Fine Print: Defense Secretary Hears About Disrupted Home Lives

Among the soldiers who attended a town hall meeting at Fort Drum, N.Y., were, from left, Sgt. John Oyston, 2nd Lt. Cole Henderson and Spc. Brian Smith.
Among the soldiers who attended a town hall meeting at Fort Drum, N.Y., were, from left, Sgt. John Oyston, 2nd Lt. Cole Henderson and Spc. Brian Smith. (By Heather Ainsworth -- Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Outside the military, not much attention is paid to the personal problems of families caught up in the endless rotational deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan that mark serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

Last Friday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates dealt with a handful of those problems in a town hall meeting at Fort Drum, N.Y., in front of Army units that either were coming from Southwest Asia or preparing to go there.

Many of the questions focused on disparities among units when it comes to "dwell time" -- time spent at home between deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. With 130,000 troops remaining in Iraq through the end of the year and 68,000 more scheduled to be in Afghanistan during the same period, pressures on military family life have grown.

An Army sergeant opened by pointing out that one brigade has alternated between one year at home and one year deployed over the past five years, whereas another brigade in the same division has been spending two-year stretches at home. He asked whether anything could be done to even out the dwell time.

Gates admitted that the system is "very uneven" but said that evening it out would be "very difficult because of the different demands in both Iraq and Afghanistan." Planners are looking to increase time at home for Army personnel beyond a year, he said, but that won't begin until next spring. That's when the United States plans to start bringing back an additional five or six brigade combat teams from Iraq.

By then, he added, Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr. thinks "we can begin moving toward a year at home, 15 months' to 18 months' dwell time." The goal, Gates said, is one to two years at a time at home "as quickly as possible."

The defense secretary told the audience that he expected to make a decision this week on another step that could lead more quickly to the two-year goal by providing for "a temporary increase in the end strength of the Army that would ease some of the pressures." Yesterday he did just that, moving to raise the Army's total personnel number to 22,000 over the next three years.

Gates said the decision he made in early 2007 to go to 15 months' deployment and a year's dwell time "was probably the toughest decision I've made in this job, because I think we also realized how tough it would be on the troops."

As for leveling out dwell times, Gates said he doubted that could ever be done. "I mean, the truth of the matter is, there's about a third of the Army that's never deployed at all. But, that's just the way it is, frankly, given the different specialized capabilities of the different units."

A private first class in a support battalion, scheduled to go to Iraq, asked whether, if troops don't complete their 12-month tour in that country, they will be transferred to Afghanistan before coming home. Gates said he didn't know for sure but he hopes such soldiers would be brought home "because there is a different kind of training that goes on for Afghanistan compared to Iraq." He said the units that will go to Afghanistan to bring the total to 68,000, as authorized by President Obama, had already been identified, and thus would not include those on their way to Iraq.

Gates said he hedged his answer because "there may be some specific specialties or specialized units that might be transferred" from Iraq to Afghanistan but any increase before the end of this year would not be "a lot."

An artillery sergeant asked about the likelihood that Army deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan would be shortened to nine months or even six months. Gates said that Casey, the chief of staff, "would really like to do that," noting that Marines are spending seven months deployed and seven at home, Navy personnel are alternating six-month stints, and Air Force tours are even shorter.

Rotating the Army's much larger number of troops in Iraq with a less-than-one-year deployment would create an unacceptable logistics problem, he said. He said a question he had with shorter rotations amid a counterinsurgency is "Do we cut our capability -- because we cut our experience level by the shorter tours?"

Saying he could not speak for the U.S. generals in charge of the area, Gates said, "The truth of the matter is, in a counterinsurgency like we're fighting, particularly in Afghanistan, the more time you have there, the more effective you are; the more you know how to do what you're supposed to be doing; the more you understand the Afghan culture; the more you pick up some of the language; the more you pick up . . . the customs; the more you pick up on how the Taliban fight."

In situations "where we don't face that kind of a complex environment," he said, "I think that there probably is a considerable amount of interest, if only because of the interest of military families in shorter deployments."

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