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Geren Highlights Soldiers, Families as He Prepares to Step Down

Jim Garamone - American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 8, 2009 - To Army Secretary Pete Geren, the Army is not some amorphous entity that the country calls on in time of crisis. To him, the Army is people – soldiers and families – serving something larger than themselves.

He knows this from visiting soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows this from meeting with families as they cope with long-term and repeated deployments. And he knows this from attending funerals and burials at Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60 for young men and women killed fighting America's wars.

As Geren prepares to step down as secretary, he can look back on solid accomplishments – all centered on soldiers and their families. "They are truly the strength of our nation," he said during a recent interview. President Barack Obama has nominated U.S. Rep. John McHugh of New York to succeed Geren as Army secretary.

Geren, who had been serving as Army undersecretary, took over as acting secretary in March 2007 after the resignation of Francis Harvey, who left office after revelations of systemic shortfalls in outpatient care at military health care facilities. He took office in his own right in four months later, and the Obama administration kept him on when it took office in January.

His tenure has been eventful. In March 2007, the surge in Iraq was continuing, and it featured heavy fighting and casualties. Soldiers sent to the U.S. Central Command region – including those in Afghanistan – served 15-month deployments.

The Army was having problems meeting its recruiting goals. The service had to improve care to wounded warriors, including improving treatment of the signature injuries of the wars – post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. Support to families had to increase. "On top of this, we needed to take care of the long-term goals for the Army," Geren said.

In short, the Army had to fight today's wars while positioning the service to maintain its edge in the future.

Balance for soldiers is key to maintaining the foremost combat force in the world, Geren said. "This is the first time since we've had an all-volunteer force that we've gone through extended deployments," the secretary said. The Army of World War II, Korea and Vietnam were mostly single, male draftees. The soldiers of today's force are volunteers and are married, and women serve in large numbers.

The stresses and strains on the all-volunteer force became apparent soon after beginning this conflict, Geren said. Over the past several years, the Army has devoted more and more resources to families.

"Soldiers who are married have expectations for their families, and we've been trying to meet those expectations," he said. "Over the past two years, we've doubled the amount of money that goes into family programs – [from] $700 million to $1.4 billion.

In his travels around the Army, Geren said, he has heard a lot of concern about the availability and affordability of quality child care. The Army has stepped up construction and manning of child care centers and is working to reduce the cost for enlisted families.

The service is stressed, Geren acknowledged, but he said soldiers continue to meet the challenges. Many of the soldiers have served three and four deployments, and some are gone as much as they are home. Increasing dwell time – the time soldiers are at home stations with families – is a priority. "The Army is growing, and we hope to meet the 1-to-2 goal [of one year deployed followed by two years at home station] by 2011," the secretary said.

Part of the problem is demand. Some 130,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, and almost 60,000 servicemembers are in Afghanistan. The current dwell ratio is a bit over 1-to-1. "This is a work in progress," Geren said. "We must do more."

The role of reserve-component soldiers and the support provided to them increased during Geren's tenure. "It is clear that the reserves' role in the war has been crucial," he said. "We could not do what we have done without the reserves."

Yet equipping and training Army National Guard and Army Reserve units was far below that of active duty forces. Coordination with Congress has led to a significant increase in equipment funding. National Guard units are receiving the same equipment – often at the same time – as their active duty counterparts. The last "deuce and a half" – the trucks driven by Army forces since World War II – will be out of the service in fiscal 2011, all replaced by medium tactical trucks.

Personal protective equipment, night-vision goggles, communications systems, helicopters and much more are flowing to reserve-component units. Funding for Army National Guard equipment was $1 billion in fiscal 2001. Today, it is $3.9 billion yearly.

The reserves are valuable for another reason: their civilian experiences. Army Reserve and National Guardsmen take lessons learned in their civilian jobs to the battlefield, Geren noted. "We have units of soldiers who are farmers from states in the Midwest," he said. "They are working with Afghan farmers." The units are helping Afghan farmers cope with drought, plant crops other than the poppy that fuels the illicit drug trade and finances terrorist activities, and in keeping livestock alive and producing.

Other reservists are lawyers, city managers, firefighters and police, and they work with Afghan and Iraqi counterparts to build governance and economic bases.

"We need to do better in identifying these skills and putting them to work," Geren said.

But again, he emphasized, families matter.

"We must do a better job getting assistance to the families of our deployed reservists," he said. Reserve-component servicemembers are not centered at a base, as active duty units are. Updating family programs for reservists is important. Making programs available where they live is a priority that the Army is working on, the secretary said.

Caring for the wounded or the families of those killed in service is a promise the Army and the country must fulfill, Geren said. Under Geren's watch, the Army has set up 36 warrior transition units that allow soldiers to focus on getting better, or – if they are not returning to their units– what they will do with the rest of their lives. "We have to get rid of administrative rules that make no sense," he said. "Two years later, I still hear of these."

Transitioning from the Defense Department health care system to the Department of Veterans Affairs system remains a problem, Geren said. "The Army continues to work with VA to streamline the system, and it's better than it was, but it needs to be better [than it is now]," he said.

The service has also established soldier and family assistance centers to centralize services for transition. "If soldiers want educational opportunities, here's the place to get them," he said. "If they need help with housing or getting a job or signing up for VA benefits, it's all there."

The Warrior Care and Transition Program is the way the service will take the hard-won lessons and translate them to results. This past year, the Army spent $751 million on the program, and anticipates spending $1.2 billion this year. "This is the least we can do, given the tremendous sacrifices these soldiers and their families have made for us," Geren said.

The secretary said he appreciates that the American people support their soldiers, "but I don't think they understand the scope of their sacrifices," he said.

"They come up and shake their hands when walking through airports, but they don't fully understand what it is that these soldiers do for us every day," the secretary said. "We need to communicate that better, because just a small percentage of Americans volunteer for military service."

Geren, a former congressman from Texas, first started working at the Defense Department as a special assistant in 2001. "I was just going to spend two years and go home," he said. He served as acting secretary of the Air Force before becoming undersecretary of the Army, and ultimately secretary.

"For nearly eight years, I have watched soldiers go off to war and their families stand with them," he said. "I always will remember that I had the privilege to work for them when our nation was asking so much of them - truly the privilege of a lifetime."

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