WASHINGTON – Army Secretary Pete Geren on Thursday ruled out extending troop deployments beyond the current 15 months, saying that longer tours in Iraq put stress on soldiers and their families, and have contributed to an increase in suicides.
But Geren, who was confirmed in the Army's top civilian post in July, also criticized any congressional efforts to mandate deployment lengths or rest time at home.
In his first extensive interview since taking the job, Geren offered his most definitive rejection of keeping soldiers at the warfront longer than 15 months, saying he sees "no possibility of that happening."
"Our goal is to move it the other direction — move it back to 12 months," he told The Associated Press, observing that 15 months is "asking more than we want to ask" of the soldiers.
Geren, who served four terms as a member of Congress from Fort Worth, Texas, also had rather strong words of caution for his former colleagues' efforts to put limits on deployments and require a one-year break at home.
"That type of micromanagement is just not something that would help us. The Army is doing everything it can. The Army shares the congressional commitment to reduce these deployment times and expand dwell times," he said.
After ruling out deployments longer than 15 months, Geren would not say what options are under consideration to maintain current troop levels beyond spring of 2008 if that is what the Army is asked to do.
"We'd have to look at the whole range of options," he said. "I don't want to speculate on how we would meet the demand that combatant commanders might make next year but we're looking at all the options to meet what that demand might be."
His comments reflect a growing expectation that the military will be able to begin reducing its numbers in Iraq next spring. There are currently about 162,000 U.S. troops there.
Geren said the persistent conflict of the war on terror, which he said could go on for as much as two decades, has forced the Army to transform to meet war-fighting needs without breaking the force.
In October, the U.S. will enter its seventh year at war — the third longest conflict in the country's history, behind the Vietnam War and the Revolutionary War, which ran from 1775 to 1783.
The conflict, with its lengthy and repeated deployments that have relied largely on the Army's more than 500,000 soldiers, has stressed the all-volunteer force, its families, its health care system and its recruiting efforts.
An Army report last week showed that repeated and ever-longer war-zone tours have helped to push soldier suicides to a record rate. There were 99 Army suicides last year — nearly half of them soldiers who hadn't reached their 25th birthdays, about a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Asked about comparisons between the current Iraq conflict and the Vietnam War — a parallel that President Bush drew Wednesday — Geren said the current conflict is unique.
In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Bush linked the U.S. pullout from Vietnam to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and he said the history of U.S. conflicts in Asia have shown that critics of the day are often wrong and that withdrawing from war should never be done for short-term gain.
While saying that "historical analogies help illuminate the present" Geren said the Army "can't be guilty of fighting the last war." The Army, he said, has to consider the unique circumstances of the Iraq conflict and train and equip the soldiers and leaders accordingly.