After six years of war have almost worn down the military, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to make the armed forces whole again.
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.
"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."
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."