The Strongest Generation

Gen. Richard A. Cody, the square-jawed vice chief of the U.S. Army, sat down for lunch within a dozen blocks of the site that permanently reshaped his distinguished military career. He was in New York City's Chinatown on Veterans Day, a short distance from Ground Zero, for a briefing on the many ways The American Legion has supported U.S. troops and their families since al-Qaeda terrorists delivered the first murderous blow in a war that has since claimed the lives of more than 2,700 soldiers along his chain of command and more than 1,100 from other service branches.

The second-highest ranking uniformed officer of the Army, a highly decorated combat aviator of the Gulf War who helped thwart Saddam Hussein's attempt to overtake Kuwait in early 1991, Cody was the guest of Kimlau American Legion Post 1291. He listened closely as the post's adjutant, American Legion National Security Commission Chairman Fang Wong, recited a detailed list of programs, positions and services The American Legion has undertaken on behalf of the U.S. Armed Forces since 9/11. The general heard about Heroes to Hometowns, Operation Landstuhl, the Legacy Scholarship, the Family Support Network and Resolution 169, the Legion's vow of support for the military and its leadership fighting in the global war on terrorism.

Cody then stood up, stepped to the podium and addressed Legionnaires, soldiers, National Guard officers and others in attendance. He delivered to the group his own message points about the state of the military, the war, and the challenge of helping soldiers become veterans six years after the attacks that sent America into battle around the world.

On our nation's obligation to care for veterans:
We have a sacred obligation. I think President Lincoln said it best: "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, for his widow and his orphan." I think those words spoken back in the Civil War are so true today. For over 88 years, The American Legion has been doing that and remains a powerful voice for our veterans and their families and a powerful voice for our active-duty soldiers. You put your arms around them, either prior to them deploying or after they come back ... You are the grassroots family networks that support our troops and their families.

On the evolution of the Army:
When I joined, it was a draftee Army, during the Vietnam War. In hometowns across the country, back then, because of the Cold War and coming out of Korea, it wasn't unusual to look down a street, and you could have 20 homes, and every one would have had someone who served in the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines.

And then we started the all-volunteer force in 1973. If you went back to that same street today, maybe two or three of those homes would have someone who served. I don't think that's a bad thing, but it is something that has changed. And I think it changes how we approach service to this nation. Now, 30 years into this all-volunteer force, many moms and dads never served, and they don't understand exactly what service to the nation means. Many of them, if you talk to them, they'll say, "Yeah, my grandfather served ... in Vietnam."

On public understanding of the military:
My wife came to me right after the charge into Baghdad, 2003. She was manning the phones like quite a few other wives. It was the Army hotline. She came back one night after taking calls from different moms and dads, grandfathers, uncles and wives, as the charge of Baghdad was going on. My wife looked me in the eye and said, "You guys should have known this was going to happen."

I said, "What?"

"This is an all-volunteer Army. Many of these family members don't know a thing about the Army. They don't know what a platoon is. They don't know what a first sergeant is. They don't know that the 82nd Airborne is at Fort Bragg, N.C."

She said, "You guys better get on this thing and start educating the soldiers' family members about the military."

Where today's Army stands in history:
This is probably the best Army we have ever built. The best-led. Best-equipped. Best-trained.

We had 16 million in uniform, wearing the cloth of this nation, in World War II. They have been called "the greatest generation." I think today, these young men and women - certainly the 175,000 we have deployed today as a shield so that cities like New York don't get hit again - I think we will read in history books not too many years in the future that this is the strongest generation we have ever produced. We are an all-volunteer force. Six years into this fight, with the media playing back everything imaginable on TV, which, by the way, is what makes this country great - the debate - young men and women - 175,000 or 180,000 this year alone - raised their right hand coming out of high school, coming out of different jobs, and said, "I'll join the Army. America, I will defend you." This is important. That takes strength of character. It takes strength of purpose, strength of conviction about what America means.

I think also this is the strongest generation that we have because six years into this war, we have soldiers re-enlist in combat zones to stay, already fully knowing what the rigors of combat are, what the demands on them personally and their families are, understanding full well the dangers.

When the history books look at this generation, they will say this was truly the strongest generation of Americans. Now, they are few, for sure. There are 300 million Americans today being protected by so very few. Our Army is a small army. One of the reasons why we're calling up reserve units and calling up National Guard units is because we don't have enough active-duty soldiers to cover down on all the demands of the world and still have a strategic depth to be able to answer tomorrow night the call that something else has happened in the world.

It is a strong generation. We need to continue to take care of it. We all are going to have to work hard in the future so that we get young men and women continuing to come out of our high schools, coming out of our towns and cities, who want to wear this uniform, and become a soldier, defend this country, and then become great citizens once they take the uniform off.

On DoD's efforts to care for wounded warriors:
To sustain this all-volunteer army, we know that we've got to take better care of it. We've got to take better care of our wounded. Thirteen, 14, 15 months in combat is a lot to ask of our young soldiers, not to mention the fact that they get no rest. Unlike wars before where you had a couple of days of combat, or a week of combat, and two or three weeks off, the soldiers we have in Afghanistan and Iraq are going out on patrols every day. Those 12 months or 15 months are long, hard days. They miss every birthday in their family, every wedding anniversary, Christmas and Thanksgiving. That puts a lot of stress on them as well as their families. Right behind declaring the soldiers of today the strongest generation, I've got to believe their spouses and families are right up there with them. They are the ones allowing them to serve. Family members back home are certainly strong. That's why the Army is committed to doing several things, most importantly signing this Army Family Covenant with all our spouses and young children, which basically says we are going to give you a quality of life that is equal to, or better than, the quality of service of your soldier.

The second commitment we have to all of our wounded soldiers is that after fighting an enemy overseas, they don't have to come back to the United States and fight a bureaucracy to be taken care of. We are working very, very hard with VA. It's going to take time. The bureaucracy that was established many, many years ago to take care of discharges and compensations - many of them are laws we have to take on. For instance, it doesn't make sense to me to discharge a soldier, and we give him $50,000 compensation for his service, and then turn around and the next day VA awards him $1,500 a month, but that $1,500 a month doesn't come in until 36 months later, after that $50,000 is divided. It just doesn't make sense to me. It certainly doesn't make sense to my soldiers. They call that "concurrent payment." Those are the types of tough issues that VA and Office of the Secretary of Defense are taking on.

On the future of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, recently identified for closure and consolidation with the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md.:
First of all, we appreciate the fact that the national American Legion has representatives there working at Walter Reed.

Walter Reed is fully funded until the day we close the doors. Everybody is looking at this as "closing" Walter Reed. Look at this as closing a post, a hospital, that was going to cost us almost $1 billion to upgrade. It had no room, bounded by four streets. There was no growth potential. So the decision was made to move Walter Reed hospital, merge it with Bethesda, rename it Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and to build a world-class military medical center. The Bethesda campus, six miles away, has three times the room to build new.

The decision was made to combine the two, but build bigger, to make a world-class medical center. We're going to spend almost $2 billion doing it, but Walter Reed will be kept fully operational and fully funded.

On unsanitary conditions revealed last winter in a Walter Reed outpatient facility:
Our challenge will be to put behind us Building 18. It was never an issue about the quality of care for the soldiers on the wards, the soldiers in the intensive care units. Walter Reed is the best hospital in the world. If you have a traumatic anything, you want to be at Walter Reed. The issue had to do with soldiers who were being processed out, with medical problems. The whole system got overloaded. It had nothing to do with medical treatment. It all had to do with having the leadership and assisting them through the maze of medical evaluation boards, physical evaluation boards, and then trying to marry up what benefits they got, especially if they weren't going to get 30-percent disability ratings from VA.

I think we have changed quite a bit. I've instituted warrior transition units in every one of our hospitals throughout the continental United States that puts basically a company commander, first sergeant, squad leader, platoon leader all there to take care of the wounded warriors, in a unit. The mission is a little different. Rather than go to the rifle range, they go to physical therapy. They get classes on reintegration into the civilian world. It's a military organization that gets a better leader-to-led ratio. Quite frankly, it was something we should have anticipated with the numbers of wounded coming back. It took Building 18 for us to make a lot of those changes.

On the difficulties of achieving "seamless transition":
I will be honest. Nothing will ever be totally seamless. We are dealing with big, big numbers here, in terms of the number of VA hospitals, the number of veterans. What I do know is you've got good people across this country working this very, very hard. The first thing we have done is we've made one physical evaluation as the standard, whereas before when you went before the medical evaluation board, you got your physical examination by that service - your determination of medically fit or not fit. The services don't adjudicate what type of disability you get. The services adjudicate whether you are physically fit or not to serve in the military. And then from there, you go to the VA disability rating tables, which, by the way, are being rewritten. And then you get another physical based on that. What we said was, "Let's get everybody together up front and do one physical exam." That's the first step in getting seamless transition. That becomes the overriding document as you go through the system.

Everybody talks about a seamless transition. That is the goal. But it's going to take time to get there. I am very, very positive in the type of people at the highest level, and the level of detail that those people are getting into, to take care of our veterans. It is very impressive to watch.

On today's force strength:
We started this war with a military that was too small, especially the Marine Corps and the Army. We're growing the Marine Corps and the Army to meet not just the demands of the current fight but the demands of what I think is going to be two to three decades of consistent conflict.

The second piece is to build back our strategic depth. Because of our rotations of combat forces in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, they are training back at home to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not being trained for what you and I call "full-spectrum warfare," which causes us a strategic risk. We are calling on the National Guard and the reserves more because of the active-duty being small, which means we need to operationalize the National Guard and reserve with upgraded equipment and with upgraded training. We're doing that. It's going to take a while to get them operationally in the right balance, probably another five years. We've got $36 billion earmarked for the next five years for equipment for the National Guard. You are seeing it now. That said, what we want to do is grow the active-duty force so that we can sustain this level of conflict - in Iraq or Afghanistan or, four years from now, someplace else - sustain this level of conflict once we get the Army active grown, with a one-year-in, two-years-out rotation. And for the National Guard and reserves, one year in and then not call on them again until four or five years later. We think that's sustainable.

The real issue at hand, the elephant in the room, is how big of a standing military does this country want to have? I think we learned there was no peace dividend in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. In fact, I've got a chart that shows that between 1950 to 1989, we deployed the Army about 13 times - Vietnam certainly being a big deployment - but 13 times in the spectrum of conflict. Since the wall came down, and the Cold War was over, we've deployed this Army on 43 different deployments. So there was no peace dividend. And so we need to go back now and understand strategically that if we are going to be in two or three decades of persistent conflict, how large of an active-duty force does this country want to have? If they decide they want to have a larger force, that will take pressure off the National Guard and reserves.

On the cost of building a larger military:
In my mind, this is the richest nation in the world. We've got a $13 trillion economy. This is not a question about affordability. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this country will spend the size of DoD's budget on Christmas presents. I'm not saying cancel Christmas. But this is not a question of affordability for this nation. It's a question of priority. The fact that we are having these discussions - about how much to give to veterans, what size of force, how much this, how much that - is very, very interesting. But I think we have to, as Americans, understand the strategic landscape and ask ourselves, "Who is going to defend us?"

And right now, I will tell you, that never has so much been asked of so few so often, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, than we are asking right now of our active-duty and reserve troops.