Gen. Raymond T. Odierno took questions from reporters for an hour Wednesday at the Pentagon, his hands frequently resting on a podium elevated to complement his imposing 6-foot-6 inch frame. He is just a few weeks short of retiring as chief of staff of the Army, and addressed a wide range of issues.
Odierno discussed what he sees as the top security threat to the United States (Russia), what went wrong in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal there in 2011 (politicization of its military) and even his thoughts on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stance that U.S. troops should be deployed to seize oilfields from Islamic State militants (he disagrees).
Near the end of the briefing, however, Odierno’s tone softened. Asked what concerns he had about caring for U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said he was encouraged by what has been done already, but sees needs for both veterans and their caregivers that stretch forward for years. He also talked about those still in uniform.
“I worry about our senior leaders,” Odierno said. “You know, we were talking yesterday in my office. So in 2003, someone who was a captain is now a colonel or a brigadier general. They have probably had six or seven deployments over that period of time.
“We tend not to talk about our leaders,” he added. “We have [noncommissioned officers] who are probably sergeants or privates back then who are now sergeant first classes, master sergeant, sergeant majors who have had six, seven, eight deployments. They’re doing well, but we have to make sure we have programs in place to take care of them as well as they continue to lead our great soldiers.”
Odierno served 39 years, including two as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. He said that the nation needs a strong Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans, and should ease restrictions that limit how private organizations can assist.
“We’re much better than we were five years ago at this,” Odierno said. “We’re able to combine private enterprise, who’s trying to help our wounded warriors, with formal Department of Defense programs with Veterans Affairs programs. So we come together and… combine all of those resources to make sure we’re taking care of these young men and women long term. And we’re getting better.”
The general said he worries about long-term post-traumatic stress among modern war veterans, and believes that centers set up at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and other locations play an important role in helping. Known as the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the Bethesda center studies traumatic brain injury and psychological problems that can develop from being exposed to combat intertwine.
Odierno added that the military needs to stay connected to the Gold Star families who have lost loved ones through military service.
“They love just staying connected to the Army, to the units that their children or sons or daughters or husbands were in, and for me, that’s incredibly important that we do that,” the general said. “Because we should never forget the sacrifice that they made and the sacrifice that their families that send their children continue to make, because their dad or mom’s no longer here.”
The general said he will live with those sacrifices “for the rest of my life.”
“Listen, we all understand why we do this and the risks associated,” Odierno said of military service. “But I had the opportunity firsthand to stand side-by-side by these young men and women who… really cared about what they were doing… They showed incredible selflessness and courage in what they did. And for me, we should be so proud of them and their sacrifice, and it’s important that we remember that, and we do that by taking care of their families, their children as we go forward.”
With that, Odierno wished the press corps well. He ambled out of the Pentagon briefing room to his right, saying “God bless all you” as he exited.