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American Forces Press Service

Soldiers, Families Top Army Priorities, Leaders Say

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2010 – Funding programs to support soldiers and their families is the Army’s top priority in the new fiscal year, the service’s secretary and chief of staff told a Senate panel today.

Army Secretary John M. McHugh, a former Congress member who served on the House Armed Services Committee, returned to Capitol Hill today to give his assessment of where the Army stands and where it needs to go.

“I found an Army clearly fatigued by nearly nine years of combat,” McHugh told the Senate Armed Service Committee. “But through it all, they are more resilient.”

To sustain and improve that resilience, McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. spoke for the need to improve soldiers’ “dwell time” at home between deployments, as well as Army family support and mental health programs.

“We remain out of balance,” McHugh said. “Our all-volunteer force is a national treasure. If we wish to sustain it, soldiers and their families must be our top priority. For those of us in the Army family, it is the top priority.”

The Defense Department’s fiscal 2011 budget request includes $1.7 billion to fund what McHugh called “vital” family programs such as those to provide respite care and spousal employment, and to open some 50 child-care centers and seven youth centers.

“We sign up the soldier, we re-sign up the family,” McHugh said.

Casey agreed that keeping families happy is critical. “Keeping our families understanding that we really are committed to them over the long haul is essential to holding this force together,” he said.

The most important element for putting the Army “back in balance,” Casey said, is to increase the time soldiers are home between deployments.

“What we continue to see across the force is the cumulative effects of these deployments,” he said. Army studies show two to three years of dwell time is needed to recover from one year of deployment, he added.

The Army has increased dwell time from 12 to 18 months and plans that by the end of next year all soldiers would have two years at home following one year of deployment, Casey said.

“When you’re only home for a year, you barely have time to finish your leave before it’s time to go back,” he said. “We’ve discovered that the difference between 18 months at home and 12 months is significant.”

Casey went on to say a two-year dwell time will be even more significant to help soldiers and families, and also to train units more broadly for various operations.

The proposed budget builds on increases this year in funding for base operations, and the Army is conducting a mid-year review to assess base programs, McHugh said, adding that funding will not be cut for family programs.

“As our installations look for ways to operate more efficiently, our family programs will be sacrosanct – they will not be touched,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t ask questions about whether things are operating efficiently.”

As an example of efforts to improve soldier resilience, Casey introduced Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lawson, one of four soldiers he introduced to the committee. Lawson is one of 600 soldiers sent to a University of Pennsylvania program to become a “master resiliency trainer.” The training is part of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program that began in October and is designed to balance and strengthen soldiers’ physical and mental resilience, Casey said.

Under the program, the Army increased its mental-health specialists-to-soldiers ratio to 1-to-600 -- though regulations require only a 1-to-700 ratio -- to provide treatment in combat theaters, McHugh said. Still, the Army is 600 mental health providers short of its overall requirement of 4,304, he said.

“The way you get people to understand it’s OK [to get treatment] is by acting like it’s OK by providing that type of care,” McHugh said. “I don’t want to suggest we have this perfect; we don’t. But it’s something we work on every day and are improving every day.”

The proposed budget also completes the realignment of bases ordered by the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Act, Casey said. The service is halfway through re-stationing that should be complete next year, affecting 300,000 soldiers and their families, but also improving their quality of life, he said.

The budget also restructures the force to prepare for changing operational needs. Those changes include standing down some jobs, including 200 tank companies, and standing up others such as police and Special Forces, Casey said.

“We are converting, retraining and equipping 150,000 soldiers for new jobs,” he said. “This will be the largest organizational transformation of the Army since World War II, and we have done it while fighting two wars.”

The Army has completed 90 percent of its goal that began in 2004 of changing its 300 brigades from Cold War to modular formations, Casey said, adding that the changes follow the Navy and Marine Corps operational models that give sustained land forces to combatant commanders while allowing for unexpected contingencies.

Another priority in the proposed budget is acquisition reform. “We have an Army that is strong in spirit, strong in ability and strong in results,” McHugh said. “We need to recognize, too, that this is an Army that is tired, stressed and burdened by the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.”

To that end, the budget would revamp the acquisitions process to improve how quickly equipment and services can be purchased and put into the hands of warfighters, McHugh said. Among other things, the reforms would add thousands of acquisitions positions to the service.

“The long pole in the tent is in bringing in more contract expertise,” McHugh said, noting that the Army has brought 900 functions back in-house, created 4,000 positions and saved $40 million in the process.

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