Leadership that builds resilience in service members and their families starting with the first day of basic training is essential to the U.S. military’s future, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.
“That kind of investment up front will prevent us from the expenditure of a huge number of resources down the road,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told the audience of 600 people at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury’s third annual Warrior Resilience Conference in Arlington, Va.
The conference’s “Total Force Fitness” theme supports a joint strategy to build resilience for service members’ multidimensional and holistic fitness.
“This is as important as who we are, where we are and what we need to do with respect to the future as anything we have,” Mullen said.
The need for resilience emerged over time, the chairman said, and it’s only going to grow.
“We’re going to see a set of problems we’ve been stuffing away in compartments that we didn’t want to deal with that are potentially going to rise dramatically in terms of severity and sheer numbers,” he said. “We need to attack that issue, not just wait for it to show up.”
Mullen noted that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. has talked about leadership taking care of service members when they’re home, “which is something we haven’t been focused on in a long time.”
The chairman said he recently visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., noting that the 35,000 troops there represent the largest number of service members stationed there in a long time.
“It struck me that the only ones who knew anything about [that kind of leadership] were the E-8s and E-9s. … They took care of that leadership at a time when we hadn’t done that kind of leadership for almost a decade,” Mullen said.
But that group eventually will rotate out or retire in the next few years, he added.
“We are in a race to provide garrison leadership that is critical to our future to those soldiers and airmen, there [and] across the board,” the chairman said.
Service members who now are home between deployments for twice as long as has been the case over the last decade will present challenges that “deeply penetrate” them and their families, Mullen said, calling it a fundamental change that also alters the meaning of total force fitness.
A mental health assessment team that has gone into the combat theater about a half dozen times to look at the troops’ mental health recently briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chairman said.
“The message that came out is we’re better than we’ve been, and in some ways significantly better,” he said. “We have been able to build resilience in ways a couple years ago we didn’t understand an awful lot about.”
And while much still is unknown, he added, the services will be “in the ad hoc world with respect to that until we systematically approach ‘This is one way to do that.'”
Mullen told the group he frequently addresses mental health and resilience and feels passionate about it is because the military’s future is at stake. He noted that over the next few weeks, the fiscal 2012 defense budget will be a hot topic in the nation’s capital.
“We’ll talk about our people, but oftentimes the conversation gets dominated by the ‘stuff,'” he said. “If we don’t get it right for our people and put together the kind of capabilities we have, … it won’t make any difference what we get.”
Many good people are leaving the military, the chairman said, and the nation can’t afford for that to continue. “The impact of that will be long-term, significant, and it won’t matter what kind of [budget] we have coming,” he said.
Another concern the chairman discussed is what he calls an “unwillingness to reach out to the best there is.”
“Many of us think we are the best there is, and I understand that and want professionals who think that way,” he said. “But the best there is needs to listen to somebody else who’s the best there is. Too often, we’re far too limited in our willingness to look in other places [or] to listen to breakthroughs that occurred somewhere else [that] may apply to us.
“This has to do with the speed, the openness and the urgency to get at the challenges that exist,” he continued. “We cannot rest on our status quo, no matter how good we think we are or somebody else says we are. There’s change that’s constantly occurring [that is] particularly invigorating and a difficult challenge.”
Change must be led by leaders to make a difference, Mullen said, noting that with the active involvement of leaders, the best practices can be extended into the Veterans Affairs Department and into the communities where veterans live.
Mullen acknowledged that more work needs to be done to improve the transition for service members’ care when they separate from the military.
“We have a system that’s incredibly stovepiped — that says while you’re on active duty or while you’re wearing a uniform, the Department of Defense takes care of you. After that, the VA takes care of you. And after that, the VA turns you over to communities and says, ‘Have a nice life,'” Mullen said. “So we take our most precious resources, [the] people we care about so much while they’re here, and we turn them over to other stovepipes and hope it goes well.”
Breaking down those stovepipes is essential, the chairman said, so veterans “who made such a difference, who sacrificed incredibly, are well taken care of for the rest of their lives.”
Total fitness through individuals to their families and their experiences really is the message of today, the chairman said. “Building that to the best possible level we can possibly build it is absolutely required,” he added.
Mullen urged the audience to tackle the issues, understand solutions that might exist, and adopt the best practices until something else comes along – keeping in mind those whose lives are changed forever and the families of the fallen.
“As one surviving spouse told me, ‘On Monday, I was in the Army. On Tuesday, I was gone,'” the chairman said. “We need to make sure that does not happen anywhere. They sacrificed too much, and they’re too special.”
I played highlights of Admiral Mullen’s speech on the show today. You can watch the entire event on the video player.