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Army captains grill new Joint Chiefs chairman on Iraq

Raise questions about recruiting, long deployments

FORT SILL, Okla. - Army captains pelted the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with blunt questions yesterday about the strain of long Iraq deployments.

They also asked about recruiting pressures that could leave them supervising more soldiers with discipline problems.

At times technical and other times very personal, the officers' queries reflected the worries of a military struggling to fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without exhausting troops, alienating their families, or driving soldiers away.

Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, four weeks into the new job, didn't have all the answers - or the ones they were hoping for, during a 90-minute forum. But in his first trip to get to know the Army better, Mullen collected e-mail addresses and promised fuller responses later.

The long and repeated battlefield deployments were a prime topic.

One year at war and one year back at home "is not good enough," one officer flatly told Mullen, setting the tone early for the discussion.

After explaining that the Pentagon is hoping to stretch the time at home to 15 months for every year deployed, then go to two years at home and then three, Mullen acknowledged those goals are years down the road.

"I got it - that it's not good enough," said Mullen. "I take your point, that one-to-one is not good enough."

Asked whether overall time in combat should be capped, Mullen cautiously replied that battlefield experience is crucial and "there are limits beyond which you will not stay."

Mullen, a career naval officer, has said he is concerned about the effects of the wars on the Army. He's visiting three Army bases in Oklahoma and Kansas this week and meeting recruiters at a conference in Denver.

Soldiers in Oklahoma spoke at length about the pressures on their families and how those can push them out of the service.

Officials at Fort Sill allowed journalists to listen to the discussion but asked that the names of the soldiers not be used on the grounds that could inhibit them from speaking openly.

"When it becomes a burden to my family, it becomes repulsive," said one captain, who told Mullen that he wants a stable assignment so his wife can go to school, but he was told "family considerations don't play a role" in such planning decisions.

Mullen grimaced as the officer said he was preparing to leave the Army because of the problems.

"We can't not take family considerations into account," Mullen said. "That is just not the case in 2007. It can't be the case if we're going to have a healthy force."

But Mullen also told soldiers that while he would like to be able to predict deployments, or what the state-of-the-world conflicts will be, he can't.

Echoing Army Chief of Staff General George Casey, Mullen said the United States will probably be involved in persistent conflicts for some years to come.

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