U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen
U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses the audience at the USO of Illinois Star Spangled Salute in Chicago, Oct. 17, 2010.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17, 2010 -- Americans must recognize the sacrifices and struggles of today's troops and their families and work harder to reintegrate them into their communities, the nation's top military officer said yesterday.

The past nine years of war and multiple combat deployments have stressed the force, leaving in their wake veterans and families who return home only to have to start putting their lives back together, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a USO Gala in Chicago.

"These years of battle have steeled them for an uncertain future, because when our men and women come home, the battle doesn't end," Mullen said. "Quite frankly, for many it's just the beginning."

Mullen told the audience that one of the reasons he and his wife travel the country speaking at local events is to keep America connected to its troops. He said that many Americans don't realize what the troops and families go through to serve in the military, nor do they realize the value they bring to their communities when they return home.

"We have to recognize our veterans and their families for what they are: not a burden, but an opportunity," he said. "They are talented, skilled leaders who have so much to offer and contribute to their communities, not only during their military service, but throughout their entire lives.

"I truly believe that today's returning warriors and their families are the next great generation," Mullen said.

Mullen hailed the efforts of the USO and other organizations who have mobilized to provide community-based support for veterans and families. Still, he said, more needs to be done.

"Even with all the generosity and good will, too many veterans and military families still struggle to receive all the support they need," he said.

Returning troops and veterans often struggle with physical and mental injuries, anxiety and depression, he said. Their family dynamics are changed by the challenges of post-traumatic stress.

Mullen said some veterans find it difficult to translate their military experience into viable jobs and careers, noting that the job search is made even more difficult during a struggling economy. The homelessness rates among today's veterans are rising past those of Vietnam veterans, he said, and too many veterans consider suicide an option.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about the pressures on these young men and women and the sacrifices of their families -- challenges that all of us must help them shoulder as they have already shouldered such burdens for us," the chairman said.

And it's not just the returning veterans who need community support, Mullen noted. The families of servicemembers killed in combat also need help. "Not a moment goes by that I don't think about the families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice," he said.

The USO and communities play a vital role in tapping into the skills of veterans, the admiral said, mobilizing support for families and helping to build resilience against visible and invisible wounds of war.

He recalled his time aboard ship as a young naval officer, and said that at each port he would seek out the familiar USO sign.

"It seemed as though the USO was always there -- everywhere and anywhere," he said. "It felt as though the USO volunteers were not just serving us -- they were serving alongside us."

But for all of the comforts it provides to troops overseas, it is the connection at home that makes the group most valuable, Mullen said.

"It isn't just a taste of home that you provide. ... It's a sense of appreciation," he said. "It's knowing that the people you fight for back home are fighting for you too."

Page last updated Mon October 18th, 2010 at 10:27