A War Machine for the Whole Family

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David McNew / Getty

U.S. Marines and Sailors of the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company bid farewell before being deployed to Iraq.

The nation's top military officer told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that the U.S. military isn't planning on sending additional troops to Iraq to deal with the recent surge in violence. While Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, didn't say as much, the reality is that there aren't any more U.S. troops to send to Iraq, or anywhere else. Partly to ensure that an overstretched military doesn't break, Mullen pleased troops in North Carolina on Monday when he told them that the Pentagon soon may begin replacing its Cold War-era assignments to South Korea — one-year tours without family — with three-year deployments with families.

The Pentagon appears to be realizing that family-friendly is the way to go to ease the strains on those on active service. A generation ago, sergeants barked, "If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one." But under the pressure of war — and a force more married and female than ever — today's soldiers are not only allowed to be married to one another; those serving together in Iraq are being allowed to live together. Early reports (the policy change happened quietly in May 2006, but only became public this week in an AP dispatch from Baghdad) suggests it helps marriages and morale — and maybe even keeps those sharing a private trailer in uniform longer. It's just one example of a kinder, gentler military's concern to avoid driving soldiers out of uniform by burdening them and their families with rules ill-suited to 21st century warfare.

As the nation's armed forces slog through a seventh year of war, with soldiers and Marines churning through repeated combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, re-enlistment bonuses and lower recruitment standards can only do so much to maintain force levels. So, the military is doing more to make its postings and benefits more attractive for spouses and children in military families. Mullen's comments on South Korean tours echoed recent testimony from the top U.S. officer there. The change would cut the number of family separations beyond those already compelled by the two wars, Army General Burwell Bell told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11. "In 55 years, the Republic of Korea has transformed from a war-ravaged country to one of the most modern, progressive and democratic countries in the world," he said. "Unfortunately, in a modern and vibrant Republic of Korea, the U.S. still rotates service members on one-year, unaccompanied assignments as though this remained an active combat zone. It is not."

Such changes aren't only happening overseas. "How do you sustain an Army ... where the soldiers are volunteers, and the families are volunteers, and get them to stay with us during these very challenging times?" Army Secretary Pete Geren wondered aloud to military bloggers on March 26. At least part of the answer is money: The Army is doubling what it spends to take care of families, he said. The Pentagon is experimenting with three-year sabbaticals — including health benefits, but no pay — for personnel desiring a break in their military service. Other family-friendly measures include letting family members tap into their soldier's unused GI Education Bill benefits, giving military spouses hiring preferences for Federal jobs, and improving military daycare. "Not only are we expanding the availability of child care," Geren said, "but we're reducing the cost and looking at ways to deliver it both on post and off-post." Nowadays, it seems, Pentagon recruiters have a new adage. "You enlist an individual," they like to say, "but you re-enlist the family."

The real improvement in military family life, however, will come only when the Army can scale back its operational tempo. Currently, soldiers head to Afghanistan or Iraq for 15 months, return home for 12, and then may be redeployed overseas again. Prior to 9/11, troops generally stayed home for 24 months before being deployed abroad for 12. Getting that 15-months-away, 12-months-at-home ratio down to 12-and-12 is currently the military's most urgent management challenge, Pentagon officials say. "My goal is to come down from 15 months as quickly as we can," Mullen told his North Carolina audience on Monday. That was the good news. But he quickly followed up with bad news: "When that will be, I don't know." So long as the op-tempo is so high, all the Pentagon's family fixes can't make up for that lack of family time.