Top Officer Warns of “Catastrophic Outcome” If Military and Nation Continue to Drift Apart

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Mullen spent some of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery with families of the fallen / DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley

The nation’s top military officer worries that the growing chasm between the U.S. armed forces and the American public means disaster for the country. “Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can’t tolerate, can’t afford, in no way,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday over breakfast. “It’s a different lash-up which I think would be very bad for us as a nation.”

Mullen, set to retire this fall, was answering a question from your Battleland scribe about the tough mental-health issues facing U.S. troops returning from war — and whether or not the growing distance between the defenders and the defended makes the problem worse. “I think it does contribute to it,” he said. “I have been struck in my travels at the lack of what I would call in-depth understanding of what we’ve been through.”

While the American public supports the troops, they don’t have the background to understand what a decade of war means to those fighting it, and their families. “The American people know we’re at war, they know we’re sacrificing, they are incredibly supportive of us, but they don’t know the details of numbers of deployments, they don’t know the details of what are spouses and children are going through — whether its education, or health or employment,” Mullen told reporters.

Part of that is because Jane and Joe American don’t run into soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines the way their parents and grandparents did. “We come from fewer and fewer places — we’ve BRAC’ed our way out of significant portions of the country,” Mullen said, referring to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission process that has shuttered hundreds of military posts across the nation in recent decades and concentrated them in a handful of areas. Beyond that, the lack of a draft and the emergence of a warrior caste — Mullen’s successor, Army General Martin Dempsey, for example, has three kids who served in the Army — further widens the divide.

A pair of recent events has crystallized just how tough it can be for vets. “Psychologically, it is hard to imagine that these elevated levels of combat are not taking a toll on Soldiers,” a recently-released Army assessment of U.S. troops’ mental health in Afghanistan found. “Reports of acute stress symptoms among Soldiers surveyed in 2010 have significantly increased and reports of individual morale have significantly decreased relative to 2009.”

Those grim findings came a week after a May 10 ruling by a federal appellate court that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ provision of mental-health care to war vets is so poor it’s unconstitutional. “We willingly acknowledge that, in theory, the political branches of our government are better positioned than are the courts to design the procedures necessary to save veterans’ lives and to fulfill our country’s obligation to care for those who have protected us,” the 9th U.S. Circuit ruled. “But that is only so if those governmental institutions are willing to do their job…Because neither Congress nor the Executive has corrected the behavior that yields these constitutional violations, the courts must provide the plaintiffs with a remedy.”

Mullen pondered the meaning of the troop survey and court ruling. “This is the 10th year of war,” he said. “I think all of us in leadership positions have to do the best we can to recognize the stress that we are under.” He cautioned that hoping the problem will go away isn’t an option. “If we don’t continue to face that challenge front and center,” he warned, “it has a good chance in the future of consuming us.”