WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 20, 2007) - A senior defense official cautioned today against reading too much into Army secretary nominee Pete Geren's statement yesterday that the Army hasn't ruled out extending deployments for troops in Iraq.

Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, emphasized today that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' deployment policy stands. Secretary Gates announced April 11 that all Soldiers in the U.S. Central Command area of operations "will deploy for not more than 15 months and return home for not less than 12 months."

"And at this point, there is no plan to deviate from the policy," Mr. Whitman said.

Mr. Whitman responded to reporters' questions about statements Secretary Geren made during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

When asked by senators how long the Army will maintain the 15-month deployment policy, and if there's any chance it could be extended longer, Secretary Geren said Army leadership is evaluating a wide range of options for Iraq. "It's too early to look into the next year, but for the Army, we have to begin to plan," he told the committee. "We have to look into our options."

Extending combat tours in Iraq is one option, Secretary Geren said, but others include relying more heavily on Army Reserve and National Guard members or other services.

Secretary Geren said the Army is committed to meeting requirements set forth by Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon, the U.S. Central Command commander. "We have been able to do so up until now, and we will continue to do so," he said.

Mr. Whitman said today that the Army secretary has to balance the requirements of recruiting, training and equipping forces for the combatant commander, while also sustaining the force over an extended period of time.

Recognizing that it's impossible to predict conclusively what any one combatant commander will need - let alone multiple combatant commanders - the services must plan for "any number of contingencies at any time," Mr. Whitman said.

That planning looks at every conceivable possibility - "worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, most dangerous scenarios, most likely scenarios" - and applies force-management concepts to all, he said.

"I would tell you that you would be hard-pressed to find somebody that is going to rule out anything, as we are a nation at war with a certain amount of uncertainty with respect to what the requirements may be in the future," Mr. Whitman said.

Secretary Geren called the decision to extend deployments to 15 months "the better of two tough choices." Far worse, he told the Senate committee, would have been to wait until the last minute, when troops were about to return home, to extend them.

That's what happened last summer, when the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team - since reflagged as the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team - got word that they were being extended. The brigade was in the throes of redeploying, and some unit members had already returned home to Alaska when they learned that the Army extended their deployment four months.

Secretary Geren acknowledged yesterday that longer tours are difficult for Soldiers as well as their Families. "I appreciate the burden that it puts on Soldiers and their Families," he said. "We were asking a lot before. With this, we're asking more."

That makes it all the more important, he said, that the Army ensures it meets their needs and looks out for their quality of life. "You can destroy an army by burning the Soldier out or burning the Family out," he said.

(Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service.)