By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 23, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took time today as he toured facilities here and met with troops and their families to tell reporters the opportunity to meet the "incredible soldiers" of the 82nd Airborne Division and Army Special Operations Command was "the best part of the day." "I've had a great visit here at Fort Bragg," Gates told reporters of his first visit here since taking office 23 months ago. He spent the day getting briefings about operations and training, observing training using state-of-the-art weapons and convoy simulators, and shaking hands and posing for photos with troops.
"I try to do these wherever I go," Gates said of his meetings with the soldiers and their families, noting that he gets "some great ideas."
"The best part of the day is that I've met some incredible soldiers, and I've seen various kinds of specialized training," he said. "These people are in the forefront of protecting our country, and I am just very proud to be associated with them in any way."
Gates noted the key role the local communities and citizens play in supporting the mission through its support for soldiers and their families.
"Without that kind of an environment, it makes it a lot harder, especially on the families, when troops are deployed," he said. "So I just want to thank the troops and their leadership for their support."
Based on what he sees and hears, Gates said he finds "morale is sky-high" in the force. "People believe that they have been successful in Iraq, [and] there is nothing for morale like being successful," he said.
"I think people see that there is tremendous public support for our men and women in uniform," Gates said, adding that he's been struck by broad bipartisan support in Congress to ensure servicemembers have the equipment and facilities they need.
"So my perception is that really, across all of the services, morale is very high, and I think it's in no small part because of the success that's been enjoyed, but also by the fact that they know the American people support them." Gates said he's "obviously very concerned about stress on the force, and particularly those who have deployed multiple times."
Soldiers and their families haven't head to deal with extended rotations and deployments like they're experiencing today since World War Two, he said.
"The way we are trying to deal with that is by growing the Army by 65,000 and the Marine Corps by 27,000. Also, as we draw down in Iraq, what we hope to do is increase the dwell time at home for our soldiers ... from about a year to two years, and eventually three."
For the Guard and Reserve, dwell time eventually will go to five years, he said.
"That, ultimately, is the answer for our families, but it is going to take some time to get there," he acknowledged.
Meanwhile, Gates noted programs aimed to better identify and treat post-traumatic stress, with $900 million budgeted this year, $300 million of it for research. "So we are taking it very seriously," he said.
One challenge, he said, is to take the stigma out of seeking mental-health care. "We have a strong culture, so it is going to take some time," he said.
He said he monitors monthly reports from the Army on levels of domestic violence, alcohol abuse and divorce, and other family problems. "We and the Army are monitoring it very carefully," he said. "We have a lot of programs in place to try and deal with this."
Soldiers here said they welcome Gates' visit and the opportunity to tell him about their training.
"I think it's important that he knows what kind of high-speed fighting force we are," said Spc. Zachery Wirt, a member of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment. "We in the 82nd are always on point, so it's good for him to see the consistent training we do, the high-dollar technology we incorporate and how we keep our [tactics, techniques and procedures] up to standard."