JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - As U.S. forces approach nine years in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, attending to the needs of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines has become a primary focus. The senior-ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces empha-sized that priority this week during a trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, encouraged the services to resume traditional "garrison leadership" when he came to Joint Base Lewis-McChord Monday.

Mullen visited one of the busiest installations in the country in redeployment terms, with approximately 18,000 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan during a period that began late spring through early fall 2010.

In remarks prior to an "all-hands" town hall meeting at Carey Theater on Lewis Main, Mullen outlined challenges facing the force as U.S. roles evolve in those countries.

"We've got to focus on those things that we have not been able to focus on," Mullen said, "because we haven't had the time while we've been putting units together and rotating them in and out of war ... every year."

Mullen said the brisk operations tempo has forced leaders' attention to combat tasks and skills. Most younger service members, whom he defined as those serving fewer than 10 years, are less familiar with garrison leadership skills that focus on taking care of subordinates - mentoring, counseling and especially, recognizing the signs they need help in processing and coping with psychological challenges.

He noted to an audience filling the theater that by October, for the first time since 2003, the entire military population of JBLM will be back on the installation at a time when the Army's efforts to stretch dwell times is taking effect.

By 2011, Mullen said, 70 percent of the Army will have a 2.0 dwell time.

"That means you'll be home twice as long as you've been deployed," Mullen said. "By the end of 2012, it will be 100 percent, based on the projections we have right now. That is a huge change."

With dwell times stretching, there will be more time for garrison leaders to attend to the needs of their Soldiers and Airmen, many of whom, Mullen suspects, have been "holding in problems" until there was time to deal with them. He said difficult challenges are being directly addressed, promising attention to the increasing numbers of homeless veterans. He also commended Army leaders for their work on the complex problem of suicide in the ranks.

The chairman called for senior NCOs and officers - master sergeants, sergeants major and colonels - to take the lead in the renewed effort, those who served when there was more time to perform critical garrison-leadership functions.

"If you look at the normal attrition of E-8s and E-9s, we have four or five years to get this right," Mullen said. "They are the ones who remember it, and four or five years from now ... they will have moved on or retired, many of them. So we have a fixed area to get this right."

Mullen said responding to change was difficult, but that leaders had to be "out front" in meeting the challenge.

"Leading when things are changing is the most difficult kind of leadership," he said. "You have to be thinking what's coming next in an unpredictable world and environment."

Mullen thanked the mixed audience of Soldiers and Airmen for their service as well as the family members who continue to support them, after which he spent 45 minutes fielding a broad range of questions. Many addressed the country's goals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The draw down in Iraq is on schedule, he said, and though there will continue to be security concerns, al-Qaida's influence is greatly diminished. Recent terrorist attacks have not achieved the organization's objective of fomenting sectarian unrest.

In Afghanistan, Mullen said about 27,000 of the promised 30,000 surge troops have arrived. He quoted Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan, that "all the inputs are in place," and said already there are hopeful signs in governance and reconstruction of that country.

"We live in a time of persistent conflict," Mullen said, responding to questions about other dangerous situations involving Iran and North Korea.

He returned to his call for a shift toward garrison leadership during the question period, emphasizing the importance in lifting the remnants of stigma attached to service members who ask for help during and after deployments.

In a lighter moment, when an officer questioned the future size of the Army using the pronoun "they" to represent military decision makers, Mullen said he had finally learned early in his chairmanship who "they" are.

"'They' is me," he said.

Don Kramer is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.