KIRKUK, Iraq, Dec. 11, 2009 – Gather about 300 deployed soldiers and airmen, give them the opportunity to ask the defense secretary about what matters to them, and you might expect to hear questions about military pay and benefits, or complaints about spending too much time away from home.

That wasn’t the case today at Forward Operating Base Warrior here. Instead, the troops peppered Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with high-level, strategic questions about issues ranging from operations in Afghanistan to the Iranian threat to the health of an over-stressed force and the future of the Air Force in light of asymmetric threats.

Gates thanked the group, a mix of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade and 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade, and airmen from the 506th Air Expeditionary Group gathered in front of two mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles and a Buffalo route-clearing vehicle for the contributions they’re making in Iraq.

Although Iraq has fallen from the headlines, the mission here matters greatly, Gates said. It helps to ensure that the tremendous progress the U.S. military helped to bring about — at tremendous sacrifice from its members and their families – sticks, the secretary told the servicemembers.

Gates then turned the microphone over to his audience, asking what they’d like to hear directly from the horse’s mouth.

Many of the questions focused on the more publicized combat theater, Afghanistan. “Why has the mission in Afghanistan taken so long?” one questioner asked, with another following up, “How long will the United States be there?”

Gates said he understands the impatience on the part of the military as well as the American people. He cited what he called a myth in the international community that the United States loves war and said history has proven again and again that it doesn’t.

Afghanistan isn’t a conventional war, with conventional enemies, he added, and success there will require a lot more than just overwhelming power.

In reality, Afghanistan has been two separate conflicts, Gates told servicemembers. “We essentially won” the first one, he said, noting the sense of calm that settled over Afghanistan in 2002 after the Taliban had been driven from power. But the Taliban crossed the border into Pakistan to regroup before launching new attacks in 2005 and 2006. That’s the war that’s been under way for the past three years, Gates said, and he conceded it has been under-resourced.

Gates reiterated his support for President Barack Obama’s new strategy, and said he expects the new troop commitment to look a lot like the 2007 surge in Iraq and, at least initially, to encounter the same challenges.

He emphasized that the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan planned to begin in July 2011 doesn’t mean the mission will end. The drawdown will be gradual and based on conditions on the ground, just as it has been in Iraq, he told the group.

“We don’t want to be there one day longer than we have to be,” Gates said, a point he said he made clear during his visit to Kabul earlier this week. “We have no desire to be an occupying force,” he said.

Gates said he’s impressed by the way Pakistan has stepped up to confront the more dangerous threat that has emerged on its side of the border with Afghanistan.

The Taliban in Pakistan made a big mistake in expanding their control within 60 miles of the national capital of Islamabad, he said. The Pakistani government took notice and launched aggressive operations to crack down on the threat.

One soldier asked Gates what impact the Afghanistan buildup will have on efforts under way to increase “dwell time” at home stations between deployments for overstressed soldiers and Marines.

The Marine Corps remains on track to go to a 2-to-1 ratio, Gates said, with two years at home for every year deployed. Progress is continuing in the Army, but at a slower pace, he said.

“Dwell time will not decline,” he assured the soldier, “but it will increase more slowly because of the surge in Afghanistan.”

Gates recognized the challenges this puts on the force, and said he expects the high operating tempo to continue “for the foreseeable future.”

In the meantime, he said, various support programs throughout the military are designed to help servicemembers and their families cope with post-traumatic syndrome, combat stress and other deployment-related issues. Gates has pressed to ensure they’re properly funded, and made available more evenly throughout the military.

“I work on this every single day,” Gates said.

Responding to an aviator’s question, Gates said more combat aviation assets will be needed in Afghanistan. These will support combat missions and provide more medical evacuation capabilities so troops can get to advanced care within 60 minutes – the so-called “golden hour” – after being wounded.

Gates assured an Air Force captain he’s a firm believer in the capabilities air power brings to the fight, noting various programs to get more emphasis in the fiscal 2011 budget and Quadrennial Defense Review. But for the immediate future, he said, the Air Force’s biggest challenge will be logistical: moving troops and equipment out of Iraq, while deploying 30,000 new forces and their equipment to Afghanistan.

He credited teamwork among the Air Force, U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Central Command that’s working out the logistical details. “It’s a huge challenge,” he said.

Gates told one questioner he’s been a strong advocate of more resources for the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other civilian agencies where the work goes hand in hand with military missions.

The United States needs a larger, permanent cadre of civilian professionals for missions the military has been performing for lack of anyone else to carry them out, the secretary said. But he clarified that he doesn’t mean redirecting the military’s funding or resources. “I have never talked about diverting resources from the Department of Defense to someone else,” he said.

In response to a question about Iran, Gates said he expects diplomatic pressure to come to bear soon, with the international community likely to impose more sanctions if Iran doesn’t live up to its promises to abandon its nuclear arms program.

“Iran is one of the most complex national security problems,” Gates said. And the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran are “enormous.”

In reality, he said, “there are no good options in Iran.”

Asked about the likelihood of military action against Iran, Gates said no options should be ruled out completely. But military action, if ever taken, would really only buy time, not solve the problem, he added.

Gates raised another point: “If we have learned anything from Iraq,” he said, it’s “the inherent unpredictability of war.”

Troops at the town hall session said Gates’ visit had a big impact.

“It means a lot to me,” said Army Spc. Jerry Dickerson, a member of the 501st Brigade Support Battalion in the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade, who was part of the troop surge in Iraq, and returned two weeks ago for his second deployment. “The fact that he comes out here and speaks to us to see what the people down below think shows he truly cares.”

Air Force Capt. Emily Eschbacher, a psychologist from the 506th Air Expeditionary Group who asked about health and morale support in light of the operational tempo, said it felt good hearing Gates call it a top priority.

“It’s nice to hear firsthand that he recognizes it’s a problem, and has daily discussions about it at the highest levels,” she said.

Before leaving Forward Operating Base Warrior, Gates presented a Purple Heart to Army 1st Lt. Felice Terringo. The 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Battalion, soldier was wounded by precision small-arms fire that hit the front of his body armor while he was investigating the site of a failed rocket attack in Kirkuk City.

Gates also awarded honors to Army Staff Sgt. Craig Wayman from the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, as brigade noncommissioned officer of the quarter, and to Army Pfc. James Shindo as the 15th Brigade Support Battalion’s soldier of the year. Army Sgt. William Allbrooks, from the 1-8 Cavalry’s Foxtrot Forward Support Company, received the Combat Action Badge for his ground-combat performance when an enemy attacker fired on his patrol.

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