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Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2011 – He is proud and privileged to lead a military that is the best he has seen in more than 40 years, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.
Speaking during a town hall meeting at Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg, Pa., Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said, “I’ll state the case up front: I believe that there is in our country [a] ‘sea of goodwill’ to support our men and women in uniform, and their families, and we are now in our tenth year of war.”
The chairman has traveled around the nation for his “Conversations with the Country” since last April, working to raise awareness of how Americans can help veterans and their families return successfully from war to civilian life.
“They are extraordinary young men and women, and they come from all over the country - and in some cases all over the world,” the admiral said. “They make a difference, and they want to make a difference.”
The same service and sacrifice the nation witnessed in Iraq is now occurring in Afghanistan, the admiral said, and those who do so are on average in their early 20s.
“They bear this burden proudly, they care deeply about our country, and it is the freedoms we enjoy that they serve to make sure are never, ever in question,” he said.
Many soldiers have deployed four or five times, the chairman said.
“The first one was six months, the second one was eight months, and after that we went to 12 months, and 15 months and 15 months, and we’re now back to 12 months,” he said.
Between deployments those troops got only as much time as they had spent away, Mullen said, and typically spent half of that time away from home.
For Marines, deployments are shorter but more frequent – “Seven months out, seven months back, since the war started,” he said.
The change that punishing schedule has wrought in Iraq is “breathtaking,” Mullen said.
“It is about politics in Iraq now, it’s not about violence,” he said. “And it’s about a future for 26 million people.”
There are young Americans who gave their lives and many others who served and sacrificed to create that possibility, the admiral said.
“In Afghanistan, we still are on this kind of rotation … though we are now home longer than we are deployed,” he said.
Mullen said for him, part of the conversation is “I want to make sure we are facing the fullness of these wars.”
The chairman said he and his wife, Deborah, greet returning troops, meet with military families, and visit service members wounded in the wars.
“You go in to visit them and their families, and the docs do the medicine, but the families really do the healing,” he said. “You go to try to lift their spirits, and after you spend time with them … they lift yours.”
Today’s returning warriors are a young generation determined to make a difference and wired to serve, the chairman said.
“What I want to have a conversation about with communities like yours is, these young men and women are coming back … and they will make a huge difference, I believe, in our future,” Mullen said.
Veterans have seen their lives change, but their dreams remain the same, he said: “They still want to go to school, they want to have a family … they’d like to own a piece of the rock.”
What he asks of communities are the things that will make those dreams possible, the chairman said.
“Education, employment and health,” he said. “I recognize … the employment challenge is huge here, as it is throughout the country. But this economy’s going to turn, and the number of jobs available is going to go up.”
The model by which the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments send a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who is leaving service back to his or her community with “have a nice life” is no longer acceptable, Mullen said.
“These are the same individuals who on Monday of a given week, I am devoting the fullness of my life and leadership to their success,” he said. “And on Tuesday, when they leave, I am no longer focused on them. I don’t think we can do that anymore.”
The military bureaucracy and American communities must be partners in making veterans and their families successful in their post-war lives, the chairman said.
While the Pentagon and the VA contribute funds for health care and education, Mullen said, communities are where those funds must translate to successful services.
“It has to be local, and leaders have to design the model, if you will, in the local community that’s going to achieve this kind of effect,” the admiral said.
He has seen a list of community services that succeed, the chairman said.
“What I’m asking of communities is to just open up your lenses, to include in your outreach, these families,” he said.
The chairman thanked the audience for joining in the conversation.
“Hopefully, out of this can come some inspiration and leadership to make a difference in their lives as they return,” he said.