The Army is the "center of gravity of our military," but the nation needs to act resolutely to ensure that it can manage the strains that the service has experienced in nine years of combat, said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while addressing the Sustaining Members Luncheon Oct. 27 at the AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition.
"This decade of persistent conflict has had an impact that we are just beginning to come to terms with, an impact of untold costs and an undetermined toll," he said. "And I believe that what we can see today is truly just the tip of the iceberg, with consequences for our military and veteran healthcare system, our national employment rate, and even homelessness."
While the positive news is that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the amount of time soldiers spend at home will increase, that also means that the negative impacts of the wars on soldiers will be seen in different ways, Mullen said. PTS, or Post-Traumatic Stress, is "this conflict’s signature wound," he said.
"Unlike combat, where danger was largely on patrol and outside the wire, the greatest challenges returning soldiers now face are much closer to home," he said. "Family issues, financial problems, PTS, even the threat of suicide will be more likely to confront soldiers off-duty vice on, when they are away from the structure and leadership they have become accustomed to."
The Army’s leadership must learn to deal with a new type of soldier, Mullen said. "We have created a new generation of soldiers, tested to the extreme, waiting to be tested again. How do we keep their adrenaline pumping? How do we keep them engaged constructively? How do we sustain excellence as they transition away from combat?" he asked.
And senior noncommissioned officers will be the key to this transition, he added. "Ultimately our E-8s and our E-9s, as they have so many times before, will need to lead the way here," he said.
Mullen said that he is in particular worried about homelessness, as veterans struggle to find jobs to match their skills in a difficult economy.
"In the Vietnam generation – my generation – similar challenges contributed to far too many veterans falling through the cracks and recent estimates place our homeless veteran population at above 100,000," he said.
"And experts tell us that there is a five-to-seven year latency period from discharge to homelessness, so the clock is already ticking for today’s war veterans. We simply can’t afford to lose another generation of veterans to homelessness like we did in the Vietnam era."
Mullen called on the industry leaders at the luncheon to make a special effort to hire veterans, especially wounded ones. "This is a generation that is – in a way I’ve never seen before – wired to contribute and wired to serve," he said.