24 months, we can take some of the pressure off with increased dwell time at home," he said. "We recognize the need for more time at home. I'm focused on it, the secretary of defense is focused on it, and so is the president. He has told me that personally."

The chairman said he'd also like to see the highly unpopular "Stop Loss" program – which allows the Army to keep soldiers in critical specialties beyond their enlistment contracts -- end as quickly as possible. "If I could do it, I would stop it tonight," he told a spouse. But as the Army increases its end strength and trains up those forces so they are deployable, he conceded, it's more likely going to take 24 to 36 months before the program can be lifted.

Mullen pointed to rising suicide rates and the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder as signs of the heavy stress troops are under. He urged them to look out for each other and help to de-stigmatize getting help when it's needed.

Looking ahead, Mullen said, it's highly likely the military will face budget cuts. That needs to be done by cutting programs "where costs have spun out of control" so funds remain on the war effort and taking care of the troops fighting it and their families, he said.

But the United States must ensure deploying troops have the equipment, training and other support required to succeed, the chairman said. "We cannot send young men and women off to war and not give them the resources that they need," he told the soldiers.

"If have to make some hard choices, we'll do that," he said. "But most of all, we need to get it right for our people and fund the wars we are in."

That includes protecting not only military pay and bonuses, but also medical care, family programs, housing and other allowances. These help ensure that "when you make a decision about your future, you're in a world-class outfit, and you will make a decision to stay if that's right for you," Mullen said.

Today's troops represent the future of the force, he said. Mullen told the soldiers and their families he's focused on "making sure that the combat-hardened force we have -- after multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the best we have ever seen -- is in fact the guarantor of a successful military in the future."

Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, the division's rear-echelon commander, called Mullen's visit a great shot in the arm for the 9,000 soldiers currently at Fort Drum, as well as about 9,000 deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The most important thing for them is that he knows they're carrying a heavy load and appreciates it," Mangum said. "Hearing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say thank you means a lot."

Article by Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Copyright 2009

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