WASHINGTON, May 8, 2008 – The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will redeploy from Afghanistan in November as scheduled, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today. The unit deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in March. It is operating in Regional Command South under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

“Just to reemphasize what the secretary said, … this deployment of Marines is seven months, and they’re going to come out toward the end of the year,” Mullen said.

As the drawdown of surge forces in Iraq continues, Gates said, the time may come to consider shifting more troops into Afghanistan. Despite his repeated calls on NATO to send more combat troops, the alliance has not come through with forces in the numbers needed and without restrictions on how they can be used.

“We are still going to be looking at what the options are in terms of augmenting our presence during 2009,” Gates said. “(But) at this point, as far as I know, there’s no specific planning going on along those lines.”

Mullen conceded that the Marines “have been on a very challenging rotation,” particularly with forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Concentrating their forces in Afghanistan is viewed by some Marine Corps leaders as a way to more effectively manage force rotations.

Also during today’s briefing, Gates said he supports an enhanced educational benefit, including a provision that would allow servicemembers to transfer unused benefits to family members.

However, he said, he takes issue with legislation that would enable troops to tap into their benefits after just three years of service. The Defense Department wants the service requirement to be six years.

“Our desire is to keep soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines in the military as long as possible,” Gates said. “And so our hope would be and our preference would be that the period of service be long enough to, in essence, require at least one re-enlistment.”

Gates emphasized that, with those provisions, he fully supports an educational benefit enhancements. “The notion that we’re against a better education benefit is just totally nonsense,” he said. “The veterans deserve it. It’s probably needed. But we’re trying to balance the benefit to veterans also with maintaining an all-volunteer force and having as experienced a force as we can.”

The secretary opened the briefing noting the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s declaration of Military Appreciation Month to honor servicemembers and their families. “And even as we mark Military Appreciation Month with two wars ongoing, it is important to remember the sacrifices and service of our troops and their families every day throughout the year.”

Gates noted “amazing acts of citizen support,” especially through the Defense Department’s America Supports You program. More than 370 citizen groups have joined that program and are augmenting the Defense Department’s work to provide assistance and support to the military community, he said.

Gates said he is “deeply grateful to the American people who continue to show their support for our men and women in uniform.”

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WASHINGTON, May 8, 2008 – The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will redeploy from Afghanistan…