The annual Association of the U.S. Army conference in Washington D.C. is usually a pretty happy affair for the country’s ground forces. But in his address to the confab, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of continued stress on the Army. A second decade of “persistent conflict” that the Army endures, Mullen said, would take an “undetermined toll” on soldiers and their families — far off the battlefield.
One seemingly positive aspect of the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is increased time at home that soldiers can expect — a priority for General George Casey, the Army’s chief of staff. Mullen saw a darker side: soldiers and veterans coming home would continue to struggle with a host of personal problems, like “anxiety, depression, family challenges, post-traumatic stress,” on top of health-care costs for the wounded. He called soldier suicides a problem “we have not yet come close to solving.”
Nor was Mullen particularly upbeat about the recent strong retention rates that the military recently touted. “I’m interested in the quality of those numbers,” Mullen said, meaning how well the military’s doing at keeping “the right” junior and non-commissioned officers within the ranks. Although the Army is “one of our most resilient institutions,” Mullen said, the service would be “foolish” not to wonder how it’s developing the “majors, captains, sergeants majors and first sergeants we deeply need in the next decade.”
Then there’s the “operational opportunity cost” that two simultaneous ground wars have inflicted, measured in tasks and missions that the military is “not so able to do anymore.” Marines who haven’t served on Navy ships. Artillery officers who haven’t fired their big guns in years. Air Force fighter pilots who haven’t honed their air-to-air combat skills. The Army and Marine Corps taught themselves to become “the best counterinsurgency force in the world,” Mullen said, but those martial specialties may have gotten lost along the way.
Mullen’s answers to these challenges echoed Casey’s, who’s remarked over the past several days that the Army is just getting a chance to “breathe again” as the Iraq war winds down. Commanders at home garrisons will have to “build resilience among our soldiers from day one,” he said — getting them prepared to endure the psychological burdens of war as well as the physical ones. Mullen said that would often require “very intrusive leadership,” especially as non-commissioned officers haven’t had enough time away from the wars to exercise “persistent leadership positions on the home front.”
But despite acknowledging that he wasn’t painting “a sunny picture,” Mullen wasn’t all gloom and doom. The country’s faced harder times, he said. Returning veterans are “not a burden, but a tremendous opportunity for the future.” The current generation of troops are, “in a way I’ve never seen before, wired to contribute and wired to serve.”