American Forces Press Service
March 24, 2009 - President Barack Obama's recent announcement to end combat operations in Iraq by August 2010 has raised some concerns for troops serving in Iraq, including when they can expect to return home and the length of time between future deployments. To help allay concerns and outline some of the Army's future goals, Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston visited Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers March 22 during a battlefield tour in Iraq.
Preston visited troops at Camp Taji, Joint Security Station Sadr City, Joint Security Station Loyalty and Camp Liberty.
One of the first topics Preston discussed with soldiers was dwell time, which is the time soldiers spend at home between deployments.
"We're going to increase dwell time to provide soldiers and
their families with more stability and predictability, especially in the Guard and Reserves," Preston said.
Soldiers currently spend 12 months at home for every 12 months deployed. As forces in Iraq draw down and the Army continues to grow, Preston said the near-term goal will be 24 months of dwell time for every 12 months deployed. Eventually, the hope is to go to 36 months for every 12 months deployed, he added.
One of the factors that will help to facilitate the amount of dwell time is the increase in the number of brigade combat teams, Preston noted.
With only 38 BCTs as of April 2007, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey ordered an increase to 48 by 2012.
"We actually accelerated the growth," said Preston, projecting that all 48 BCTS should be fully equipped and manned by 2011, earlier than originally expected.
"We're at 42 [BCTs] coming up on 44 at various stages of
completion, and the Army transformation is about 85 to 86 percent complete," Preston said. "The growth in the Army will help to rebalance the force."
The active-duty Army also has exceeded its personnel end-strength goals of growing the Army by 65,000 troops, reaching 547,700 troop strength as opposed to the expected 547,400.
With the government's plan of ending all combat operations in Iraq by the end of August 2010, some soldiers asked Preston if there was a possibility that their deployments might be extended from 12 months to 18.
Preston assured the soldiers not to worry about an extension, explaining that the troops are on a yearlong deployment. When troops were on 15-month tours, it was mainly because of the surge, he said.
"That was the exception, not the norm," he said.
Preston also touched on stop-loss, a program that allows the involuntary extension of servicemembers' active duty past the scheduled end of their term of service.
"We're working through getting rid of stop-loss," he said. "Our goal is to wean ourselves off stop-loss, and when the soldier comes up on [estimated time of separation] while [in theater], they will be pulled out 60 days within their ETS."
Eventually, according to the stop-loss plan, the Army Reserve will end stop-loss in August with the National Guard following suit in September, and the active Army in the first quarter of 2010.
Soldiers who are currently in a stop-loss status will be paid a $500 per month bonus to stay with their unit throughout the deployment.
Along with taking care of soldiers, Preston said the Army also will continue taking care of Army families with programs like the Chief of Staff's Army Family Covenant.
The Army Family Covenant doubles the amount of money provided to support family programs and, Preston said, $1.4 billion has been allotted to improve child care and child care centers, health care services and family housing.
In addition, the government is improving medical care by
renovating Army hospitals, many of which are more than 50 years old, Preston said.
Within the last year alone, he said, hospitals at Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Riley, Kan.; and Fort Benning, Ga. have undergone new construction and renovations, with Carl R. Darnell Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, Texas, being the next in line.
Despite soldiers having back-to-back deployments and long
stretches away from home, Preston said the Army has done extremely well in both the areas of retention and recruiting, for which he attributed success to the recruiters, retention noncommissioned officers and career counselors.
"The first quarter of fiscal year 2009 was the most successful in Army history, and we met 249 percent of our goals," Preston said. "Soldiers and their families wouldn't re-enlist if they didn't have a belief in something greater than themselves.
"We can be very proud because out of 300 million people, we
represent two-thirds of 1 percent of the American population, and you are the best of everything America has to offer," he continued. "I recently told the president that we can be proud as a nation that we still have Americans who volunteer and want to give back to their country."
This year has been designated the "Year of the NCO," and Preston said the Army will be placing an emphasis on growing leaders.
"We're going to be recognizing the contribution of the NCO Corps past and present," he said. "General Casey has said that the NCO Corps is the glue that keeps the Army together through tough deployments."
One of the ways the Army will "grow sergeants" is through professional development, he said. The goal is to have junior soldiers become NCOs within three years.
Preston said more opportunities will be provided for junior enlisted soldiers to go to the Warrior Leaders Course. Also, many of the courses currently offered in the Advanced Noncommissioned Officers Course will be transferred to the Basic Noncommissioned Officers Course.
Many aspects of the First Sergeants Course will be added to
ANCOC, prepping senior noncommissioned officers to be first sergeants, and the Sergeants Major Course will be extended from nine to 10 months.
In addition, a new program of instruction will be offered at the Command Sergeant Major Academy, which instructs the command sergeants major on how to run battalion- or higher-level staffs.
"It's about building command teams," Preston said.
Along with that, Preston said he foresees other opportunities that will better "prep NCOs for success," such as a plan to have soldiers in the ranks of sergeant first class taught how to become master fitness trainers.
Preston also encouraged soldiers to look into the new Montgomery G.I. Bill, explaining that there will be opportunities for servicemembers to transfer benefits to their dependents.
"If you are going to transfer it to a child, you may want to find out how old they have to be, but you'll want to watch for the implementation instructions, which come out in August," Preston said. "That's when you'll have the answers to those questions."
Other Army education goals include partnering the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges associate's degree program with more universities, and working to get military schools accredited so that soldiers have more opportunities to earn college credits.
After speaking with each group of soldiers, Preston encouraged them to tell people in their hometowns about what they're doing in Iraq, so people could hear about the good news stories that don't always make it to the civilian media.
"We are the ones who tell the Army's story to the American
public, and the American people deserve to hear it," Preston said. "There are thousands and thousands of missions you accomplish every day, and you need to give the American people those [good news stories].
"I met a sergeant first class who built a friendship with the Iraqi soldiers he was working with. An Iraqi sergeant saved his life, and it was a great story most Americans would never know about unless we tell it."
(From a Multinational Division Baghdad news release.)