Chairman Asks Straight Questions, Gets Hard Answers
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
DENVER, Oct. 24, 2007 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen yesterday heard some hard truths when he asked hundreds of soldiers about their service.
“All I want to do is start a family, buy a house and have some stability,” an Army captain ready to leave the service to better meet the needs of his family said in Fort Sill, Okla.
“We need something better. That’s just not good enough,” another captain said of the 12-month home-station time between deployments.
Still another young officer said he was planning to end his military service, not because he was ready to be finished, but because his family was.
The newly appointed chairman, only four weeks into the job, stood in his Navy khakis in front of the battle-hardened Army officers and didn’t even flinch. In fact, he said he welcomed their candor.
“I got that it’s not good enough. And how do we change that as rapidly as we can, keeping in mind that there’s reality out there … for all of us that there are requirements?” Mullen responded.
“Your questions have very adequately described the challenges that we have,” he said. “If there was an answer, then I could just grab it off the shelf and say, ‘This is it.’ But it’s just not there. But I think it’s very widely understood where we are.”
Yesterday was the first leg of a two-day trip to visit three Army installations to talk to soldiers and gauge stress levels caused by the service’s high operational tempo since the beginning of the war on terror.
This is the admiral’s first trip as chairman to Army posts within the United States, and he held a handful of informal question-and-answer sessions with soldiers at Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Mullen also made a stop at an Army recruiting conference here. His wife, Deborah, is with him on the trip and is meeting with soldiers’ families.
Second only to the war, the chairman said, his priority is resetting and revitalizing the force, and this trip will allow him personally to hear concerns of soldiers.
His first stop was at southwestern Oklahoma’s home of field artillery, where the chairman fielded questions from the Army and Marine students in the Captain’s Career Course. He then spoke to nearly 1,000 students in the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Today, Mullen will travel Fort Riley, Kan., where he will view military transition team training, have lunch with troops and visit patients at the post hospital. Fort Riley is home to 1st Infantry Division, the Army’s oldest continuously serving division.
The admiral started yesterday’s sessions by saying he is grateful for the sacrifices and duty of the servicemembers and families. He said the nation’s force is serving at the most dangerous time he has witnessed in his 37-year career.
“We have, as a nation, asked the young people in our country for over 231 years to bear the burden of our national security and pay for it, as they are right now, with the ultimate sacrifice,” Mullen said. “I am extremely grateful … for your service.”
The chairman told troops that ground forces are the “center of gravity.” He promised no immediate answers, but took names and e-mail addresses and promised more detailed answers later.
He said uncertainty in the Middle East and other regions has made it nearly impossible to predict what the future would hold for U.S. servicemembers. “Our ability to predict based on what we understand the future is going to be is pretty tough. The world’s getting more interconnected and more challenging, … and what that speaks to is that we’re living in a time of incredible change,” he said.
“I think we’re going to change everything about the military,” he said, including how the force trains, recruits, educates and develops its troops.
He noted that many of these issues already are in the throes of change. “All those things are changing in front of us. Some things so rapidly that it is difficult to predict exactly where we are and, in some cases, where we’re going,” Mullen said.
Despite what might be considered indecisive indications, Mullen’s sessions with the troops were anything but wishy-washy. In a booming voice, somewhat louder than one would expect from his grandfatherly demeanor, the chairman pledged his support to the troops and their families.
“Without family support we couldn’t get the job done,” he said. “We have to have a healthy force for the future, … so where you are, what you’re doing, … whether you stay or go and make a difference in the armed services with us in the future is a big deal. I don’t take that for granted. Your service, your family’s service for what we’re doing right now is truly extraordinary.”
He also detailed his vision for extending dwell time between rotations. First, rotations need to allow for 12 months between 15-month rotations. Longer-term plans call for a flip, with 15 months dwell time between 12-month deployments. Eventually, Mullen said, he plans for 12-month deployments with 24 months between, and even sees a peacetime plan of 12-month deployments with 36 months between.
But he cautioned the mantra must remain “mission first” for the force and that changes would not happen soon. “We can’t wave a wand and get there overnight. We understand that, but those are the goals. That’s the vision,” the admiral said.
Surge brigades starting their return at the end of this year will “prime that pump,” and “how far and how fast we can get there after they get back is a question to be determined.”
But, the chairman added, “I believe that the leadership has got to keep this issue front and center to know exactly where we are at all times.”
The chairman also extolled the need for the Army to be able to return to its conventional skill-specific training that has, in many instances, been sidelined for deploying troops in favor of needed counterinsurgency training.
“I think it would be high risk to hang our hat on that this is going to be (counterinsurgency) for a long, long time. So we can’t let these skills, which are critical warfighting skills, we can’t let them atrophy,” Mullen said.
How much the reserves will be used in the future is also a question that has to be answered by senior leaders and will have an impact on deployment rates for the total force. Mullen called the reserve components’ performance since the start of the war on terror “absolutely stunning.” But officials need to decide how much of the force will return to a strategic reserve and how much will stay as an operational reserve with shorter deployment-readiness times and more regular deployments.
“The dependency we have on the Guard and Reserve, we’re going to continue to have,” he said.
Finally, the nation’s top servicemember called on the troops to demonstrate exceptional leadership during this time of difficult change.
“Leading in a time of change is particularly challenging,” he said.
Mullen challenged them to help come up with ideas and solutions for some of the problems they identified today. “In addition to explaining what the problems are, we also need solutions,” he said, and urged them to use their time at the schools to brainstorm ideas and submit proposals to their leadership.
But, most importantly, as leaders they have to take care of the troops, Mullen said.
“We can have the greatest missions in the world, we can have the greatest equipment in the world, (and) it’s not going to make any difference if we don’t take care of each other, if we don’t take care of the people that make it happen,” Mullen said. “You represent the most important resource. We’ve got to make sure we get it right for our people.”