The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "All we have to do is bring up medical care, it explodes." Speaking to the National Guard’s Family Program Workshop in New Orleans Aug. 2, Adm. Michael Mullen was referring to meetings he and his wife Deborah have had with National Guard and reserve component service members since he took office.
TRICARE "is the number one issue" he will take back to Washington to work on with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense Department and Congress, he added.
"There has to be a way to close those gaps" where families do not have to keep changing doctors when a service member is mobilized. "These are the kinds of things we can solve."
Mullen said that the support from the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has been consistent. They were and are "very focused on families."
In answer to a question, Mullen said, "Leaders have to stay focused" on sustaining family programs that are meeting today’s needs in a time of increasing pressure on the defense budget.
Dennis McCarthy, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said, "Resources must be used wisely."
"Our military readiness is directly tied to family readiness" in "different ways than in the past," Mullen said.
Adding, "The Joint Chiefs agree to this."
Mullen said family programs remain at the top of his priority list. He added that message was driven home to him by the success he saw in Task Force Navy Family’s work along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"You are volunteers. You care" and are people who "focus every single day on families."
The role of the reserve components has changed over the past nine years of war. "The deployments will continue," and while they likely will decline as American forces leave Iraq, "we are also concerned about what lies ahead."
Mullen said, "There is no institution that has changed as much as the [National] Guard" through its deployments, addressing new stresses on families and keeping the support of employers.
He was particularly concerned about re-integration of mobilized soldiers and airmen who, in the past, may have "returned home on Friday and were back to work on Monday." Adding, "It’s too fast and too much."
Mullen said that it was important to build resiliency throughout the whole cycle of deployment and challenged the attendees to "exchange ideas on what’s working and what’s not working."
Later in answer to a question, he added this can also include working with active-duty installation commanders who have families returning to their hometowns during deployments.
He said he was working on eliminating the "yes/no boxes" on forms that service members fill out on whether their families should be contacted during a deployment. "How do we get rid of that isolation" that families feel when they are not close to an installation, armory or reserve center?
The answer may not be solely relying in the Internet to communicate with families. "There are a lot of young spouses who are not on the Internet. … What do they all have? Cell phones."
Adding, "This is about the Total Force; one team, one fight."
The chairman said that in his town hall meetings with civilians, often at a university, he is asked how they can help returning service members.
Mullen said that he urges family readiness volunteers reach out to those interested people, to work with schools so teachers and administrators understand the impact of deployments, what it means to a child when a seriously wounded service member returns or who has lost a parent.
He said chaplains and churches in the community can work together on a range of issues affecting service members and their families.
"We have miles to go on this whole issue of stigma, on this whole issue of PTS, on this whole issue of TBI," veterans homelessness and suicide prevention. Mullen said these issues from Afghanistan and Iraq "will remain for another 30 to 60 years."
He also advised the volunteers to "take care of yourselves. This is a marathon, not a sprint."
"While there has been much done, there is much to do," Mullen said.
Shortly after his hour-long session ended, Mullen sent out this Tweet: "Grt talking to NG families/volunteers. They make real contributions worth our appreciation & have real concerns worth our time."