Gates lightens load for war-worn forces
Ending 'stop loss' is just one example of how he has sought to heal an overstressed military.
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"We need to do things that support the troops and their families," says says Geoff Morrell, Gates's press secretary. "Whether it's giving them force protection, or the tools they need to succeed, the medical care they deserve, or the respect they've earned."Skip to next paragraph
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In some ways, the military is stronger despite waging the longest war in American modern history. Recruiting and reenlistment are generally high, military pay is up 37 percent since 2002, and the US now has one of the best trained and most combat-seasoned force it may have ever had.
The Army is training its force with skills relevant to what soldiers are confronting, not just with deployments but to help families cope, says Master Sgt. Terry Easter, an infantryman who deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 and then to Iraq in 2006 for a 15-month tour.
"The training definitely has us smarter. It has us stronger, mentally, to accept what's going on," he says, adding that the Army is taking steps to "mitigate" the difficult circumstances that soldiers face.
But there is still work to be done. Most troops want more time at home between deployments – a period known as "dwell time." The Army and Marine Corps both aim for a period at home that is equal to about twice the amount of time deployed, but neither have achieved that yet. New deployments to Afghanistan will, for now, keep that a distant goal.
"I think [Gates's] heart is in the right place, I just hope the troops don't say 'it's over,' because it ain't," says Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, who says the stop loss policy should have been lifted earlier.
The current circumstances have given Gates a chance to lift a policy that as of January had prevented more than 13,000 soldiers from leaving the service. The war in Iraq is winding down, the economy is helping retain service members, and the Army and Marine Corps are both growing.
The Pentagon wants to cut the number of those forced to stay in service in half by mid-2010, and eliminate the policy altogether by March 2011. "I believe that when somebody's end date of service comes up, to hold them against their will, if you will, is just not the right thing to do," Gates said.
Such moves are in keeping with the new commander-in-chief and the first lady's views on fixing the military. Speaking at a Marine base last month, President Obama said he would work to improve pay, expand veterans' healthcare benefits and increase day care services and job training for military spouses.
"You and your families have done your duty," Obama told service members. "Now a grateful nation must do ours."