By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 20, 2009 - The nation's top military officer expressed concern here yesterday about servicemembers and their families "toughing it out" with frequent deployments and little time together between those deployments. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked about the stresses of war and a variety of other topics in a town-hall meeting with servicemembers and civilians.
In answer to a question from the audience, Mullen acknowledged that even when troops theoretically have 12 months of "dwell time" between deployments, that's not really the case when they have to spend part of that time away from their families training for their next deployment.
"The way the families are handling this thing is they're just toughing it out until they get the relief. There's a concern about how long they can tough it out," he said. "We're going to have to continue to focus on that."
Suicide rates are increasing in all of the services -- dramatically in the Army -- Mullen said.
"The correlation [between] the stress of these wars and the suicide rate is something that I accept, and then I want somebody to disprove that," he said in pledging continued efforts to fix the problem. "I'm not going to wait for somebody to disprove that to me."
Turning to care for the casualties of war, the chairman said the nation owes them and their families a great debt.
"For these [servicemembers] who've either paid the ultimate price or been wounded and done what we asked them to do as a country," he said, "we should figure out what their needs are, ... and we should figure out how to take care of them for the rest of their lives."
Mullen drew on the Israeli model of veteran care as an example of the intent the United States should have when it comes to veteran care.
He noted a past conversation with the Israeli army chief of staff, during which he asked how that country provides continuous care for its wounded. The Israeli chief reached into his wallet and produced a list of a dozen names.
Upon assuming command of a unit, he explained, Israeli commanders must sign for an accountability log that lists the families of the unit's fallen servicemembers and the unit's wounded and their families. The commanders take care of and keep in touch with these people, and are inspected on their fulfillment of this obligation as part of their command requirements.
"As the [Israeli] minister of defense says, 'We write the check off the top at the beginning of the budget cycle to make sure they're taken care of,'" Mullen said. "I'm not arguing we should do that, but I am saying we ought to have that effect."
Later, Mullen spoke with reporters about NATO's efforts in Afghanistan, stressing the need for more help from the alliance's members, especially in the nonmilitary part of the equation.
"For the entirety of my tour as the chairman, ... I've worked hard with my partners in NATO to push them to generate more capabilities, not just military capabilities," he said. "We have financial capabilities, we've got development capabilities. I talked about the need for governance. We have ... expertise that we need there to assist in training the Afghan people with the respect to proper governments.
"There are a number of ways NATO members can help and we need them to step forward," he continued. "They have stepped forward to some degree. We need them to step forward more significantly."
Mullen also discussed yesterday's vote by Kyrgyzstan's parliament to close Manas Air Base, an important logistical hub for the war in Afghanistan. While the country's parliament voted 79-1 not to renew the U.S. lease on the base, there has been no official notification from the Kyrgyz government, Mullen said. But if the base is closed, he added, the United States has options.
"There's a six-month process once notification is given, should that happen," Mullen said. "We've done a lot of work to create options and look at other ways of doing this, and I'm comfortable that those options will support us very well if we get to that point."