Focus on life after war, Mullen says

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets soldiers and gives them commemorative coins after his address Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets soldiers and gives them commemorative coins after his address Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Olympian

After nine years of constant combat, the U.S. military is shifting focus from executing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to helping the troops who've fought them adjust to life outside the war zone, the nation's top officer said Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told several hundred troops that he’s dedicated to making sure service members get the assistance they need to make a successful transition.

That’s especially important as major units, under new Pentagon policy, begin spending twice as much time at home as they did deployed, Mullen said.

“I believe for some time that we have held in an awful lot of our problems” to concentrate on the combat mission, said the chairman, who first advised President George W. Bush and now President Barack Obama.

Those problems, including increased suicide rates and homelessness among veterans, will become more pronounced as units spend more time at home, he said.

Mullen challenged the leaders of Lewis-McChord to work hard to identify problems and get help for service members who need it.

“It’s taking care of each other,” he said.

That means doing a better job of tracking veterans once they leave the service and improving programs that help service members get ready to blend into civilian life, Mullen said.

“We’ll let you go when you’re ready to go,” he said.

Mullen’s message seemed tailored for the South Sound, where 18,000 service members are returning from war zones this year. The influx will swell the population of the local base to 35,000, the highest number since before Sept. 11, 2001.

The chairman, who assumed the post in October 2007, made his remarks as part of a whirlwind tour of Lewis-McChord. He also toured facilities and met with the base’s leadership. Mullen last visited the base two years ago.

Mullen opened the floor to questions following his remarks at Carey Theater. The wide-ranging discussion covered topics including drawdown plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, potential conflicts in Iran and North Korea, gays and lesbians in the military, and the future of the Air Force’s physical training uniforms.

Mullen answered humorously at times.

At one point, a soldier asked him about drawing down the overall number of service members now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. The questioner was curious about the timeline “if they did that.”

“If ‘they’ did that? I’m ‘they,’” Mullen said to laughter.

Mullen said the military’s continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will depend heavily on political progress there. Security in both countries is improving, he said, although there is still work ahead in Afghanistan.

“We believe we have the strategy right. I believe I have the leadership right,” Mullen said. “This is a deliberate counterinsurgency.

“We expect to see strong indicators at the end of the year about how this is going.”

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai wants his forces in control by 2014, Mullen said.

“How this closes out? Too early to tell,” the chairman said.

Mullen said Iran remains a destabilizing force in the Middle East, but the Obama administration continues to look to work with the country in “areas of common interest.” That includes combating the flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran, he said.

The last question came from a soldier wanting to know what the military leadership was doing to integrate gays and lesbians “with the rest of us.” The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to lift the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The full Congress has yet to take up the issue.

“It’s just hard for me to accept that we ask people to come and work, live and die in our military while we’re asking them at the same time to lie every single day,” Mullen said.

He said the military is working to come up with a policy that makes sense. He encouraged service members to fill out a survey seeking input on the topic.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 adam.lynn@thenewstribune.com