By Army Sgt. John Zumer
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 27, 2009 - A revitalized spirit is among the things the Army's top officer noted April 24 during his third visit to Afghanistan in the past year and his first in four months.
"There's a great sense of energy here," Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said. "When I was here in December, I saw a little apprehension." Casey attributed the upturn to additional troops who have arrived in Afghanistan recently. They and more additional soldiers on the way are putting coalition forces in a much better position as the 101st Airborne Division prepares to hand responsibility for the combined joint task force here to the 82nd Airborne Division, he said.
The Army has been working hard to meet the higher manpower totals envisioned a couple years ago, the general said, noting he has long been concerned about stretching the Army so thin that it would be unable to accomplish present and future missions.
"We were out of balance," Casey said. The original goal was to grow the active-duty force to 547,000 soldiers by the end of 2011, he added, but the Army attained that level two years early. The biggest impact for soldiers, he said, is that future burdens of frequent deployments may be lessened.
"The most important thing we can do to get ourselves back in balance is to increase the amount of time soldiers spend at home between deployments," Casey said, and he added that once demand comes down, "dwell time" at home can be increased and perhaps deployment lengths could be shortened.
Soldiers' families continue to occupy the thoughts of Casey and other Army officials, the general said.
"Our soldiers draw their strength from their families," he said. The Army spent $1.4 billion on family support in 2008, and is expected to continue investing in such programs. "We are committed to delivering on the Army Family Covenant," he said.
The covenant signifies the Army's efforts to fund and support family programs, physical and mental health care, housing, education, child care and employment opportunities for spouses.
These large efforts on behalf of families are in conjunction with a new initiative Casey referred to as "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness." CSF is designed to put mental fitness on the same level of importance to individual soldiers and their leaders as physical fitness, he said.
"You can build mental resilience and enhance soldier performance," he added. The sooner soldiers are willing to come forward and get treatment for problems, the sooner they can be helped. Most importantly, Casey said, "no soldier stands alone" if treatment is needed.
Casey proudly noted that his travels have elicited many favorable comments directed toward the professionalism and competence of the Army's noncommissioned officer corps. Those comments, he said, led him and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston to proclaim 2009 as the "Year of the NCO."
"We haven't done this in 20 years," Casey said. It was important, he said, to recognize NCOs, to inform Congress and the American people what an asset NCOs are, and to enhance the skills of NCOs and give them necessary tools for future success.
Changes in planned deployments and theaters of operation for certain Army units have begun, Casey confirmed, and he said he sees encouraging signs. One positive aspect is that Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has the forces he needs to provide security for Afghanistan's upcoming elections.
"General McKiernan has the troops he needs to ensure that there are safe elections this August," Casey said.
Casey said he realizes deployments can be long and difficult, and that experience has also shown that going home can be stressful as well as exhilarating. But he said that if he could provide a single piece of advice to soldiers returning to families and their former lives, he would cut to the chase quickly.
"Take some time to relax and build yourself back up gradually," he said.
(Army Sgt. John Zumer serves with the 40th Public Affairs Detachment.)