FORT LEWIS, Wash., June 19, 2008 – The U.S. military’s top officer told about 1,000 soldiers gathered here yesterday that they set the stage for positive security gains in Iraq as part of last year’s troop surge efforts. “You left Iraq this time in much better shape than when you showed up,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told the soldiers at an “all-hands” meeting during his third stop on a four-day tour of western-U.S. military installations.

The 2nd Infantry Division’s 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, part of the surge deployed last year, returned from Iraq in May. Many others from Fort Lewis have returned in the past six months. In fact, the walls of the gym that held the all-hands meeting still are lined with “welcome home” banners.

“Charlie Company Rocks. Job Well Done!” was hand-scrawled on poster board taped above the rows of bleachers, among other similar signs.

The surge troops “turned the tide,” Mullen said, citing positive trends in economics, politics and security in Iraq. “My hat’s off to you for making that difference,” he said.

“The sacrifices that you made have really created an opportunity to get it right in Iraq,” Mullen said.

But, he said, there is still a long way to go toward a stable Iraq. The admiral added that trends have yet to prove sustainable and irreversible.

Mullen told the soldiers that the Army is in the process of evolving the way it fights, as well as the way it recruits, retains, trains and equips its force.

As a country, he said, the United States has not done a very good job at predicting the next fight, so the Army has to get back to balancing its counterinsurgency training for the current war with the need to train in its conventional wartime tasks.

“If you look where our Army was a few years ago, and you look where we are right now, we are the best counterinsurgency force in the world,” Mullen said.

Five years ago, the services didn’t know much about counterinsurgency. Since he assumed office as chairman in October, Mullen said, he has traveled the world and realized how critical that fighting skill is.

Mullen also spoke directly about the need to reduce deployment lengths and increase “dwell time” at home stations between deployments. Troops here were directly affected when the Army extended their 12-month deployment by three months.

“Fifteen months is too long,” Mullen said. “The very important goal is to get to a rotation which allows us 12 months in theater and 24 months back, and we’re not there yet.”

Deployments are back to one year for deploying Army units, but the dwell time is only about one year for returning units. Mullen said that how fast the U.S. military can get to two years of dwell time depends on force requirements, noting that the effort in Afghanistan needs three more brigade combat teams than are currently deployed there.

But if positive trends in Iraq continue, Mullen said, he is hopeful he can further reduce troop numbers there. He also pointed out that the Army is growing to 547,000 soldiers from 485,000 over the next few years, and the Marine Corps also is increasing its numbers, which should help to reduce the strain both services have felt in recent years.

Mullen also talked about the combat stress that many in the crowd have seen as the result of multiple deployments. The vast majority of soldiers at the all-hands meeting wore “combat unit patches” on the right shoulders of their Army combat uniforms.

“Many of you have been through combat you thought you would never see,” the chairman said. “You’ve seen your friends die. You’ve seen them injured. You’ve been through extraordinarily challenging circumstances.”

Now that the soldiers are home, Mullen said, senior leaders must set the right example and get help for post-traumatic stress. Everyone he served with during the Vietnam War came away from the battlefield with some post-traumatic stress, he said, and if leaders now would seek treatment or counseling, their troops would follow.

Dealing with post-traumatic stress now will help mitigate its long-term impact, the admiral told the soldiers.

The chairman also called on leaders to stay in touch with their solders who leave the service and those who return to civilian life after becoming injured in battle. He also called on them to take care of the families of those who have died in combat.

As is typical for today’s soldiers, the troops gathered here weren’t shy when the chairman opened the floor for questions. The days of a “pregnant pause” at that point in such a forum are long gone. In fact, the first soldier was so fast with his question that he’d finished asking it before the microphone got to him. For nearly an hour, the chairman fielded questions, mostly from young enlisted soldiers, on topics such as training, recruiting bonuses, rising fuel costs, and quality of life within the military.

A young enlisted soldier asked about eventually training in conventional warfare. Mullen said the force is “somewhat frustrated” right now when it comes to combined arms training, and he acknowledged that the Army will not be able to begin training sufficiently in its conventional warfighting tasks until soldiers can spend about two years at home station after a deployment.

“What we’re worried about is that skills that are associated with that are clearly atrophied, because we’re not doing it. We know we’ve got to get back to it. It’s gong to take us a while,” Mullen said, estimating that it could take as long as four years to get to that point.

A specialist asked what the admiral would like to see happen during the next year in Iraq. Mullen replied that he hopes for further gains in politics, economics and security. He said he has been encouraged by recent political gains, which he called key to the successful stabilization of the country.

“The politics is what’s got to work,” he said, noting that political progress is enabled by security gains.

The status-of-forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments needs to be finalized, and upcoming fall provincial elections need to be held successfully, he said. The fact that the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain have announced in the past two weeks that that they will send ambassadors to Baghdad is a positive sign, he added.

“We’re by no means done, but we’ve come a long way because of the success of the surge,” Mullen said.

One hot topic for the Army touched on by a specialist is the service’s practice of “stop-loss,” or not allowing a soldier to leave the service at the end of his contract because of unit requirements.

The specialist asked pointedly if stop-loss is going away, and the chairman answered simply: “No.”

After some laughter, the chairman voiced his opinion of the practice. “I’d like to see stop-loss go away tomorrow if I could,” Mullen said, but current troop levels make it critical to maintaining unit integrity in the war.

About 12,000 soldiers have not been allowed to leave at the end of their contracts, Mullen said. That number will grow over the next few years, he said, and will continue to grow until the Army grows its numbers. Given the current needs and troop strength, Mullen said, he doesn’t see an end soon to the stop-loss policy.

Mullen also was asked about the quality of Army barracks.

“We have a history … of not investing well enough in our barracks. And the message I get from you and many others is that’s not going to work for much longer” he said. “We’ve got an awful lot of money poised to invest in barracks over the next four to five years. That doesn’t help you with where you’re living right now, and I understand that.”

The chairman said the Army is going to have to build and continue to invest in the care of its living quarters.

After the all-hands meeting, the chairmen spent the morning talking with various levels of leaders in roundtable discussions and at a working lunch. He followed that up with a visit to the Wounded Warrior Brigade here. There, he visited social workers in the clinic, as well as troops and staff. Nearly 800 soldiers are in the brigade, which cares for troops who require longer-term medical care than their units can facilitate.

Afterward, Mullen saw first-hand the latest in computer-generated, scenario-driven leadership-development training at the Battle Command Training Center. The multi-million-dollar complex of 10 buildings offers the latest in Army technology aimed at helping leaders work through decision-making scenarios, as well as access sensitive and classified tactics that are fed from the battlefield to the center. Commanders can use the data to drive training scenarios for their units before deploying.

He rounded out the day by visiting the oldest and newest barracks on post, talking with soldiers in each and surveying their living conditions.

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