‘Team Mullen’ Highlights Troops’ Service, Sacrifices
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2011 As “Team Mullen,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and his wife, Deborah, have championed the needs of service members and their families during the admiral’s four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, speak with Fort Bliss enlisted spouses in El Paso, Texas, March 10, 2011. Mullen will retire as the 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sept. 30, 2011. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The chairman is the principal military advisor to the president, vice president, secretary of state and secretary of defense. Mullen turns over the chairmanship to Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey tomorrow.
The Mullens have worked as a team to tell senior U.S. government officials, members of Congress, and influential business and civic leaders around the country about the efforts and sacrifices made by U.S. service members and their families, and how the public can connect with them. They also worked to improve military family programs, to improve care for wounded warriors, and, especially, to reach out to the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Much of this went on mostly behind the scenes as operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya captured the headlines. The chairman found time for these personnel issues, even as he wrestled with budgetary pressures, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, a change in administrations, the Quadrennial Defense Review and countless other programs that demanded his attention.
The admiral and his wife spoke about their interest in the well-being of service members, their families and veterans during a recent interview.
The Mullens are, of course, a military family -- the admiral was commissioned in 1968 after attending the U.S. Naval Academy. Their two sons are also serving in the Navy.
But understanding the stress the wars have put on families was key in elevating their interest. Early in his tenure, Mullen and his wife traveled to three Army posts and an Army event in Denver. At Denver, “I stood in front of my very first group of Army spouses and I told them that I knew next to nothing about the Army and I asked them to educate me about their lives -- tell me about being an Army spouse,” Deborah Mullen said.
They did, and Mrs. Mullen still corresponds with some of the spouses from that meeting.
“It was the beginning of a long time of learning about not just the Army, but the other services and what they had gone through up to that point,” she said.
In 2007, many military spouses already had seen their husbands or wives head off for one or two year-long deployments. The admiral’s wife said the other military spouses told her about what the strain of deployments meant to their families. They spoke of spouses learning new jobs, she said, which meant new uncertainties to their families. They spoke of the need for new programs and facilities to handle these new stresses.
“[What] these spouses were experiencing was something entirely different, and that was a year with their loved ones in harm’s way, every day,” Mrs. Mullen said.
The Mullens’ goal was to find ways to make differences for these families, but they did not want to step on the toes of the service military leaders. “We don’t see ourselves as activists, but as advocates for those who have carried the burden,” the admiral said. “This has been in our heart and soul forever. It’s frankly why we stayed in the military, because of the people.”
The two wars and the long deployments have highlighted the roles of military families. Ten years ago, few military or civilian leaders discussed family matters. Today, it is rare for a senior military or civilian leader to not mention families. First lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have been very involved in reaching out to military families.
“That’s critical,” Mullen said. “It has a way of focusing everybody and making it a priority and making it much more difficult to drop the money out of it.”
This is not to say there won’t be changes. “The Army is famous for if you’ve got a problem, generate a program,” the admiral said. “I have said in many forums: I don’t need more programs. I need the ones we have to work, and the ones that are not working to go away.”
Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said they do not want to see family programs dry up for lack of funding.
“In a budget crunch, they are usually the first to go,” Mullen said. “I would argue that we keep the money the same and feed it in to programs that work and get rid of those that don’t.”
The Mullens have focused on the hand-off from DOD to the Veterans Affairs Department. DOD’s people, the admiral said, are its most precious asset. Yet, when their military terms end or when they are wounded, he noted, “we hand them off to another department that we really don’t know that much about.”
The admiral praised the Marine Corps for its Marine for Life program. The other services, he added, are also moving in that direction.
Mullen said the nation’s wounded warriors and veterans deserve prompt, quality services devoid of bureaucratic practices.
“These young ones who are in the wounded world, they want their lives back,” Mullen said. “They want to be as medically sound as they can be and continue to achieve the American dream. They deserve it.”
Mullen said early in his tenure as chairman that the money for wounded warriors and for the families of the fallen should come right off the top of the budget. “It’s a debt we can’t repay. These people deserve everything we can do for them,” he said.
The Mullens have visited wounded troops and their families, and have reached out to the families of the fallen. Both have visited Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., countless times. They have met with families and have formed bonds with them, and they tell Americans what the families of the fallen really want. “They ask us not to forget their loved ones and their service,” Mrs. Mullen said.
When the Mullens meet the families in Section 60 or other cemeteries around the country, the families carry pictures of their loved ones and tell stories about their service members, she said.
“They want you to know what happened to their loved ones, and they want to bring them alive to you,” she said. “They want to share the real person with you so when you walk through Section 60, you know that family and that person. Maybe we never met them, but we know who they are. For us that’s a sacred trust and promise we’ve made to the families who have lost someone.”
The admiral remembered meeting a family in Boise, Idaho.
“The mother came up to me and said, ‘We’ll never forget them, but please don’t you ever forget them,’” he said.
Mrs. Mullen had a family email her about a picture they saw online of their loved one’s headstone in Arlington. “They noticed right off that something that looked like a chip in the stone, and they asked me to look at it,” she said. “I went and it was a little spider web that was dark and looked like a chip. I brushed it off and sent them a picture to reassure them that it looked exactly as it was supposed to look.
“This is where their son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father is buried and it’s important to them that it’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Mrs. Mullen continued. “These requests are representative of the families. We need to honor their sacrifices.”
Getting the American public to understand the extent and scope of the sacrifices made by service members and military families is difficult. Less than 1 percent of Americans are serving in the military. Fewer and fewer Americans personally know of people who have served.
“It’s not that they don’t love and respect the troops, but they don’t know what the troops and their families have been through,” the admiral said.
As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen has often been in the news. He has appeared many times on Sunday morning talk shows, been the subject of a “60 Minutes” profile and has had a constant and two-way communication with the Pentagon press corps. But he and Deborah have reached out beyond the normal information conduits. They both appeared on “The View,” and the admiral appeared three times on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” They have traveled the length and breadth of the United States to speak with the American people, to meet with veterans groups and help families.
“The American people want to help their service members and their families,” the admiral said. “There is a sea of goodwill out there for them. They need to know how they can help.”
The Mullens will step back a bit after the admiral retires tomorrow. Earlier this month he spoke of “taking a long winter’s nap” following his retirement. But both said they want to remain involved with service members, veterans and their families.
And the couple said they’ll do their best to connect the American people with their military.