Army chief of staff visits Soldiers in Afghanistan

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BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Army News Service, Dec. 23, 2008) - The Army's top officer stopped at Bagram Airfield Dec. 20 as part of a trip to visit Soldiers around the world during the holiday season and discuss the way forward.

"I visited our Soldiers in Korea and Japan, and now here in Afghanistan, and it is just remarkable the difference our Soldiers make in countries all around the world," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.

Casey also visited Forward Operating Base Shank and FOB Airborne while in Afghanistan.

"What I am trying to do is go out, talk to them, and let them know what a magnificent job they are doing and what a difference they are making during a very, very difficult time for our country," Casey said.

"This was a great visit with the Soldiers here, and they are just doing magnificent things in a very difficult and complex environment," he added. "I got to re-enlist a soldier today ... who six weeks ago became an American citizen. And that was a very great thing for me to be able to do."

Army Spc. Diana A. Sullivan, a human resources specialist deployed with the 101st Airborne Division's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade, Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, became a U.S. citizen Nov. 11.

During his lunch with the troops at FOB Shank, Casey discussed ideas on helping rebalance the force to include the Army's growth and stability

A campaign that started in 2007 centered on four imperatives, the general said: sustaining soldiers and their families, continuing to prepare soldiers for success in the current conflict, resetting effectively when they return, and transforming the Army for an uncertain future.

There's been great progress in all those areas in 2008, Casey said, adding that he expects that progress to continue in 2009.

"I think the most striking progress that we have made is with support to our families," he said. "In 2007, we issued an Army Family Covenant and have doubled the money we have put forward for Soldiers and family programs. And in 2009, I think we can see our families and Soldiers expect to see us redouble our efforts to implement that family covenant."

Casey backed his "balancing the force" plans with knowledge of how the growth of the military has moved forward and is helping to achieve goals that originally were planned for 2012, he said.

"You might remember that we were originally growing by 75,000, and that [growth expectancy] was going to be completed in 2012, but with the secretary of defense's support, we were able to move that to 2010, and now we will achieve our goals in the next year."

The general noted the success the Army has had in recruiting and retention.

"It is pretty amazing to me that last year, 290,000 men and women enlisted or re-enlisted into the Army, Army Guard and Reserve, and that says an awful lot about the quality of people we are getting in the Army today," he said.

Casey also touched on subjects such as the importance of mental and physical health of soldiers in and out of the combat theater and the progress that has been building over recent months in the war effort.

"The demands of combat over the past seven-plus years are wearing on our force," he said, "and I am seeing the cumulative effects of combat on the men and women of the Army -- and that is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a cost of war."

Casey said taking care of soldiers' mental health is every bit as important as seeing to their physical health.

"[We recognize the] need to raise mental health and mental fitness to go right along with physical fitness, and that is what the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program is all about," Casey said. "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness will focus on education, and not just on what to do after you have identified a problem."

The program works toward building resilience, he noted.

"All our research tells us that the earlier [a problem] is identified, the sooner treatment is sought, and the faster you recover," Casey said. "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness will also look at intervention and finding treatment, but as I said, it is important for us to realize the mental health issues that come from combat are realities of war, and we need to treat them as realities of war. We need to identify and get treatment for these Soldiers as rapidly as possible."

November was set aside as Warrior Care Month, he noted, to focus everyone on what is being done in areas of warrior care.

"We have made huge strides at everything from combat lifesaver training in basic training for every Soldier going through -- and also improving what we are putting into the first-aid kits to allow that combat lifesaver training Soldier to provide the best possible buddy aid -- to the medevac helicopters that are available in theaters to bring our Soldiers back to world-class treatment facilities," he said. "That is what warrior care is about - the whole system has brought the survivability rate to levels that are just unheard-of in combat."

One of the most important elements of getting the Army back in balance and continuing this progress is increasing the time Soldiers are at home between operations, he said.

"It is not just spending time with family -- which is very important -- but the longer you have home, the longer you have time to also begin training and preparing for other things other than regular warfare," Casey said. "If you hold demand steady about where it is now, and you grow as we are growing, what happens is over time you gradually increase that availability so people don't have to [deploy] as often.

"This is the training guidance that I have given to the Army: if you are home 18 months or less, stay focused on regular warfare," he continued. If Soldiers are home 18 months or more, he added, they can take about 90 days and focus on major conventional operations so they can rekindle their conventional warfighting skills.

In reference to this training during longer dwell times, Casey said the Army rolled out a new field manual this month, FM 7-0, Training for Full Spectrum Operations.

"FM 7-0 is intended to drive a training revolution," Casey said. "We are building an Army that will operate on a rotational cycle, and that will require us to train leaders and train units fundamentally different than we have in the past, [and] this manual is designed to get us thinking in that direction."

Casey also offered words of praise for the Soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

"Sometimes you get out here and you get caught up in the little details of building up a base, or whatever you are doing, and you look at yourself and say, 'Well, I wonder if I am making any difference?,'" he said. "And the answer is, you are making a huge difference.

"From when I first came in 2003 until now, the hustle and bustle of the Soldiers is phenomenal," he continued. "This is a long-term proposition, there is no doubt about it, and I will tell you everyone is leaning forward to meet requirements."

The U.S. drawdown from Iraq will help to meet the requirements in Afghanistan without adding to the burden that is already on the force, Casey said.

"There is also a huge support in the American public for the men and women of the Army," he added, "and as a result of that, there is a resolve in them that they might be against the war, but they cannot be against the people of the armed forces."

The general repeated his gratitude to the Soldiers and offered his best wishes to them and their families for the holidays and the year to come.

"I would just like to thank the men and women of the United States Army that are here in Afghanistan for their service and their sacrifice, and I wish them and their families very happy holidays and a new year," he said.

(Army Pfc. Tamara Gabbard serves with the 382nd Public Affairs Detachmen