Chairman Reaches Out to Ground-Force Troops
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2007 When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen asked a room full of soldiers at Fort Riley, Kan., how many had been deployed more than four times, a scattering of hands shot up.
When he asked for a show of hands by those who had deployed two or three times, almost all the soldiers raised their hands.
When Mullen asked who hadn’t yet deployed, only a few hands were left in the air.
It was a theme that permeated the chairman’s two-day visit to three stateside Army posts. In his remarks, the chairman repeatedly acknowledged that the Army has borne the brunt of the deploying ground force in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Evidence of soldiers’ service in Iraq and Afghanistan greeted Mullen at every stop. During his visit to Fort Riley, Mullen put his finger into a bullet hole in a Kevlar helmet that now serves as a souvenir for a wounded warrior he met with. Mullen’s wife, Deborah, fed a snack to the smiling toddler comfortable in the soldier’s lap.
When the chairman re-enlisted nine troops there, seven wore unit patches on their right sleeves, denoting service in a combat environment. In a room of nearly 20 Command and General Staff College students at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., all but one wore a combat patch, and an auditorium of nearly 1,000 students there was a veritable sea of combat patches. At Fort Sill, Okla., every young officer who stood to ask a question of the chairman wore a combat patch.
Mullen said he wanted to get a gauge of how stressed the force is. For his efforts, the chairman received straightforward feedback from troops who expressed concerns about dwindling “dwell time” at their home stations between deployments, a lack of conventional training in their core warfighting skills, discipline problems created by the Army allowing more soldiers in with waivers for education requirements and previous criminal acts, and poor conditions of equipment that has been stored in motor pools while troops were away for months fighting a counterinsurgency mission.
“I got very much what I was looking for. It was what I expected,” Mullen told reporters traveling with him in an interview at the end of this trip. “I am an out-and-about leader. I can’t do this from the Pentagon. I’ve got to get out and meet people, look them in the eye, create opportunities to get that kind of feedback.”
While the whirlwind trip took the chairman through briefs on Army programs and training, Mullen spent the majority of time talking with troops and displaying caring candor. His wife met with servicemembers’ families to do the same.
When Mullen’s staff would tell him he had time for only one more question at the town hall meetings with troops, the admiral would take two or three more. At Fort Riley, Mullen ushered out all unit leaders and media to have a lengthy, private conversation with recovering wounded soldiers. At lunch, he sat behind closed doors surrounded by troops.
In the two days, the chairman fielded “extraordinary concerns,” but his confidence in the capability in force was still intact, he said.
“It’s just concern about the stress of deployments. They are accomplishing the mission at an exceptionally high level. They are tired, (but) their morale is good,” Mullen said.
The admiral pointed to the service’s strong retention numbers as an indicator of the stability of the force, but he also conceded that a prolonged war at the current tempo would eventually take its toll.
“I’m not concerned it’s falling apart, but I’m mindful that there are limits, and we’ve got to pay attention to these kinds of things,” Mullen said. “And the goal would be to get policies in place before we reach those limits. Because my experience is if we see … a significant departure in terms of our young officers and our mid-grade noncommissioned officers, then we’re a couple years behind the problem.
“Most the indicators we have are lagging, so if we see it out in front of us, it’s going to take a long time to recover,” he said.
Mullen said the all-volunteer force has never been this tasked. He pointed to the quality of the servicemembers, but acknowledged that quality troops and their families inevitably will tire from the strain.
“It’s sustainable across mission accomplishment, quality, retention, family support, and it is sustaining itself in that regard. But it is not sustainable long term,” Mullen said.
Mullen said he was most concerned by complaints from young officers who said that Army branch managers were not taking into consideration family needs when making assignments.
Two young officers at Fort Sill said they were told by branch managers that family considerations were not a priority when making assignments. They both expressed to the chairman that they were likely to end their service. At lunch with troops at Riley, the complaint was echoed.
“I had a young officer tell me that she was not handled well at all by the branch manager … and that family issues were not a priority,” Mullen said afterward.
He said the officer’s husband was also in the Army, currently deployed and they had two children.
Another told him: “‘I love what I’m doing, but it’s really, really hard on my family. And I don’t sense a lot of interest in the branch management world,’” Mullen said.
The admiral said those comments “crushed” him.
“From a leadership standpoint, I cannot abide by that, and won’t,” he said. “And I assure you, I will address that with the leadership with the Army.”
Mullen previously managed an assignments branch for the Navy and said he understands the pressure to fill slots, a task made even more difficult by the war and frequent deployments. “But I believe that with the right guidance and leadership that it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said.
The chairman said the needs of soldiers, families and the military can be met with the right policies and leader emphasis, and added that it is critical now to put the focus on the servicemember.
“I really do believe we’re at a time when we’ve got to put our people at the center of this assignment cycle and meet those needs, and we can do it, … which is a different approach than (putting) the Army needs (first), and everything else falls in after that,” he said. “I really believe that we can meet both. But it’s got to be prioritized that way, and it’s got to come from the leadership, and it has to be enforced.”