Defense Media Network

Interview With U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli

Caring for soldiers

We’ve never asked that of any U.S. soldier, have we?

We’ve never asked that of any soldier. And then when they get back home, they are under the same kind of stresses that anybody would be who is away from their family for 12 to 15 months. They have to reintegrate with the family, while at the same time lurking in the background is the fact that they know in a couple of months after arrival at home, that they are going to be getting ready to head back over. That is tough on them and it’s tough on their families.

We are looking at the start of FY 2010. Therefore, I am assuming you have at least some idea of what your funding and force commitments within the next couple FY’s are going to be. If you could look forward, say into the next year, or two, or three, how would you describe what your soldiers are going to be doing? What are your soldiers’ lives going to be like as we turn into the next decade? What kind of operations tempos, challenges, and stresses, will they be facing? Will they be the same, or will they be easing? What can you offer those kids in the way of expectations?

Well, I can offer the commitment of both the chief [of staff] and the secretary of the Army, to do everything within their power to increase the “dwell” time. By this, I mean the time at home, the time between deployments into the combat theaters, and to increase that as quickly as we can and get it to a minimum of 24 months. That is absolutely critical. We call that term dwell. We know dwell has a tremendous impact on some of the stressors that I have seen on the force. When you turn around a unit or an individual between combat deployments – and really what we are talking about is individuals – in just 12 to 15 months, that individual does not have time to get back and take care of minor medical problems he might have. Elective kinds of surgeries on knees and elbows and whatever, to recover from his body or her body being torn down by fighting in Afghanistan in altitudes of 8,000 to 12,000 feet. So, we know that dwell is important. The secretary of the Army and the chief, and for the small part that I play, are totally committed to increasing that dwell. And I think that our main job is to convince the decision-makers that it is also their responsibility to get us that needed dwell. We need 24 months or more for individuals to be at home in between deployments.

I can also say that the chief and the secretary have moved all the monies for family programs into the base budget. It’s very, very important that those monies are there and it is not held hostage to the Overseas Contingency Operation fund [OCO]; what we used to call supplementals. As they are cut, and we expect them to be cut in the out years, it is absolutely critical to get these family programs into the base budgets. That’s where they are, funded throughout the POM [program objective memorandum], and that is a critical factor. But, my final point that I would tell soldiers is that we are in a period of what I call “persistent engagement,” which some call persistent conflict. And while that period of “persistent engagement is going to see continued overseas combat deployments, we do expect to see soldiers returning from Iraq. And with the return of those soldiers, we are hoping and praying that our assumptions hold true, and that we will see dwell increase to 24 months and perhaps greater in some instances.

Obviously, there is also the matter of your citizen soldiers: the National Guard and the Reserves. Are you seeing the same sorts of pressures and trends with them? Or are there additional factors and/or situations unique to their status as citizen soldiers that are layered on top of what your active duty folks are going through?

Yes, that is something that I have been watching since, quite frankly, 2001. I never understood why an active component soldier comes back off a deployment and has 14 days of mandatory reintegration training; yet when we bring back a reserve component soldier, the goal is to get him demobilized and back home as fast as you possibly can. It doesn’t make sense to me, and it’s never made sense to me. Thank goodness, in the last couple of years, for programs like the Yellow Ribbon Program, which a very enlightened governor in Minnesota pushed, and now has become a program that is available to all Guardsmen who return. This is a critical, critical program. It meets their needs, and gets at some of the issues that I see – maybe not all of them, but gets at some of the issues that I see.

I think that it is absolutely essential that we find new and innovative ways to deliver different kinds of mental health care counseling to our reserve components. You know, I have seen an increase in suicide rates of those who are not on active duty as opposed to those who are on active duty. When you look closer at that, what you see is a portion of the population, a soldier coming off of a 12 or 15 month deployment, who is demobilized in three or four days, then goes back to a civilian community and is separated from the resources and people who understand what he or she went through. Maybe these units are spread out, because some are in multiple states, and soldiers in these units, some are individual augmentees. They just don’t have the great co-located resources that the rest of the military community has when they come back. They sometimes don’t have people who understand what they have gone through or programs available to take care of them. So, we are working very, very hard at providing as many of these services as we can to soldiers, whatever part of the Army they serve in. In particular, we are looking at innovative ways we can deliver these, to those who are in geographically remote areas, through the Internet.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...