McHugh puts Soldiers, families at center of agenda
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Oct. 20, 2009) -- Getting the Army's personnel aspects right is the most important job for its leaders, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said today.

McHugh took office Sept. 21.

In many ways the Army is doing well, but more needs to be done as the service begins a ninth year at war, the secretary said during an interview in his Pentagon office.

Soldiers are performing their missions extraordinarily well, but they and their families are under enormous stress, McHugh said.

"I think the Army has done significant work in recognizing the challenges that have evolved over those eight years - everything from dwell time [at home stations between deployments] to the need to make more robust family support programs," he said.

The former congressman represented the upstate New York district that includes Fort Drum. He also served as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. In that job, he made 14 trips to visit servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said it's a great honor to serve as Army secretary, and he is familiar with the challenges facing the service.

"Where appropriate, we want to focus on those initiatives that have been put into place," he said, "and continue to strive to identify others that can complete the job that I think all of us in this building understand."

Deployments are front and center with McHugh. He noted that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. has done a lot of work on this so that currently, active-duty Soldiers spend a year deployed and about a year and a half at their home station before deploying again.

"[Casey's] plan is over the next few years to reach that 1-to-2 [ratio], and ideally over a much longer term, 1-to-3 for the active component and an ideal of 1-to-5 for the reserve components," McHugh said.

This will not happen overnight, he acknowledged. And like any plan, he added, it is subject to change and the issues of supply and demand. The plan will be affected by the situation in Iraq and, possibly, Afghanistan, the secretary said. If progress in Iraq continues, the command there can draw down forces faster. If President Barack Obama decides to add forces to Afghanistan, this also affects the dwell-time calculus, he said.

The service also is looking at the number of deployments Soldiers make. Some Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have deployed four or five times. "We can't really consider number of deployments, but how they are dispersed across time," McHugh said.

The operational and personnel tempo of the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly were unacceptable, McHugh said. But recruiting and retention numbers also tell a story. The Army is an all-volunteer force, he noted, and Soldiers who enlist know they are going to be deployed to a war zone.

"Everyone who is re-upping understands that," he said. "They have already been [deployed], and they are likely to go again, and yet the [re-enlistment] numbers are good."

McHugh said he always thanks new recruits when he meets them. "It's an all-volunteer military, and it does an amazing job, but it can't do it without people like you," he said he tells new Soldiers.

The retention rate suggests to leaders that Soldiers are willing to carry the burden. "But that's not enough; it can't be enough for us," McHugh said. "The issue is not can we do something - can we pile on more deployments, with short dwell times - but should we' And the answer is no."

Regardless of how many Soldiers are willing to step forward and do it again, "we want to make sure there's time for folks to come home, get their feet back on the ground, spend time with their families and enjoy life," he said. "That means extending those periods of dwell."

McHugh and Casey discussed this recently, and if Iraq continues in a positive direction, then the service can continue to extend the dwell time at home, the secretary said.

"I think that, more than anything, is what the troops and their families want," he said. "The chief has set goals, and as long as we are progressing toward them, that keeps the faith, and that's what we're all working to do."

The service isn't looking at a limit on the number of deployments a Soldier can make, McHugh said. "Rather, [we're looking at] constructing a responsible balance and support paradigm that is reasonable and well-tolerated."

McHugh said reserve-component Soldiers and the support the service provides them and their families has come a long way since 2001. "The Guard and Reserve are an irreplaceable part of the operating force, and we've made a lot of progress in resourcing them on that basis," he said.

"But there are still a lot of gaps, and [we're] still working it."

McHugh said when he gets off the plane to visit troops he cannot tell the difference between active-duty and reserve-component Soldiers. "I suspect the attitude of the regular Army about the reserves has changed as well. And that's all for the good," he said.

The reserve-component Soldiers - coming from every city, town and hamlet - also help to connect the Army to the nation, he said.

Defense Department officials are looking at the right size of the force as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review due out in January, McHugh said. "Is the Army the right size'" he asked. "There's no perfect answer to that question," he said, "because its predicated on knowing ... what is tomorrow going to look like' If we knew that, life would be a lot easier," he said.

"What we're trying to do is come to a reasonable baseline for end-strength, but equally important is to modernize the forces and reshape it to be able to respond to the broadest set of challenges," McHugh explained. "Budgets come and go, they rise and fall. We've got to ensure we have a strategy that provides a modern force, that's well-equipped, well-trained and able to go out there and meet the enemy whoever that enemy might be."

Communicating with Soldiers and families is an imperative for the service. "We have to communicate in ways that our people communicate," he said. "In this world of tweeting and YouTube and Facebook, we need to get into that. We need to use these new means of communications that our Soldiers and their families use to let them know what's available, demystify it and tell them how to participate."

The Army can't help Soldiers and families if they don't know about programs, he noted. "[We] can't help them if they don't hear about it, [and] can't help them if they don't understand it," he said. The secretary said he wants all Soldiers to understand the range of options and opportunities that exist in today's military. "This is a place where you can get the most relevant training on the most modern platforms and the educational opportunities of a lifetime," he said.

Finally, solders and families have to know what programs are out there to help them, and "what the Army family is ready, willing and anxious to do for them," he said.

"From the moment that they join the Army," he said, "they are a part of a team that cares, and that there's help for them whatever the challenge they've got in their lives."

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