By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 23, 2009 - The force drawdown in Iraq, even in light of increased troop strength in Afghanistan, will enable the military to build more dwell time into deployment cycles, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today. "I think that with reduced forces in Iraq and with force levels I see in the future for Afghanistan, we can start to build more time at home," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said during a Pentagon Channel podcast interview. "I think that's absolutely vital."
Mullen has been a staunch advocate of "home time" or "home tempo" to balance the stress imposed by demanding operational tempos. And he's quick to clarify that being off conducting training – even if it's at the unit's home installation – doesn't qualify.
"When we are home, we need to be home," he said. "What I really mean by that is, Are you sleeping in your own bed at night? Are you spending time with your family?"
Increasing operational demands in Afghanistan make this home time critical, he said.
"We've got a very seasoned force right now. We've got a force that can do an awful lot of things," he said. "And as we refocus toward Afghanistan and these deployments, time at home really needs to be time at home."
Mullen called Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' decision to phase out the Army's "stop-loss" policy, which keeps some soldiers in uniform beyond the terms of their enlistment contracts, another positive development.
The chairman said he rarely goes to a town hall session, in the combat theater or at home stations, without having troops ask about the unpopular policy. "I think it is time for it to go," he said.
As the Army phases out the stop-loss program, some soldiers in critical specialties still are likely to be affected, Mullen conceded. "But we think those numbers will be very, very small," he said. "So I am very encouraged by the change and by [Gates'] decision, and I think it will have a very positive impact on the Army."
Mullen said his visit last month to Fort Campbell, Ky. -- which has experienced eight soldier suicides since Jan. 1 -- drove home the personal toll the overstressed force is enduring. Although the Army has the most serious problem, every other service has experienced rising suicide rates, too, he noted.
"I think that is reflective of the pressure we are under," he said.
Mullen conceded there's "no easy solution," but said the best solution boils down to an engaged leadership and a force educated about risk factors and willing to step in to help a comrade in need.
"To fix a problem, you have to admit you have a problem," Mullen said. "We've done that. We've got leadership very heavily focused on this."
While addressing near-term issues, "we also have to stay focused on this over the long term," he said. "Leaders have to take this one on and stay with it and support their people in this area – just as we do across the board."