FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Fort Lewis June 18, where he toured barracks, met with leaders and talked to Soldiers.

As part of his visit, the chairman held a town hall meeting in Soldiers Field House in which he took Soldiers' questions and answered them in frank, unscripted exchanges.

Before opening the floor to questions, Mullen took a few moments to thank the Soldiers gathered in the gym for their service.

"First of all, I want to say how grateful I am for every single one of you who serves our nation," Mullen said. "It's been a great privilege, it still is an incredible privilege, to serve with the best military this nation has ever had, and, I believe, quite frankly the best military the world has ever seen - and you are a part of that,"

Mullen told the Soldiers that they are on his mind every day, especially as he makes decisions that will affect them.

"I will get it right for the mission, I will get it right for you, because we can't do it without you" he said.

He also stressed the importance of the military family to the mission. While the military is working to make more programs available to families, and has already done a lot for families, there is more to come, he said.

"Family support is vital, and always has been vital," he said. "We've got to make sure we take care of our families."

He praised the Soldiers of Fort Lewis for their accomplishments in Iraq that "turned the tide" in the conflict.

"You made a huge difference," he said. Fort Lewis' Soldiers left the country much more secure than it had been before the surge, he said. "My hat's off to you for making that difference."

Even so, there is still work to be done in Iraq, he said.

"We've still got a long way to go - we've got to get to a point in Iraq where security and politics and the economy are all working in the same direction," he said. "Trends are good, but we've got to get to a point where it's sustainable and irreversible and we're not there yet."

As for Afghanistan, training, not combat, is the future there, he said.

"That's really the way to get the Afghan Army ... and police up to speed so they can assume the role for their own security," he said. Mullen told the Soldiers that the military is working hard to take care of them and invest in them and acknowledged that, between multiple and extended deployments, that these are challenging times for Soldiers.

With that in mind, he told the Soldiers that the Army would return to 12-month deployments Aug. 1.

"The very important goal, however, is to get to a rotation which allows us 12 months in the theater and 24 months back," he said. "We're not there yet."

As the Army grows to more than 500,000 over the next few years, Mullen said the goal of a 24-month dwell time should be met because there will be more Soldiers to share the rotations.

With these challenges in mind, Mullen encouraged the gathered Soldiers to be good leaders because leadership is vital to the success of the mission.

"This has been, throughout my career, the most challenging of moments in time," he said. "There is no more important aspect of what we do than lead and lead well."

Rachel Young is a reporter with Fort Lewis' "Northwest Guardian."