“I have felt for the longest period of time that on a nonlinear battlefield there are no safe jobs,” he said. “Everyone is in a situation where they are, in fact, in harm’s way.”
Chiarelli insisted that the Army should set clear physical standards for combat jobs and then require men and women to meet them. “There is this mistaken belief that somehow that through prohibiting women in combat jobs we can protect them,” Chiarelli said. “I would rather have standards that we apply across the board.”
Chiarelli made his case for allowing women to hold combat jobs as he prepared to leave the military after more than 40 years of service, including two combat tours in Iraq. Both tours came during periods when the insurgency in Iraq appeared to be gaining strength and U.S. casualties were mounting.
As the Army’s second-highest-ranking general in the Pentagon, Chiarelli has pressed harder than any other officer to change the way soldiers view post-traumatic stress and other mental-health injuries. So far his efforts have not yielded a reduction in the Army’s record-high suicide rate — a source of disappointment to the general.
Chiarelli’s passionate advocacy and willingness to criticize his own service, however, have won him admirers in the Pentagon and among soldiers and their families.
“Going to combat with the 1st Cavalry Division is something I will always remember . . . but the thing that I have done that has given me the most satisfaction is to try to at least begin the process of eliminating the stigma associated with behavioral-health issues,” he said.
In 2010, about 200,000 soldiers sought mental-health counseling for wounds such as post traumatic stress. “Everybody gasped, and I said that I hope it goes up higher than that,” Chiarelli said. Last year, more than 280,000 soldiers received treatment or counseling from behavioral-health specialists.
Chiarelli, 61, tackled the issue of soldiers’ mental health at a time when the Army’s suicide rate was spiking. He has pressed to ensure that soldiers receive more intensive mental-health screening after deployments and to hire more behavioral-health specialists at Army bases.
Each month, he meets with commanders around the globe by video teleconference to review the details of recent suicides in an attempt to identify trends and possible missed opportunities in which commanders could have intervened. The conferences, which last two hours, are described as gut-wrenching.
Last year, a record 164 active-duty troops committed suicide, compared with about 159 the previous year. Although suicides among active-duty troops remain high, Chiarelli says that improved diagnosis and treatment of these hidden mental wounds has helped stem the increase in suicides the Army was experiencing before 2009.