FORT HOOD, Texas, April 17, 2009 – Making sure “we get it right” for the nation’s soldiers and their families is his top priority, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told about 400 4th Infantry Division soldiers here yesterday.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen was here to thank soldiers and families for their sacrifices and service, and to listen to their concerns, comments and questions.

During a morning question-and-answer session with the soldiers, Mullen fielded inquiries relating to phasing out the “stop-loss” program that keeps some soldiers in the Army beyond expiration of their enlistments, as well as suicide prevention and mental health, “dwell time” at home stations between deployments and the Warrior Pay program.

Responding to one soldier’s query about stop-loss, Mullen said he has not been a supporter of the program for a long time and thinks it needs to go away. “It is my expectation we will continue to call on the [Individual Ready Reserve],” he said.

Most of the questions dealt directly with deployments and what the future holds for the soldiers and their families.

“We live in extraordinary times of change,” Mullen told the Fort Hood soldiers, most of whom recently returned from 15 months in Iraq. Continual deployments with no end in sight were part of the chairman’s message, especially as the focus shifts to the war in Afghanistan. Mullen also acknowledged that the need to balance training with limited dwell time at home has stretched the force.

“You’ve met that challenge and all things associated with it,” the chairman said.

Mullen said he would take input he received here to Washington and “incorporate the information into the leadership challenges we have to make to move forward.”

Those challenges include increasing dwell time while providing resources and training to meet the mission in Iraq and the shifting focus to Afghanistan.

“We’ve got to win the fights we’re in while building the health of the force and more time at home,” Mullen said.

As troops are entering the eighth year of the nation being at war, the Army and Marines are on a “1-and-1” rotation schedule, serving one year deployed with one year at home before the next deployment. Mullen said he does not expect that schedule to change soon, but that “in 18 to 24 months, we should see more daylight between deployments.”

Though the Iraq mission is winding down, the war effort is shifting to Afghanistan, with 17,000 troops scheduled to deploy there, mostly in the south, in the next few months, Mullen said. An additional 4,000 troops focused on training Afghan forces are expected to deploy later this year.

The chairman said when additional troops are brought in, violence is expected to go up at first, the chairman said.

“Hopefully, roughly one year from now, we will have that turned around,” he said. “I am hoping in the next 12 months we have taken significant steps to turn the tide.”

“Home-tempo,” Mullen’s term for nights spent at home, is expected to rise significantly beginning in late 2010 through mid-2011. Soldiers could start to see 15 or 18 months, and eventually 24 months of dwell time between deployments, he said.

“Our long-term goal is to be home for three years,” he added. “We will move in that direction.”

As the Army continues to grow and the new units are up to speed, the pressure on soldiers should begin to ease, Mullen said. But this is an expeditionary Army, he noted, and it will continue in that vein.

“I don’t see a time when deployments end,” he said.

Therefore, he said, the Army must do all that it can to ensure soldiers and their families are taken care of and receive the support and resources they need.

“We could not be where we are without family support,” Mullen said. “We cannot sustain if we don’t continue to support the families.”

Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Miles, a 4th Infantry Division chaplain’s assistant who recently returned from his third deployment to Iraq and sixth overall, agreed with the chairman that family support is vital to soldiers’ ability to complete their missions overseas.

“My family has been my backbone,” Miles said. One key to that support, he added, has been open lines with his wife and children.

“Communication has been important,” he said.

Over time, Mullen said, support services — especially mental health services — have evolved and expanded to meet the needs of soldiers and their families. He addressed the mounting suicide rates across the services, and especially in the Army.

Suicides are at an all-time high, the admiral noted, and prevention is a primary focus on all levels. Addressing and relieving stress are important to suicide prevention, he added.

Though one suicide is too many, the chairman said, he noted that Fort Hood has had only one confirmed suicide this year.

“I applaud what you are doing,” he said. “But we cannot rest on our laurels, because lives are at stake.”

The stigma of seeking help for mental health issues has to end, Mullen added, and soldiers need to know they can ask for help without penalty or harassment.

Combat stresses are normal, he emphasized, and receiving professional help should be encouraged to help soldiers process and cope with their war experiences.

“It is a natural human condition after you’ve been through what you’ve been through,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to focus on this.”

Mullen said he looks to leaders to make sure people are taking care of each other. “In the toughest of times, it’s great leadership that gets us through,” he said, and the leadership piece is something that needs to continue to be worked.

“We need to retain the best, recruit the best and look to the future,” he said.

Following his meeting, Mullen toured the installation. He met with families and viewed some of the programs and facilities offered for wounded troops, Gold Star Families, spiritual fitness and resilience.

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