WIESBADEN, Germany - Stress on the force, recruitment, retention and the Year of the NCO were among an array of topics addressed by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston during a day-long visit to Wiesbaden Army Airfield, June 24.

The Army's senior enlisted leader told a packed auditorium of Soldiers and families that he "wanted a good feeling for what's on their minds."

After touring several facilities on the airfield Aca,!" including the Warrior Transition Unit, the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers' Warrior Zone, Wiesbaden Fitness Center and being briefed on ongoing transformation in U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Aca,!" Preston joined junior enlisted Soldiers for lunch. The one-on-one discussion time was followed by an open forum with Soldiers and their families in the Flyers Theater.

During the forum the sergeant major of the Army described the shape of the force, which currently includes 548,000 active-duty troops, of which 260,000 are deployed to 80 countries around the world. Those Soldiers and 95,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves also deployed are "doing an incredible job around the world," he said.

Preston described a meeting with President Barack Obama and other military leaders in which he raised concerns including stress on the force, recruiting and retention. "It's pretty stressful. There are a lot of dynamics out there because the Army is busy."

Describing how he told the president that stress occurs both during deployment and "when the units come back during dwell time," he said he "wanted the president to understand that it's not just operational stress but also institutional stress and stress on our families."

A tumbling economy was another stress factor, he noted.

Calling them "warning lights on the dashboard," the ArmyAca,!a,,cs senior noncommissioned officer said a rise in suicides and post traumatic stress were visible effects of this stress on the force.

But Preston also pointed out the strength and dedication of the men and women who serve - evident in the fact that the Army continues to exceed its recruitment and retention goals.

During 2009, the Year of the NCO, Preston said the Army's focus was on recognizing the contributions of the NCO Corps past and present Aca,!" "the glue that has held the organization together." This year's focus was also aimed at informing the public about NCOs as a national asset and in enhancing the capabilities of the NCO Corps.

Noting changes to the Warrior Leader, Basic and Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Courses, Preston said they are intended to enhance training and to "get the training to Soldiers earlier in their careers." Introduction of the Army Career Tracker is likewise geared toward guiding Soldiers to potential schools and training throughout their careers.

"Our goal is to grow all Soldiers," he said, adding that partnerships with universities are helping ensure they have more educational opportunities and receive college credit for military experiences such as basic and advanced training.

During the question and answer session, Preston addressed everything from concerns about the Home Owners Assistance Program to more educational opportunities for overseas spouses. Issues about the cost of child care, career progression and the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy were also raised.

In response to questions about the length of dwell time between deployments, the sergeant major of the Army said, "The goal at a minimum is to get to a two-to-one ratio (two years back in garrison for every year deployed) and ideally to get to a three-to-one ratio."

After a question about the importance of keeping forces in Europe, Preston described the need to maintain relationships with European countries - especially those such as Lithuania, Poland and other former Eastern Bloc countries still building their militaries after the end of the Cold War. The U.S. Army NCO Corps serves as a role mode Aca,!" and many of the senior NCOs in those countries, along with Iraq and Afghanistan Aca,!" are graduates of the U.S. Army's Sergeants Major Academy, he said.

When asked what's the best division in the Army, Preston, a former 1st Armored Division Soldier, smiled and drew "hooahs" from the crowd with his answer: Aca,!A"1st AD.Aca,!A?

"I'm really proud of all the Soldiers here in Wiesbaden," he concluded. "It's always good to come back here and visit."