A Tough Tour of the Home Front

New Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen takes questions at Fort Sill, Okla.
New Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen takes questions at Fort Sill, Okla. (By Mass Communication Specialist 1St Class Chad J. Mcneeley For The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

FORT SILL, Okla., Oct. 23 -- After returning in September from a 16-month tour with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, Capt. Michael Vieira was hoping to settle down here, where his fiancee has a good job.

"All I want to do is start a family, buy a house, have stability," Vieira, 25, explained Tuesday to Adm. Michael Mullen, in an unusually blunt encounter between the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and about 70 young artillery captains. But the Army told him that "family considerations" would have no bearing on his next posting, Vieira said.

As a result, Vieira said to Mullen, he is quitting the service. "I'm done," he said.

On his first domestic trip as the nation's top military officer, Mullen set out on a two-day tour of Army bases to "get a baseline" assessment of the strains that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are imposing on U.S. armed forces. In a sometimes emotional 90-minute meeting Tuesday with dozens of young officers, Mullen received an earful over many of the challenges that will define his chairmanship: lengthy war-zone rotations, worn-out equipment, growing discipline problems, and shortages of medical care for returning veterans. But most impassioned were pleas from several captains -- a combat-tested swath of officers the Army is seeking to retain through unprecedented cash bonuses -- for a bit of normalcy.

"The most important thing in my life is my wife's wish to go back to college," said a dark-haired captain, speaking to Mullen from the back row of a meeting room decorated by unit banners dating to World War I. But the captain was told that was not a priority for the Army, he said, and as a result he is going to have to tell his wife, "Honey, yeah, I just got back, but we're moving."

"When it becomes a burden to my family, sir, that's repulsive," said the captain, who, like his fellow officers, could not be quoted by name without granting permission.

Mullen asked the captain for his name and e-mail address. "I'm happy to take it on," he said, but he added: "I'm not promising relief."

And the chairman assured Vieira, of St. Johnsbury, Vt., that the apparent disregard for families he described was "not well received by the Army leadership" -- eliciting chuckles from some of the assembled officers, many with one or more combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Army officers Mullen met with are among the most experienced in the force and the ones in greatest demand, but the high pace of war-zone rotations is the main reason they are leaving the service. The Army faces a shortage of more than 6,000 captains and majors needed to boost the force by 65,000 soldiers by 2010, and it recently began offering unprecedented bonuses of up to $35,000 and other incentives.

One of the most pressing problems the captains raised with Mullen is the lack of time at home. "We have soldiers that have spent more time in combat than World War II," said a captain in the front row, who proposed capping combat time at 30 months. "Is there a point where you can say, 'You've served enough'?"

Addressing the captains here, at the home of the Army's artillery school, Mullen, 61, said that he expects the military to remain heavily deployed around the world, and does not anticipate returning to a peacetime schedule of one year abroad and two years at home for perhaps another decade.

Mullen, who encouraged the frank talk, made it clear that his chief goal is to retain combat veterans. "This is the most combat-hardened force we've had in our history. . . . How do I hang on to all of that combat experience?" he said to the captains. "I don't want to lose that."

A Vietnam veteran, Mullen vowed to do everything in his power to keep the all-volunteer force from breaking. "I watched the military break in the 1970s," he said. "I'm never going to let that happen again."

Mullen acknowledged that troops in Iraq are tired and "ready to come home." He said his goal is to shift "as rapidly as possible" from the current Army standard -- 15 months in combat, followed by 12 months back home -- to equal time deployed and at home.

Some officers were not satisfied. "That's not good enough," one captain said, saying he'd like to be home three years for every year away.

"I've got it that it's not good enough," Mullen replied. Still, he said, even lengthening home stays to 15 months would take time. "We can't wave a wand and get there overnight," he said.

One captain voiced concern over the Army's growing practice of granting waivers to recruits for legal and health problems, saying that he spent 80 percent of his time dealing with the 13 "problem children" in his 100-person unit, some of whom went AWOL or had been methamphetamine dealers.

Later, Mullen also stressed the military must prepare for "significant change" as the country elects a new president. "That kind of change at the senior level of government is very challenging, no matter which party takes over," he said. "My goal is to be . . . sort of a rock during that change" and give advice on serious decisions to come.

He added that it is critical that the military remain apolitical and under civilian control. If unable to carry out orders, officers should "vote with our feet and leave," he said.

Also Tuesday, Mullen visited students at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and met with Army recruiters in Denver. Wednesday, he is to speak with U.S. military teams at Fort Riley, Kan., preparing to train Iraqi and Afghan forces.

Hardship on spouses and children emerged as a major complaint for the young captains, most of them in their 20s or early 30s. One related the frustration his pregnant wife faced obtaining obstetric care for herself and medical treatment for their 8-month-old son's ear infection. With many Army doctors deployed, he said, she has often been told she can't get an appointment.

"I am currently on track to exit the military in one year," he said, "not because I'm done serving . . . but because my wife has a bad taste in her mouth." Mullen again promised to take his name and e-mail address. "I'll get back to you," he said.

Commenting later on the captains' frank comments, Mullen said that he was not surprised, and that they validated his own views. "They weren't shy," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company