By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
June 12, 2008 - The nation's top military officer yesterday praised recently redeployed soldiers here who made up part of the troop surge in Iraq for "changing the calculus in Iraq and giving us possibilities that clearly a year ago we didn't have." Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent a whirlwind day moving from one session to the next to deliver personal thanks to groups from the 3rd Infantry Division: junior soldiers, noncommissioned officers and junior officers, captains, wounded warriors and spouses.
He also assured them their leaders are working to increase "dwell time" at home stations between future deployments, improve quality of life for soldiers and their families, and move as quickly as possible to end to the unpopular "stop loss" program, which keeps some soldiers in the Army beyond the enlistment contract they signed.
Mullen told about 500 junior soldiers who assembled in the new post chapel that they accomplished "what many people didn't think possible" during their 15-month deployment: they brought hope to the Iraqi people, the chairman said.
He noted that they served at a time that was "incredibly dangerous, incredibly violent and incredibly critical for the future security, not just of our country, but of many places in the world."
The surge, part of a new strategy in Iraq, represented a dramatic shift in previous ways of doing business, but with powerful results, Mullen said.
"You set the stage for potentially succeeding in Iraq, and up until that point, that certainly was in question," he said.
Mullen told the soldiers to expect change to be the norm as they continue their Army careers. "We are going to be changing how we educate people, how we train people, how we fight, how we stabilize," he said.
Calling the troops "the most combat-hardened Army" in U.S. history, the chairman said it's important to take the lessons they've learned and apply them to ensure the Army's long-term health.
"Clearly, what you have just accomplished is indicative of being the best military, the best army this world has ever seen," Mullen told the group.
The fact that the division reached its annual re-enlistment goal just five months into the fiscal year -- while serving its third deployment in five years -- speaks volumes, he said, showing not only that soldiers believe in what they are doing and have faith in their division leadership, but also that they recognize that the Army values both them and their families.
The division's success in Iraq wouldn't have been possible without "matchless" support from family members, Mullen said.
"The military has always had great family support, but I have never seen it better than it has been since 9/11," he said. "We could not be the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard we are today without incredible family support -- and particularly with the stress that the Army and the Marines have been under in the number of deployments, lengths of deployment and rotation cycle that we are in right now."
Mullen said his visits to 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq validated his belief that 15-month deployments are too long. He said he's glad to see the Army return to 12-month deployments, but also believes more dwell time is critical.
The current 1-to-1 ratio -- a 12-month deployment followed by 12 months at home -- needs to become a 2-to-1 ratio, with 24 months at home after a 12-month deployment, he said. "That's the goal, and we need to move there as rapidly as we can," he said.
Mullen said during a question-and-answer session that he worries "a great deal" about continued pressure on the force.
"I don't think the force is broken, and you represent that," he said. "But I think that, at this pace for another four or five or six years, this isn't going to work. ... We don't have that much gas left in the tank."
Admitting to another questioner that he dislikes the stop loss policy as much as anyone, Mullen said the Army can't end it until the service is able to increase the size of the force to match the demands on it.
He explained that deploying as units rather than individuals has big payoffs, but it also means "we have to essentially lock down that unit, freeze that unit -- before it deploys, while it deploys and after it comes back."
If anything, the number of people affected by stop loss actually could increase slightly in the next couple of years, he acknowledged.
Mullen conceded that soldiers have endured a lot, through demands from the Army and the missions they've carried out. He urged them to take care of each other, their families and themselves, and to reach out for help if they need it while readjusting after their deployment.
Meanwhile, Mullen called on soldiers at all levels to exercise leadership. "This isn't about being senior or being in charge," he said. "My expectation is that we lead from the front, the middle, the back, from the junior level to our peer level to our senior level."
He told the soldiers that he's seen time and time again in his own career how individuals were able to solve tough problems by stepping up to become leaders. "We can have the greatest stuff in the world. We can have a mission we understand clearly," he said. "But without leadership, we are not going to succeed."
Telling the troops he wanted to hear what was on their minds, Mullen fielded questions about issues ranging from barracks improvements to proposed Montgomery GI Bill enhancements.
Barracks deficiencies discovered at Fort Bragg, N.C., "should never have happened," Mullen said, and he and Army leaders are focused on making sure it never happens again. New barracks being built to replace old World War Two buildings will solve the problem over the long term, but in the meantime, Mullen said, it's up to leaders to ensure their troops get the best of what's available now.
Mullen said he supports proposals to boost GI Bill benefits and allow troops to transfer unused benefits to spouses and children. He declined to support any single approach being debated on Capitol Hill, but said he's hopeful any legislation that passes won't detract from robust military education programs already in place.
The chairman told reporters after his sessions that he welcomes the chance to thank soldiers personally for what they've done and to hear how proud they are of what they are doing. He said he got "a lot of good feedback" that he'll take back to Washington with him.
By listening to what's on troops' minds, Mullen said, he hopes to be able to "take that back as a senior leader and make a difference in policies for the future for them and for their families."