By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 26, 2007 - U.S. troops in Iraq are anxious to come home, but also want to ensure that they don't leave too soon for their efforts to take hold, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today in Manhattan, Kan. Speaking at Kansas State University's Landon Lecture series, the defense secretary said the first troops not to be replaced in Iraq have already returned home, and more will follow in December.
He noted that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has laid out a proposed timetable to return one Army brigade combat team home about every 45 days through July. This will reduce the force in Iraq by five brigade combat teams.
"My hope is that the circumstances will permit continuing those drawdowns after July," Gates said.
Talking to deployed troops, Gates said there's little doubt they want to return home. "But they also don't want their sacrifices and their efforts to have been in vain," he said. "And they also don't want their sons to have to go back in 10 years."
Gates cites "some remarkable progress" made in Iraq during the past several months. "That progress is what is enabling us to begin brining down our troops, and I think we just all need to pray that we are able to continue that," he said.
Asked about the consequences of the war – particularly troops wounded in combat and with mental health problems – Gates said even one casualty is one too many.
He called suicides among veterans of the war "a real concern to us," that the military is taking steps to prevent.
"I can tell you that every commander, every unit leader is looking at ways to see if they can identify soldiers that are exhibiting symptoms of psychological distress," he said. "There is a very intense effort under way, training has taken place throughout the Army in terms of recognizing post-traumatic stress syndrome to identify soldiers that have these problems."
The mental health of its troops is one of several factors the military uses to assess the health of its force, along with others such as recruiting numbers, retention rates and divorce rates, Gates said. "These are things we are monitoring very, very closely," he said.