A War Machine for the Whole Family

A War Machine for the Whole Family

The nation’s top military officer told reporters at the Pentagon on
Wednesday that the U.S. military isn’t planning on sending additional
troops to Iraq to deal with the recent surge in violence. While Admiral Mike
Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, didn’t say as much, the
reality is that there aren’t any more U.S. troops to send to Iraq, or
anywhere else. Partly to ensure that an overstretched military doesn’t
break, Mullen pleased troops in North Carolina on Monday when he told them
that the Pentagon soon may begin replacing its Cold War-era assignments to
South Korea — one-year tours without family — with three-year
deployments with families.

The Pentagon appears to be realizing that family-friendly is the way to go
to ease the strains on those on active service. A generation ago, sergeants
barked, “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you
one.” But under the pressure of war — and a force more married and female
than ever — today’s soldiers are not only allowed to be married to one
another; those serving together in Iraq are being allowed to live
together. Early reports
suggests it helps marriages and morale — and maybe even keeps those
sharing a private trailer in uniform longer. It’s just one example of a
kinder, gentler military’s concern to avoid driving soldiers out of uniform
by burdening them and their families with rules ill-suited to 21st century

As the nation’s armed forces slog through a seventh year of war, with
soldiers and Marines churning through repeated combat tours in Afghanistan
and Iraq, re-enlistment bonuses and lower recruitment standards can
only do so much to maintain force levels. So, the military is doing more to
make its postings and benefits more attractive for spouses and children in
military families. Mullen’s comments on South Korean tours echoed recent
testimony from the top U.S. officer there. The change would cut the number
of family separations beyond those already compelled by the two wars, Army
General Burwell Bell told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11.
“In 55 years, the Republic of Korea has transformed from a war-ravaged
country to one of the most modern, progressive and democratic countries in
the world,” he said. “Unfortunately, in a modern and vibrant Republic of
Korea, the U.S. still rotates service members on one-year, unaccompanied
assignments as though this remained an active combat zone. It is not.”

Such changes aren’t only happening overseas. “How do you sustain an Army …
where the soldiers are volunteers, and the families are volunteers, and get
them to stay with us during these very challenging times” Army Secretary
Pete Geren wondered aloud to military bloggers on March 26. At least part of
the answer is money: The Army is doubling what it spends to take care of
families, he said. The Pentagon is experimenting with three-year sabbaticals
— including health benefits, but no pay — for personnel desiring a
break in their military service. Other family-friendly measures include
letting family members tap into their soldier’s unused GI Education Bill
benefits, giving military spouses hiring preferences for Federal jobs, and
improving military daycare. “Not only are we expanding the availability of
child care,” Geren said, “but we’re reducing the cost and looking at ways to
deliver it both on post and off-post.” Nowadays, it seems, Pentagon
recruiters have a new adage. “You enlist an individual,” they like to say,
“but you re-enlist the family.”

The real improvement in military family life, however, will come only when
the Army can scale back its operational tempo. Currently, soldiers head to
Afghanistan or Iraq for 15 months, return home for 12, and then may be
redeployed overseas again. Prior to 9/11, troops generally stayed home for
24 months before being deployed abroad for 12. Getting that 15-months-away,
12-months-at-home ratio down to 12-and-12 is currently the military’s most
urgent management challenge, Pentagon officials say. “My goal is to come
down from 15 months as quickly as we can,” Mullen told his North Carolina
audience on Monday. That was the good news. But he quickly followed up with
bad news: “When that will be, I don’t know.” So long as the op-tempo is so
high, all the Pentagon’s family fixes can’t make up for that lack of family