By Gerry J. GilmoreFebruary 4, 2008
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AFPS, Feb. 2, 2008) - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with a number of soldiers who are getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, and he visited with a group of Army spouses during his first official visit to Fort Campbell Friday.
The secretary held closed-door meetings with both groups, where he listened to concerns such as the current length of overseas deployments, medical and child day care, housing allowances and other issues.
Gates told reporters after the meetings that he was prepared to do some "bureaucracy busting" to resolve some of the issues raised by the soldiers and spouses.
The length of overseas deployments, he noted, was a key issue cited by the spouses.
"There is no question that 15-month deployments are a real strain; not only on the soldiers, but (also) on the families they leave behind," Gates said.
"Our hope is that we can move back to 12-month deployments as soon as possible," the secretary continued. "A lot depends upon how quickly we can grow the Army and also in terms of the drawdowns that we'll have in Iraq over the next months."
Emily Bhatta, one of the 11 Army spouses that met with Gates, was pleased with the secretary's visit. She said one of the key issues the spouses they discussed was the length of military deployments.
"He really listened to our issues and he took notes and it seemed like he really wanted to help make change," said Bhatta, whose husband, 1st Lt. David Bhatta, is currently deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, an element of Fort Campbell's 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
Tasha Buchanen's husband, Army Pfc. Theodore Buchanen, is a helicopter mechanic with the 101st Division who deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 20.
"Health care was a really big issue" during the spouses' meeting with Gates, Buchanen said.
"He really came here wanting to know how we are doing," Buchanen said.
Army Sgt. Tyler R. Fernlund, a 4th Brigade, Special Troops Battalion noncommissioned officer who is getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, said he was impressed after meeting with the secretary.
Gates "was really sincere and took our questions seriously," Fernlund recalled, noting the availability of child daycare was among the topics discussed.
"He said he appreciates what we do and he was real concerned about the welfare of our families," Fernlund said.
Army Staff Sgt. Nathan S. Hammarsten, another Special Troops Battalion NCO, said he was thankful that Gates "took the time" to visit with the soldiers and to listen to their concerns.
"The 101st is really good at taking care of spouses," Hammarsten, who is married, pointed out. The division's family support networks, he added, ensure that information and other forms of support are provided to the spouses of deployed soldiers.
Gates routinely seeks input and ideas from servicemembers and spouses during his visits to military installations, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, who accompanied the secretary to Fort Campbell, told reporters.
"Whatever base we go to, he insists that we carve out time to speak with troops, and if possible, spouses, to hear what is on their minds," Morrell said. "It is a totally-open conversation. He has no agenda. He just wants to make himself available to answer any questions they may have and to receive any advice they care to share with him."
Such feedback is reflected in education and jobs program proposals for military spouses that President Bush cited in his Jan. 28 State of the Union speech, Morrell said.
(Gerry Gilmore writes for the American Forces Press Service.)