On Patrol staff

As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen ensures that the best equipment and training are available to the U.S. Armed Forces as the nation faces a two-front war. But he and his wife, Deborah, have also made it their mission to see to the overall well-being of those who defend our nation and their families.

In both their professional and personal roles, the Mullen’s schedule is devoted to time spent with the country’s wounded warriors, veterans, and the families of those who serve. The couple spoke with ON★PATROL this spring to share the issues facing the services today, their vision for the future of our military, and how Americans can continue to support the military community.

What do you both see as the biggest challenge facing our returning military today, especially after multiple deployments and a two-front war? Where do you envision our military in five years?

Admiral Mullen: It’s hard to tell where our military will be in five years time. I can tell you it’s going to continue to be the best military I’ve ever seen. And we are working hard to make sure it’s balanced and ready for a whole range of security challenges out there. One thing is for sure, it won’t be the military this nation needs and expects if we don’t take care of our people and their families. That is a major priority for both Deborah and me, as it must be for the nation.

You have the opportunity to witness the goodwill of the American people every day. As you meet with people around the country and spend time learning about the myriad ways in which people support our military, has there been one person, or an organization, that has inspired you to change a policy or the thinking at the Department of Defense to better the military system?

Admiral Mullen: I don’t know that I could truthfully say that there is just one organization that has been the catalyst allowing me to see better ways for us to support our service members. Traveling across the country talking with and listening to a variety of people in the public, private, and non-profits sectors has given me a rare opportunity to see the continual awakening of the spirit of the American people to create new and distinctive ways of supporting those who are important to them. It is through what all of these people and organizations say, and what they do, that, when combined, becomes an idea as clear as my hand in front of my face or will become the kernel of an idea that takes a while to grow and for me to understand how it would work. It is my hope and I know it to be true, that all of the American people will continue to be our visionaries.

Admiral and Mrs. Mullen, you have both made the care for those who return home wounded one of your top priorities. Admiral, what do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as Chairman to make the transition back to a normal life easier for wounded warriors? Mrs. Mullen, what does our country owe these brave men and women, and how can we all do more?

Admiral Mullen: As you know, early in my career, watching the treatment Vietnam veterans received was a pivotal moment for me. I resolved then that given any opportunity, I would do all I could to ensure that returning service members receive the best and most complete assistance they richly deserve. As this has been a long-term goal for me, I also want the American people and our nation’s leaders to understand that the care of their wounded service members is a long-term commitment.

Our wounded veterans and their families deserve the best medical care our nation can provide – care on par with the service and sacrifice these patriots have rendered. Our wounded, ill, and injured service members and their families merit a continuum of care that lasts a lifetime.

We in the military cannot do this ourselves. We must do this through the whole of government – the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Labor, Commerce, and Education – along with private business and with the tremendous number of nonprofit organizations, as well as ordinary citizens throughout the country. There is a “sea of goodwill” out there of people and groups who desperately want to help, and it’s vital we figure out how to make those connections.

One other point that is most important. We must do all we can to eliminate the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health problems. We must ensure that everyone – from the private to the general and seaman to admiral – understands that reaching out and seeking counseling is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, and we need to encourage family members to seek mental health support for themselves when they need assistance, and assure them that their receiving mental health counseling will not negatively impact their service member’s military career.

Mrs. Mullen: I would add that our families face enormous challenges – whether they are experiencing multiple deployments with very little dwell time in between, or their service member suffers from combat operational stress, TBI, or another serious injury or illness, or their family member has made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation.

It is our obligation as citizens to reach out to all these families and provide the best support and care we possibly can. We must find a way to give them the resources and the counseling they need – for as long as it is needed.

I hear from lots of families that are now in this new world of treatment and hospitals and care-giving, or are quite frankly, in grief and mourning, and they just don’t feel they are able to deal with it all. We need to make sure our military families, both of the wounded and the fallen, can access the resources, services, and benefits available to them.

And lastly, our schools should be aware of and provide the support necessary for the children who have endured long separations and horrendous loss.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are considered the “signature” wounds of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. In the past few years, the Department of Defense has put more resources into researching and developing different ways to treat these wounds. In the private sector, nonprofit groups, such as Give-An-Hour, have established a network of psychiatrists around the country to assist in the effort, offering free therapy to service members seeking counseling. What more can organizations around the country do to help support the Department’s emphasis on these programs?

Admiral Mullen: Well, again, I think this goes back to that “sea of goodwill,” and the opportunity for so many organizations – like Give-An-Hour – to pitch in and lend their expertise.

I’m not sure I am in a position to ask anyone to do more, but I can say that we can use all the help we can get.

Deborah and I recently spent a little time recently at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, visiting Blanchfield Army Community Hospital’s Warrior Resiliency and Recovery Center. And they are really doing some groundbreaking work in not only treating the effects of TBI and PTS, but also in preventing those effects by offering realistic pre-deployment stress training.

You call these the signature wounds of the wars we are fighting, and I tend to agree in general. Some experts say that more than 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from one or the other, or both. That’s a staggering figure, but I am encouraged when I hear that at Fort Campbell anyway, some 77 percent of soldiers afflicted will recover.

What that says is we need to think of PTS and TBI as real, treatable maladies and not just elusive mental health puzzles. We are learning things that are turning our old notions of mental health completely around.

For instance, there doesn’t seem to be any strong correlation to the number of concussive injuries and the development of TBI. And so, when do we need to step in and start providing some preventive care? There clearly are situations where individuals are exposed to numerous explosions and numerous potential concussions, and I think the question is, is there a limit, or should there be a limit?

Last September, Admiral Mullen, you and Mrs. Mullen visited homeless shelters and Vet Centers during a trip to Los Angeles, where thousands of Vietnam veterans and a growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are living in these shelters and on the streets. What can local communities and what should this generation, in particular, do to help to avoid this homeless outcome for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Admiral Mullen: The plight of homeless veterans is a hugely important issue. Just as taking care of our Wounded Warriors requires an effort from various and diverse organizations, tackling this issue has to be a collective and integrated effort at the local and national levels among the government, society, and nonprofit organizations. Nothing less than a total team effort will work.

Not very far from my quarters in Washington, D.C., some of my Vietnam War colleagues sleep on the sidewalk. And that troubles me greatly. I promised myself I would work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen to a whole new generation of veterans.

And yet, there are some analysts out there who believe we are creating homeless vets from these wars faster and in greater numbers than we did in the years following the Vietnam War. And it’s a problem exacerbated by the bad economy. During a recent visit to the veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles, I ran across a young man fresh out of the Army. He had fought in Afghanistan and was recovering from some of his wounds. He was also homeless and a little frustrated by what he saw as cumbersome and inefficient layers of bureaucracy between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

It had taken weeks to finish his separation paperwork, months to get his disability rating, and it will likely take years before he can be completely self-sufficient. Simple things like holding down a job and owning a home seem anything but simple to him right now.

“I gave my country 100 percent,” he said. “All I ask for is 100 percent in return.”

That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. And, to be fair, there are some great groups and organizations out there working hard to give back.

During that same trip, I spent some time at a facility called New Directions. The staff there offers a wide variety of services for homeless veterans, including job training and placement, parenting and money management classes, legal and financial assistance, counseling and remedial education.

Residents leave the program with a job, housing, a savings account, computer skills, renewed self-confidence, and the support of mentors and peers.

Programs like those at New Directions are a good start for these men and women, as are the Labor Department’s “Hire Vets First,” the VA’s “Stand Down” counseling and assistance events, and numerous other grassroots efforts. But so much more needs to be done. And I believe a lot of that starts with us, those of us in the Defense Department.

For too long, it’s been, “Thanks for your service. Have a nice life.” We can’t afford to do that anymore. Actually, we never could. We have to do a better job identifying those most at risk for homelessness – and there are risk factors we can observe – and then try to prevent it before these young men and women leave the service.

Mrs. Mullen, as a military spouse who has experienced firsthand the strains of living far away from your husband, what is the one piece of advice you would offer to spouses currently coping with multiple deployments, to not only help support their husband or wife on active duty, but also to keep their families together?

Mrs. Mullen: There are a great number of excellent programs in all the services which offer support for our military families, but spouses tell me that their greatest support during deployment comes from other spouses who are facing the same separations and stresses.

In contrast, I also hear from spouses of individual augmentees and reservists who don’t generally have another friend who is experiencing the same situation. They tell me how isolated they feel and how difficult it is to face the deployment alone. So I think it is very important for spouses to develop a mutual support network, if you will.

It is also important that spouses know about and can be contacted by the Family Readiness Group, Key Volunteer, Phoenix Spouse, or Command Ombudsman. Updated and accurate contact information will ensure that everyone can stay abreast of events such as reintegration and reunion training, family retreats, and financial education. It will also help provide an opportunity to make a connection and develop that “mutual support network.”

In addition to the family programs available through each service, I suggest that spouses learn about resources available to them and their children through organizations such as the Armed Services YMCA, Sesame Workshop, USO, Boys and Girls Clubs, Military Child Education Coalition, and National Military Family Association, to name just a few.

Finally, I would suggest logging on to Military OneSource. It’s a terrific website, packed with useful tips and support services that you can use. There are even online chats with other spouses and referral services to professional counselors.

There are people out there who can help you navigate the stress of lengthy deployments, people who know what you are going through. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

Admiral Mullen, every holiday season since becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you have hosted “Chairman’s Tours” with the USO – visiting bases around the world from Japan and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2007, our USO entertainers were delayed in Tikrit, Iraq, due to a sandstorm and suddenly you became our headliner in Baghdad. What was it like to play the role of Robin Williams to the thousands gathered for the show?

Admiral Mullen: Well, I wouldn’t say I played the role of Robin Williams, that’s for sure. In fact, Deborah was stuck in Tikrit with Robin and the other entertainers. No one can fill their shoes when it comes to entertaining the troops. We were just fortunate to be able to enjoy that tour with him, and with some other great entertainers, including Lewis Black and Kid Rock.

What struck me about it then, and in the course of the two more USO Tours I have done since, is how sincerely these entertainers want to support our troops and how much they respect what our young men and women in uniform are doing each and every day.

They truly want to go out there and entertain, simply for the smiles. They aren’t out there making any money, and they aren’t out there promoting their latest movie or CD. They just want to bring a little bit of home to people who haven’t been home for a very long while.

I can’t thank the USO enough for making those shows possible, and I can’t wait to get out there and do more trips this year.

Sacrifice has always been synonymous with the military. Today, more than ever, that statement is true. How can Americans, our communities, and organizations better support our military and their families?

Admiral Mullen: I would challenge everyone to simply look at the many opportunities to “give back” to our service members and their families. Sometimes what we think are little things make a big difference: visiting the family of a deployed service member or simply saying, “Thank you for your service” to a Soldier in the airport can mean more to them than one might imagine.

If you Google “wounded warrior support” what comes up are hundreds of the different organizations for one to join. In the end, it is really just making the personal decision, as I did over 40 years ago, to do what I could and become involved.

It’s important to remember that our troops and their families still want the American dream. They want a job; they want their kids to go to school; they’d like an education, a career, a home. They want to make a difference. Their path to that may have been modified, but their dreams have not changed. They are the ones who have sacrificed much. And they are the ones who deserve no less from us than making sure they are well cared for, for as long as they live.