MCT REGIONAL NEWS
By John Hall
El Paso Times, Texas
March 11--FORT BLISS -- Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to students at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss on Thursday about concerns such as budget cuts and the care and support of military families.
Mullen told the more than 300 students and instructors that their leadership will be critical in the coming years as more of America's forces return home after serving multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Af ghan istan.
"By and large, major units will be home twice as long as they were before, and we've been packing a lot of stuff away, we've been compartmentalizing a lot of stuff, and I believe that a lot of that stuff is going to be unloaded here and unpacked, individually and in families," Mullen said. "You are the only ones I believe who understand garrison leadership, period. e We are very dependent on you to get it right."
Highest on Mullen's list of concerns is the suicide rate among service members. 2010 was the sixth straight year the Army's suicide rate increased. The number of active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers who committed suicide rose to 301 last year from 249 in 2009. Nearly 1,000 soldiers have committed suicide since 2005.
"We will see,
I believe, a huge increase in the kinds of challenges manifested in our suicide rate, manifested in our (post-traumatic stress) rate, manifested in our families."
Mullen also said the military still has work to do in dealing with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and sexual harassment within the ranks.
Though most of U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq, Mul len said that he expects the level of combat troops in Af ghan istan to remain near the 100,000 already there now and that they will remain there for some time.
Also, noting the civil unrest that has spread across the Middle East and North Africa in countries including Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Mullen said the United States must remain ready for future engagements. He also credited the peaceful diplomatic and military relationship the U.S. has had with Egypt with the relative lack of violent clashes between protesters and the Egyptian military. Mullen said the Egyptian military showed considerable restraint.
"The significance of this relationship has manifested itself in how well they have handled themselves in what has certainly been a crisis for them," Mul len said. Their progress toward democracy "is a huge challenge and we need to continue to support them. I admire them and what they've been able to do."
Regarding any possible military action in Libya to support the rebel forces attempting to expel Moammar Gadhafi from power, Mullen said any decision would come from the president and from other foreign politicians working with the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He did note, though, that establishing a "no-fly zone" over the country would begin with a strike on Libyan air defenses and would be an overt act of war.
During an extended question and answer period, Mullen responded to soldiers' concerns for the future of the armed forces in the face of planned cuts to the defense budget and reduction in force. Mullen described the growing national deficit as the single biggest threat to national security.
"I actually think the biggest threat to our national security is our national debt." Mullen said. "I'm not trying to make a statement that is alarmist, but the $700 billion or so that we get for our enterprise obviously comes out of the taxpayers' money. We are responsible to the people of America, and as that debt increases, our national security budget will continue to get compressed and get smaller."
Sgt. Maj. Ferdinand Collazo appreciated Mullen's focus on the welfare of soldiers and their families. Having a strong family at home, he said, makes it easier for service members to do their jobs.
"I think for the amount of deployments and the operational tempo we have, regardless of the issues, I think the soldiers and family members have held up incredibly well considering that it's almost nonstop," he said. "The family supports their service members, and that alone makes it easier for us to do our jobs, knowing that our families are there."
Navy Command Master Chief Neal Johnson, an instructor at the academy, felt that Mullen was successful in communicating with the soldiers and in responding directly to their questions and concerns.
"He talked to us on our level. He didn't talk above us, he didn't talk down to us, he took our questions and was truthful and gave us as much information as he could. I know there was a lot he couldn't tell us," Johnson said.
This was Mullen's second visit to El Paso and Fort Bliss as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was last here in 2009.
His wife, Deborah, accompanied him to Fort Bliss on Thursday and met with the spouses of enlisted personnel and Family Readiness Group leaders to discuss matters affecting families in a session that was closed to news reporters.
John Hall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6371.
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(c) 2011, El Paso Times, Texas
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