WASHINGTON — Calling personnel issues his greatest comfort and greatest concern, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today praised U.S. servicemembers for the way they’ve adapted over a decade of war.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told attendees at a Government Executive Magazine leadership briefing that while he is most proud of the flexibility and adaptability of American military forces, he also is concerned that America is losing touch with its military.
The experience in Iraq illustrates the adaptability of American service members, Mullen said, noting that when he took office in 2007, the U.S. surge into Iraq was under way and the levels of violence in the country were high and looked to be going higher.
“I was there last week, and it is like night and day,” Mullen said. “There has truly been an extraordinary shift and change and the creation of an opportunity for 26 million people that just didn’t exist. That came at a great price, and that [this has occurred] is a reflection of our military’s ability to adapt and change from the classic conventional force to what I call the best counterinsurgency force in the world.”
After 10 years of war and the multiple deployments that has entailed, the American military continues to learn and adapt, Mullen said.
A well-known strength of the U.S. military is that it’s an all-volunteer, professional force, the chairman said. But less well known is that it’s also a weakness, because only a small percentage of the nation’s population has a first-hand military connection.
“I do worry about the connection we have with the American people,” the chairman said. “We’re less than 1 percent of the population, we come from fewer and fewer places, and I worry about the things we don’t do any more.”
The base realignment and closure process has shuttered many facilities, Mullen said, and that means service members no longer live in many neighborhoods around the country where they once were part of the fabric.
“We’re not in the churches, coaching the teams, going to the schools,” he said. “So the relationship or understanding [of the military] is often created by what’s in the media.” The military footprint in the country will not change, the chairman said. “But America’s military must stay connected with the American people,” he added. “If we wake up one day and find out that we’re disconnected or almost disconnected, I think that’s a bad outcome for the country.”
The National Guard and other reserve components are great avenues for connections, he said. These service members are in every part of the country and can explain the military to the greater population. Mullen said the military needs to use this avenue to better communicate with America.
The American people respect the military and want to reach out to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, Mullen said, but often are confused about how to do so. The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments and local communities must work together to ease service members’ transition to civilian communities when they leave the military, the nation’s top military officer said.
If they do, he added, the communities certainly will get more than they give.
“I say this generation is ‘wired to serve,’” he said. “They are in their mid-20s, and they’ve seen some very difficult times in some cases. But they offer great potential for our country, and with a little investment, … they’ll take off and provide decades of service.”
Americans also need to reach out to those wounded in the wars and the families of those killed, Mullen said, noting that these families lost their lifelines to the military when their spouses died. The military needs to embrace these families, he said, and so do America’s communities.
Finally, the chairman repeated a message he has emphasized consistently and repeatedly about the need for the military to remain apolitical. The U.S. military always is under civilian control, and uniformed members “need to be absolutely neutral,” Mullen said.
“We serve the civilian leadership,” he said, “and we need to be very mindful of that and how we speak about it and engage, whether we are active or reserves.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
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