Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, is leaving the Army in much the same manner that he served in it over the past decade: as an iconoclast.
The general, who retires Tuesday, used a final interview with The Washington Post to argue that the law banning women from combat jobs in the military was an unnecessary anachronism — and that women are already effectively serving in combat roles.
“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.
These days, he looks for glimmers of progress in statistics that others might see as deeply troubling. For example, the number of hospitalizations of troops who have suicidal thoughts has increased every year since he became vice chief of staff in 2008. “I look at that and say leaders are involved and are not ignoring things that they once ignored when it comes to this area,” he said.
Recently, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta asked Chiarelli to retire from the Army and serve as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, one of the Pentagon’s most senior civilian jobs. The position would have allowed Chiarelli to remain involved in mental-health issues, but he turned it down to return to Washington state.
“I have my mom on the West Coast all by herself,” he said. “She turns 90 on February 15th. I have a family responsibility after 40 years of service to be with her.”
He acknowledged that he leaves behind many problems, including a medical system that is poorly structured to treat the mental wounds of war. “Soldiers would tell me point blank that [the doctor] talks to me for five minutes and throws a bag of pills at me,” Chiarelli said. “We have some real issues right now with the shortage of behavioral-health experts and a business model that does not lend itself to taking care of these people in the most effective way.”
Throughout his military career, Chiarelli has had a reputation as an innovator. In Baghdad’s Sadr City, he launched a massive effort to employ young men to fix the slum’s dilapidated sewer system. His efforts helped shape the Army’s approach to counterinsurgency warfare, which stresses that winning the support of the people is as important as killing the enemy.
It’s unclear, however, whether another four-star general will continue his efforts to improve mental-health care for soldiers. “I think that anyone who looks at the numbers after a while is going to say, ‘Wow, we have got a problem here,’ ” he said. “That is how I got involved in it. . . . It is going to still need pushing.”