By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 14, 2011 – Although the military is in a time of unprecedented change, from budget constraints to the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, caring for troops and their families must remain a constant, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said today during an all-hands call on U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, South Korea.
“We can buy a lot of neat stuff and go operate in a lot of places, [but] the No. 1 priority for me are people and our families,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the service members. “No matter where we go or what we buy, in the end, the heart of what we are is you.”
Change is happening at a pace he’s never seen before, the chairman noted. “We’ve moved beyond any kind of steady state … across the board, whether you’re talking about education or promotion or operation or equipment.”
The chairman touched on the more immediate changes occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military is on track to move out of Iraq by the end of the year, he said, and in Afghanistan, 33,000 troops will withdraw from the country by September 2012.
The nation has made “extraordinary” progress in Afghanistan, he noted, particularly in regard to building up the Afghan security forces, both army and police.
That effort has entailed challenges, he acknowledged. Still, more than 300,000 Afghan security forces will be in place by the end of the fiscal year in September, the chairman said, and another 50,000 will be added over the next year or so.
As a result, even though 33,000 U.S. troops will withdraw along with some percentage of allied forces, more forces will be in the fight in 2012 than before, Mullen noted. “That really is our ticket home,” he said. “They have to take over their own security; they have to lead.”
Mullen also discussed changes within the services and in how they operate. “We’re much more ‘joint’ than we used to be, and we need to stay that way,” he said.
Services also have increased “dwell time” -- the time troops spend at home between deployments. The military is moving toward a point where members will be at home at least twice as long as they’re deployed, the chairman said.
Some units will continue to operate on a 1-to-1 ratio, he acknowledged, with one year deployed to every year home. But overall, dwell times will be increasing in the next couple of years in the Army and Marine Corps, he said, which are the most stressed forces.
Turning to budget matters, Mullen noted that the military’s future strength will rely on present constraint. “We’re all going to have to tighten our belts for a period of time to sustain this military, to be the military that we must be for the future, to sustain the health of this all-volunteer force. Making sure we keep our force, our people, front and center as we move through these challenges, is very critical.”
The chairman thanked the troops for their service. Noting that he’s been serving since the Vietnam era, he said today’s military in the history of the country, and arguably, the world.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about you out here and what our troops are doing around the world,” he said.
Their families, too, deserve the nation’s gratitude, Mullen said.
“Family support has obviously always been critical,” he said. “We can’t do it without it. But it’s better now than it’s ever been, and comes at a time when it needs to be better than it has ever been because of the stress you’re under -- the number of deployments, the wars we’ve been in and the challenges that will continue to be out there.”
The military has invested resources, time and effort in family programs and must continue to sustain that, he said.
Mullen also urged the troops to mentor those who will succeed them and to look out for each other, particularly regarding post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault and suicide.
“Leaders have to make a difference here,” he said. “We have to take steps, significant steps, to make sure we can get ahead of those problems. In the end we have to make sure we take care of each other in these challenging times.”
As for his own possible successor, Mullen said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey is a perfect match to succeed him. President Barack Obama has nominated Dempsey to take Mullen’s place as chairman after he retires in September.
“Dempsey is an extraordinarily well-qualified leader to take this position,” he said. “He’s a combat leader, great with people, and understands … the challenges that are associated not just with the Army, but from the standpoint of all the services.”
Mullen also fielded questions from the troops on retention, recruiting and career progression.
Fresh off a trip to China, Mullen was in South Korea for the U.S. Forces Korea change of command.