By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 25, 2008 - Touching base with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines was the highlight of a six-day trip that concluded yesterday for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen visited Camp Pendleton, Calif., U.S. Pacific Command bases in Hawaii; and the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, in Canberra, Australia.
Mullen went through an infantry immersion trainer with Marines at Pendleton and met with wounded warriors at facilities there and at Tripler Army Medical Center and Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He also made a special visit to the crew of the USS Lake Erie at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following that ship's successful Feb. 21 shoot-down of a disabled satellite.
The chairman also held "all-hands" meetings at Pendleton and at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
"It's really important to spend time with (the troops) and to understand what is actually going on on the deck plates, and their feedback is always positive," Mullen said during an interview aboard the C-32 aircraft taking him home.
Equipment problems dominated troops' questions to the chairman. Specifically, soldiers and Marines deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan want M-4 carbines in place of the venerable M-16 rifles. "Nothing is closer to an infantryman than his weapon," an Army staff sergeant at Hickam said. "We believe the M-4 is better all around for the type of close-in fighting we do in Iraq. It's shorter and has better close-combat facility than the M-16. Most of us carry M-16s."
Soldiers and Marines also spoke of delays in receiving equipment and not being allowed to use equipment they buy on their own, it.
The chairman promised to look into the situation and get back to the men.
"The biggest concern from their perspective is the issue of equipment, and I will get the feedback back to both service chiefs -- Army General George Casey and Marine General James Conway -- and hopefully get back to the Marine and soldier who asked me those questions," Mullen said.
Meeting the troops is a reminder of "how bright and enthusiastic and how good are our young people who are serving today," he said. Mullen's wife, Deborah, accompanied the admiral on the trip. She met with spouses, and through her, the admiral was able to hear concerns they have.
During a lunch with senior enlisted advisors at Pacific Command, Mullen heard concerns about deployments. "The troops are pushed, and the forces are stressed, and we must keep that in mind as we continue to move forward with deployments," he said. "That message comes back loud and clear."
While defense leaders continue to focus on the strains of the Army's 15-month deployments followed by 12 months at home, "a couple of young Marines I talked to talked about trying to manage their lives on a seven-month deployment schedule," he said. Marines often come back from a deployment, have a month of rest and then immediately start training for the next deployment.
"They are trying to keep their family and personal lives in balance and at the same time work on another deployment," Mullen said. "All of that is part of this cumulative effect of six-plus years at war and this delicate balance we've got between continuing to achieve positive outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stresses on military members and their families."
Mullen said he was impressed with his visits to the wounded warrior battalion at Camp Pendleton, the warrior transition unit at Schofield Barracks, and the post-traumatic stress disorder facility at Tripler.
The Tripler program is a joint venture between the Army and the Veterans Affairs Department. The Army provides the facility, and VA provides the care. "I don't know if it is the model, but certainly it's a great example of some of the things going on out there," Mullen said.
The admiral said he wants to make sure that the military is not focused exclusively on the disability side of the wounded warrior program. He wants DoD, VA and all other agencies focused on "the ability, the potential the troops possess and putting them and their families in the position that they can be great successes in the future."
Part of the challenge, he said, is that DoD leaders don't know enough about the VA system.
"I need to know, because I am taking this individual who I care so much about, and we get to the part of the process where we turn them over to VA," Mullen said. "I don't want to just turn them over. I want to be in touch. I want to know that they are going through a very positive experience in the VA system, as well."
The admiral said the process for wounded warriors really should be one system. "It's the United States of America system: it's DoD, the Department of Veterans Affairs, other agencies, and the American people as well," he said.
Whenever he goes to warrior transition units, he hears a constant theme: that it takes too long to get through the system, Mullen said.
"More than anything else, it's a peacetime process," the admiral said. "We've been in a war for over six years now, and we've got too many peacetime processes. Our processes have to become much leaner, much more effective and quicker, and better adapted to the necessities of this war."
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