WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlined the Defense Department’s efforts to strengthen families, bolster education opportunities and ensure a good future for its veterans — and he asked for help.
Speaking before the World Congress on Disabilities in Dallas, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen recounted his experiences during his ‘Conversation with the Country’ tour to cities throughout America, where he seeks local answers to meet the challenges of health care, education and employment for veterans returning from America’s wars.
“I talk to community leaders about veterans who are returning home from these wars, who offer such great potential, and who are members of the best military the United States of America has ever had,” he said.
Those veterans have sacrificed tremendously, and are on average 20 to 25 years old, Mullen said, asserting “they are wired to serve.” If they can make a successful transition from the military to civilian life, he added, they will be an asset to the nation and the world for decades to come. The current, robust GI Bill, improved military medical care and family support programs are working to help veterans, he said, but the challenges are not short-term.
The old system of sending a former servicemember home and saying, “thank you very much, have a nice life” is not an acceptable model, the chairman said. “We have got to stay in touch with them. We’ve got to be responsible enough to know that their needs are being met, and the only way we can scale this is through communities throughout the country,” he said. “I’ve got 40,000 physically wounded, I’ve got hundreds of thousands with [post-traumatic stress] … and that model is the same model that generated a homeless level, post-Vietnam … that we’re still dealing with 50, 60 years later.”
The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments and city and community leaders must work together to figure out the best system to meet veteran challenges, Mullen said. Local leaders and communities are in the best position to provide the sustained approach that’s required, he said, but “you may live in a community and not have a clue who’s there, as they return.”
Across the country there is tremendous support for veterans, Mullen said, and he works to focus that support and connect it to the veterans who can benefit from it. America’s current wars are different from previous conflicts, and veterans today often have different challenges than their counterparts in the past faced, he said. “We live in an extraordinary time of change,” he said. “The wounds of these wars are different, and they have caused [the military] in many cases to look at things differently. We’ve changed – in medicine, we’ve changed how we handle people on the battlefield. Now, if you are brought to the right medical facility within an hour, almost … without discrimination about the kind of wound, you have a 95 percent chance to survive.”
Military medicine also has made great strides in treating servicemembers with amputations, Mullen noted. “We lead the world now in that,” he said. “We’ve linked up with organizations all over the country … to develop the best prosthetics in the world. And we keep advancing.” The military medical system also has gotten better at helping servicemembers rehabilitate and in treating brain injuries, the chairman said. “What we are struggling with is the diagnosis and treatment of — as rapidly as possible — the mild to moderate brain injuries,” he said. “It turns out they are unique in one sense because of the kinds of blasts that cause them.”
The chairman said two or three years ago he and his wife, Deborah, had lunch with a soldier who had lost hissight in one eye. “I asked him what happened, and he said ‘The thirtieth one got me,’ ” Mullen said. “Thirty blasts, at any level, is far too many,” the chairman said. “We’ve since shifted dramatically on the battlefield, to pull people out of the fight in the case of any blast, and to evaluate them immediately.”
The chairman said the military has learned that immediate treatment of brain injuries can significantly lessen their long-term consequences. “We’re moving now, literally in our tenth year [of war], for better treatment of those kinds of injuries on the battlefield, to then transition to long-term treatment here,” he said.
The chairman said the injury he worries about most is post-traumatic stress, and its spread throughout the services and within the families of those who serve. “PTS isn’t new, and there are world experts in this room. But PTS is also part of a huge challenge that we have, which is the stigma … they want to get back in the fight,” he said. “And getting (servicemembers) to raise their hand and ask for help is truly difficult.”
When his wife visits military spouses, he said, she often finds people who recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress in their husband or wife, but are afraid to ask for help because of the possible effect on the servicemember’s career.
“We’re starting to break through on that … but in addition to members who have PTS, there are spouses who have PTS-like symptoms,” he said. With major combat units facing their fourth or fifth deployment in 10 years, military children also are displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the chairman said. “You can imagine the load our families are bearing while the members are deployed,” he said. “We’ve never been more blessed by family support, in my 40-plus years of wearing the uniform, than we have in these wars.”
Family readiness is directly tied to military readiness and “our ability to carry out the mission,” he said. “But we also see spouses talk about their own challenges with PTS, and their children’s challenges,” Mullen said. “If I am an 11- or 12-year-old right now, I have only known war, and I have seen my father or my mother less than half my life.”
Military family members who are now college-aged, he said, spent their teenage years not getting to know a parent — usually a father — in uniform. “Those are long-term challenges,” the chairman said. Things we’ll be dealing with for a long time.”
The military is starting to learn how to help servicemembers and military families build resilience, he said. “Initially, it was deploy. Then it was get ready for the return from deployment, how do we prepare for that. Then it was get ready for the next deployment,” Mullensaid. “And what we’ve found out is we have to start building resilience in every single one of us, from the first day of basic training.” The military is still working to develop a preventive rather than reactive approach to stress issues, he said, noting, “We’re better than we were, but we’ve got a lot of resilience that we’ve got to build in.”
One approach Mullen said he thinks the Defense Department will adopt is reducing the number of moves military families make. “What has brought to my attention more than once by the woman that I live with, who has been a Navy wife for 42 years, is the criticality of the readiness of our families to handle this pace,” he said. “We’re in a time when we’re just not going to be able to move people like we did … it’s education, it’s kids in school, it’s spouse careers. We’re going to have to be based, I think, in places longer than we have in the past.”
The military also is working with schools, teachers, and state and local administrations to ensure schools serving military family members with parents in a combat zone can help them cope with the challenges of a military lifestyle, the chairman said.
“Particularly guardsmen and women, and [reservists], who live in every single corner of this country,” he said. “They live in rural areas where medical care is not that great. They live in small communities where schools are small – and my ability to reach out to those teachers and touch them, and educate them about what a young boy or girl is going through, is still a challenge.”
All of that, he said, is “part of making this war visible, having leaders understand this, and then try to figure out local solutions.” The other challenge embedded in today’s veteran issues is suicide, he said.
“This is something we’re almost desperate on,” the chairman said. “It turns out the country doesn’t know a lot about suicide: 32,000 suicides a year, and it is as if it is taboo. We just put it in a closet, nobody talks about it, and then we move on. That is not acceptable.”
The military is at record suicide levels, he said.
“We don’t know exactly why, though I think numerous combat deployments have a lot to do with it, although a significant portion of those that are killing themselves have not deployed,” Mullen said.
The military has put a lot of effort into preventing suicide, he said, but it needs help.
Mullen told his audience that ensuring veterans have the best possible opportunities for their future lives is a debt the entire nation owes its men and women in uniform.
He read aloud a letter that one wounded lieutenant, a Navy Seal, — married and the father of three — posted on his hospital room door while he was recovering from seven bullet wounds to the face that he received in Iraq in 2007.
“If you’re coming into this room with sorrow, or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love.
“I’m incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room full of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere,” the chairman read.
“He is perfectly representative of our young men and women today, and he represents the potential that’s there, as so many transition from service in the military to their future lives,” Mullen said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)