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Shorter Iraq Tours Aim to Ease Strain on Troops

April 10, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Bush supported Gen. David Petraeus' call to halt future troop drawdowns in Iraq Thursday but also announced that the Army will return to 12-month deployments to help ease the burden on troops. Military experts debate the impact on the U.S. military and its capabilities.
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MARGARET WARNER: Shorter tours for U.S. soldiers on their way to Iraq. We start with some background from NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: As President Bush announced his support today for keeping a large U.S. force in Iraq for the indefinite future, he also took steps to limit the time spent there by American soldiers.

The president said he wanted to make combat tours more predictable.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: To ease the burden on our troops and their families, I have directed the secretary of defense to reduce deployment lengths from 15 months to 12 months for all active Army soldiers deploying to the Central Command area of operations.

KWAME HOLMAN: The new deployment limits take effect only for soldiers arriving in Iraq August 1st and beyond. Soldiers already there will stay the full 15 months. Tours of duty for Marines already are less than a year.

And Mr. Bush said he will follow the recommendations of Iraq commander General David Petraeus, as outlined in his testimony to Congress this week. He urged keeping the Iraq force at approximately 140,000, the level before the surge began last year.

Democrats fired back at the president’s plan to maintain such a large force. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke to reporters minutes after the president’s address.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: The president still doesn’t understand that America’s limited resources cannot support this endless war that he’s gotten us involved in. His announcement, while some look to as a great victory, is, I say, two steps backwards and one step forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: The length of tours in Iraq is among the troop strength issues that have divided the military’s top brass in recent months.

On April 1st, General Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee something had to change. He said, “Our Army is out of balance. The current demand for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds our sustainable supply of soldiers, of units, and equipment, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies. Our readiness, quite frankly, is being consumed as fast as we can build it.”

And on ABC’s “Good Morning America” today, former secretary of state and Joint Chiefs chairman General Colin Powell weighed in on the challenges facing the next president.

COLIN POWELL, Former U.S. Secretary of State: Whichever one of them becomes president on January 21st of 2009, they will face a military force, a United States military force that cannot sustain, continue to sustain 140,000 people deployed in Iraq and the 20,000-odd or 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan and our other deployments.

They will have to continue to draw down at some pace. None of them are going to have the flexibility of just saying, “We’re out of here, turn off the switch, turn off the lights, we’re leaving.” They will have a situation before them. The United States Armed Forces are very, very stretched.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee he had abandoned hopes he could reduce the U.S. troop level in Iraq to 100,000 by the end of this year.

Assessing the burden on soldiers

Bobby Muller
Veterans For America
So the president's statement is, to be kind, misleading, but, to be more honest, basically a political ploy to deflect the pressure that you heard from Colin Powell, General Cody, General Casey, across the board.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the president's announcement today and what it will do to ease the strain on the military, we turn to Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, an advocacy group for soldiers. As a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, he was shot in combat and paralyzed.

And Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who retired from the Army in 1998 after 22 years, he's the author of more than two dozen books on the military and warfare.

Welcome, gentlemen.

The president said today this will ease the strain on the military and its families. How much, Bobby Muller, will it ease the burden?

BOBBY MULLER, Veterans for America: Very little, if at all. Understand the qualifiers in the statement. There will be nothing provided in the form of relief for all of the troops that are currently deployed. He's talking about only those that deploy after August 1st.

And of the majority of those that are targeted for deployment through the year, the overwhelming majority are National Guard units, not regular Army units. They already are limited to 12-month tours.

So the president's statement is, to be kind, misleading, but, to be more honest, basically a political ploy to deflect the pressure that you heard from Colin Powell, General Cody, General Casey, across the board.

The senior military leadership, particularly in the Army, has been confronting the president, saying, "We cannot sustain the levels of deployments." The price that's being paid by the troops is unconscionable.

MARGARET WARNER: Just a political ploy to deflect this pressure that's been building up?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS (Ret.), U.S. Army: No, I don't think so. Certainly, politics always play a role in Washington, but the ability to cut back from these 15- to 12-month tours is certainly very important to soldiers.

Imagine, if you're a young soldier with a toddler back home what three months means in that toddler's life or if you're a young married soldier and your spouse is back there, when you're 20 years old or 22 years old, three months is eternity.

So it's not ideal. But it's also psychologically important, Margaret, because it means the trend line is in the right direction. Tours are getting shorter, not longer.

And as for why we're not bringing soldiers home immediately and ending the 15-month tours, you know, "Oh, it's only those who deploy after August 1st," well, the military is a very, very complex machine. It involves planning, aircraft, ships, training schedules.

And, by the way, if you ask any good soldier in Iraq, "Would you like to come home three months early, but the price is we're going to rip some other soldier away from his family three months early?" Well, I think that soldier would say, "No, don't do it."

Because, again, to replace those soldiers, you have to disappoint somebody else. And I just think this is the best the president can do in the corner he's painted himself into.

Mental impact of multiple tours

Lt. Col. Ralph Peters
Author
Those soldiers are re-enlisting at record and near-record rates. As General Petraeus said on Capitol Hill, the 3rd Infantry Division, on its third tour in Iraq, halfway through the fiscal year has already exceeded its re-enlistment rates.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the case that, in fact, Bobby Muller, that, in fact, the president really couldn't, if he wants to sustain 140,000 troops there, could not cut back the 15-months tours that I gather, what, your statement yesterday said nearly half the soldiers currently serving in Iraq are, in fact, fulfilling.

BOBBY MULLER: You have to understand, one of the defining criteria of this war that people have got to pay attention to is multiple deployments. All of the regular Army units that are scheduled for deployment after the president's deadline of August 1st have already been there. We're talking about people serving multiple tours.

Same thing with National Guard units. Even with the National Guard that historically have never been deployed like this, multiple deployments.

And what we're finding, if you look at the Department of Defense's own reports that, every time you redeploy a soldier, there's a 60 percent increase in the likelihood of psychological damage, those kinds of wounds. It's a devastating toll.

We have frontline troops that are basically severely damaged. And if you can willingly, consciously redeploy them, as the mental health task force at the Department of Defense itself said last year, we are knowingly compounding injuries to those who've already served because of these redeployment practices.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point? This was in the Army's own survey that found that, after the third or fourth deployment, the risk of having post-traumatic stress disorder grew exponentially.

RALPH PETERS: Well, if you stand on a corner and watch a traffic accident day after day, year after year, your stress level will go up. But let's not forget...

MARGARET WARNER: And -- excuse me -- but is Bobby Muller right, that, in fact, this policy does nothing about multiple deployments, it just says, each time you're deployed, it will only be for 12 months with a 12-month back at home in between?

RALPH PETERS: Margaret, one of the reasons we've had so much success in the last 15 months in Iraq on the ground is because we now have experienced leaders and soldiers there.

And let's not lose sight of this. Those soldiers are re-enlisting at record and near-record rates. As General Petraeus said on Capitol Hill, the 3rd Infantry Division, on its third tour in Iraq, halfway through the fiscal year has already exceeded its re-enlistment rates.

Now, unless you believe our soldiers are mercenaries who couldn't get another job, that should tell you something. Our soldiers love their buddies; many of them love the military; they love serving their country. Not every American understands that anymore, but they do.

And I would ask you: If things are so terrible, why are we seeing record re-enlistment rates?

Debating stop-loss policy

Bobby Muller
Veterans For America
You're tacking two years on to people who had served five and thought they were getting -- they were going to be released from service. It's a fundamental violation, so don't talk to me about the damage that's being done, because it's severe.

MARGARET WARNER: Why are we seeing record re-enlistment rates?

BOBBY MULLER: I wound up being a very militant activist against the war in Vietnam. I was a Marine infantry officer. The week before I got shot, they asked me, "Would I extend my tour?" And I said, "Yes."

It's about the troops; it's about the people you serve with. It's about a sense of obligation and commitment, particularly if you have experience, to try and protect them.

We go to military bases. We are talking to these troops. They are being stop-lossed. They're being denied the ability to leave.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain that, stop-losses, now, you're told...

BOBBY MULLER: OK, we were just down -- a couple of weeks ago, we were down at Fort Hood in Texas, largest Army facility. The commanding general of Fort Hood, he came on and he said, "No longer will you be able to leave the military after March 27th."

And that means people that have, in some cases, served five years, expecting to get out two weeks down the road, were told...

RALPH PETERS: Wait, Bobby...

BOBBY MULLER: Excuse me. Excuse me.

RALPH PETERS: Did he say that to every soldier at Fort Hood?

BOBBY MULLER: Excuse me. Excuse me.

RALPH PETERS: Because I don't think that's true.

BOBBY MULLER: Well, it's true.

RALPH PETERS: He told you at Fort Hood...

BOBBY MULLER: You cannot leave after -- you could not leave -- no, we're talking about the 4th Infantry Division...

RALPH PETERS: Every soldier at Ford Hood?

BOBBY MULLER: ... these guys were told, "You cannot leave," stop-loss on March 27th.

RALPH PETERS: How many? How many? How many?

BOBBY MULLER: Which means -- let me finish -- if you were going to -- if you serve five years, and you were going to get out in two weeks, and you're stop-lossed, with a March 27th drop-dead date, that means at a minimum you've got three more months before your unit redeploys, you've got a 12-month now deployment, you've got three months when you come back.

You're tacking two years on to people who had served five and thought they were getting -- they were going to be released from service. It's a fundamental violation, so don't talk to me about the damage that's being done, because it's severe.

RALPH PETERS: You've got to be honest in the math. Now, I just don't believe that every soldier in 4th Infantry Division is stop-lossed. Prove it, and I'm willing to say it.

BOBBY MULLER: OK...

RALPH PETERS: But wait, wait, now my turn now. But let's be honest about stop-loss. This is sort of a myth of the left.

Every soldier who signs up, as you know, has an up to eight-year reserve commitment. The recruiter made that plain to me when I signed up as a private. I would serve -- I was supposed to serve three years active-duty, but they could call on me for eight years.

As an officer, I could be called back to duty tonight. It's endless, although I'd be more trouble than I'm worth.

Stop-loss is old. This is not a new thing. In time of crisis, soldiers can be extended. They know it.

And I'm really tired of people telling all the bad stuff about the military when our soldiers really believe what they're doing.

And I spend time with our soldiers. I was just down at Fort Bragg with the special forces this week. Last month, I was out with the Marines at Miramar and Pendleton. And these people believe in the cause; they believe in what they're doing. They love the service. Not everybody is bitter.

Preparing future military readiness

Lt. Col. Ralph Peters
Author
And so the Army has real problems. It's tired. The equipment is worn out. I would never say there aren't problems. What I am saying is I do spend a lot of time with our troops. Ask the troops. And I'll tell you: Morale is remarkably high.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both before we have to end this. Does this all play into what both General Cody was saying last week, which is really the Army's getting out of balance here, and, two, what Colin Powell says, which is whoever's the next president, he's going to inherit a military that really can't indefinitely sustain 140,000 in Iraq and 20,000 to 25,000 in Afghanistan?

BOBBY MULLER: You might think that Bobby Muller is parroting myths created by the left in this country when I talk about stop-loss, but Colin Powell is not parroting any left-wing fantasies. General Casey, General Cody, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullin, they're on record. This is not sustainable. There are people being held...

RALPH PETERS: But that's a different issue.

BOBBY MULLER: I suggest that you may be out of touch with the military today if you think that all of these people that sign up for four years or five years of active military duty really expected -- just like the National Guard -- that they would wind up being extended for, additionally, a couple of years beyond their contract period?

No, sir, they're not expecting that. They're not reading the fine print. The recruiters are not saying that. The recruiters, in fact, are telling National Guard, "You serve one year overseas, you're going to be given five years at home." They've violated that; they're not doing that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we're about out of time. But, gentlemen, let me let Ralph Peters in. Could you comment on what Powell had to say, though? Is that the larger picture here?

RALPH PETERS: First of all, you changed the subject. And being a bully doesn't help.

Now, I agree with Colin Powell. I agree with Cody. But I also agree with Petraeus. They're both right. Petraeus has a war to fight. Cody's mission as vice chief of staff of the Army is to protect the Army and preserve it and grow it for the next fight.

And so the Army has real problems. It's tired. The equipment is worn out. I would never say there aren't problems.

What I am saying is I do spend a lot of time with our troops. Ask the troops. And I'll tell you: Morale is remarkably high. I don't understand it myself. They believe in what they're doing, and I believe in them.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Ralph Peters, Bobby Muller, thank you both.

RALPH PETERS: My pleasure.