Gates lightens load for war-worn forces
Ending 'stop loss' is just one example of how he has sought to heal an overstressed military.
After six years of war have almost worn down the military, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to make the armed forces whole again.Skip to next paragraph
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In suspending this week an unpopular policy that required some soldiers to stay in the forces because their skills were needed in time of war, Mr. Gates is dismantling some of the policies that have caused hardship to the military.
Since the invasion of Iraq, many service members and their families have endured the mental and physical trauma of extended, back-to-back deployments. Divorce rates are high among the armed forces, and suicides are up.
Now, as the end of the war in Iraq draws closer, Mr. Gates see an opportunity to help put the military back at normal.
On Wednesday, Gates said the Pentagon was "breaking faith" with those soldiers who wanted to leave the service, but were forced to stay under the infamous policy known as "stop loss," called by critics a "back door draft."
"[Gates] seems to care about the people and he does seem to be addressing people issues in a way that his predecessor didn't," says Joyce Raezer, chief operating officer of the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. But he has his work cut out for him, she adds.
"The suicide numbers, the divorce numbers, a lot of that is a result of the accumulation of years of multiple deployments, the family separations, and stress. It's going to take awhile to reverse some of those trends."
Last year, Gates ended a policy he had implemented himself that let the military deploy Army units for 15 months at a time; now, most deploying units return in 12 months or less. He has also pushed for more "wounded warrior" programs to take care of veterans. Recently, he discovered that there were two standards for evacuating the injured from Iraq and Afghanistan – a one hour deadline in Iraq versus two hours in Afghanistan – and pushed commanders to accelerate evacuation in the latter.
And last month, he ended a longtime ban on media coverage of the return of the bodies of soldiers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, saying families should have the final say, not the Pentagon. He also offered to pay for families wanting to travel to Dover to receive their loved ones.
Gates visited Dover for the first time this month to witness the return of remains from Iraq or Afghanistan, boarding a parked plane alone to stand amid the flag-draped caskets. Asked about the visit at a news briefing Thursday, he said that it was "very difficult." Pressed further, he cut himself short to avoid being overcome with emotion.