New Joint Chiefs chairman gets blunt questions from Army captains about strain of Iraq service
Associated Press Writer
October 23, 2007

FORT SILL, Okla. (AP) Army captains who represent the military's future pelted the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with blunt questions Tuesday about the strain of long war deployments.

The officers, who are students in the Artillery Captain's Career Course at Fort Sill, also asked about recruiting pressures that could leave them supervising more soldiers with discipline problems.

At times technical and other times very personal, the officers reflected the worries of a military struggling to fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without exhausting troops, alienating their families or driving soldiers away.

Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, four weeks into the new job, didn't have all the answers or the ones they were hoping for, during a 90-minute forum. But in his first trip to get to know the Army better, Mullen collected e-mail addresses and promised fuller responses later.

The long and repeated battlefield deployments were a prime topic.

One year at war and one year back at home "is not good enough" one officer flatly told Mullen, setting the tone early for the discussion.

After explaining that the Pentagon is hoping to stretch the time at home to 15 months for every year deployed, then go to two years at home and then three, Mullen acknowledged those goals are years down the road.

"I got it that it's not good enough," said Mullen. "I take your point, that one-to-one is not good enough."

Asked if overall time in combat should be capped, Mullen cautiously replied that battlefield experience is crucial, but he agreed that "there are limits beyond which you will not stay."

Mullen, a career naval officer, has said he is concerned about the effects of the wars on the Army. He's visiting three Army bases in Oklahoma and Kansas this week and meeting recruiters at a conference in Denver.

Soldiers in Oklahoma, many of whom have served two battlefield tours, spoke at length about the pressures on their families, and how those can push them out of the service.

Officials at Fort Sill allowed journalists to listen to the discussion but asked that the names of the soldiers not be used on grounds that could inhibit them from speaking openly.

"When it becomes a burden to my family, it becomes repulsive," said one captain, who told Mullen that he wants a stable assignment so his wife can go to school but said he was told that "family considerations don't play a role" in such planning decisions.

Mullen grimaced as the officer said he was preparing to leave the Army because of the problems.

"We can't not take family considerations into account," Mullen said. "That is just not the case in 2007. It can't be the case if we're going to have a healthy force."

But Mullen also told soldiers that while he would like to be able to predict deployments of the future or what the state of the world conflicts will be, he can't.

Echoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, Mullen said the U.S. will likely be involved in persistent conflicts for some years to come.

In rapid fire, the Army officers moved from questions about war tours, to efforts to repair and replace equipment and worries about the increased use of waivers to let soldiers with criminal records serve.

One captain said that during his recent tour in Iraq he spent long hours every night dealing with problem soldiers, troops who went away without leave or had other issues.

Mullen said that pressure to bring in enough recruits to increase the size of the Army has triggered a greater use of waivers, but he has seen no data showing increased disciplinary problems.

"To some degree, the jury's out," said Mullen. "We're very mindful the potential is there."

On the upside, Mullen said the Army is the best trained and equipped in the world and is a model for other countries. The question, he said, is: "How do I hang on to all of that?"

And he challenged the officers to use their time at school to come up with ideas to solve the problems and get them to their superiors.

Mullen later flew to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and spoke to about 800 military students at the Command and General Staff College. During questions there he heard many of the same issues, as well as broader questions about military strategy, the Middle East and the ongoing effort to send more soldiers to work in training teams for the Iraq and Afghan armies.

Mullen said later that he was not surprised by the concerns expressed by the officers.

"Based on my expectations, I think what I heard is what I expected," he said. "It validates where I think we are and it also validates the need as a priority to figure out a way to relieve that stress."

The leadership of the Army and the Marine Corps, he added, are addressing the issues and "it's not going to be an overnight fix."

(Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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