NEAL CONAN, host:
This is an Election Day special from NPR News in Washington. I'm Neal Conan. Voting experts expect a huge number of absentee ballots from the men and women of America's armed forces. Troops have a lot at stake as we choose the man who will serve as the next commander-in-chief. Iraq and Afghanistan are at the top of the list, of course, but there are also military spending, training, the size and shape of the forces, recruitment, retention, length of tour, stop loss, and services and treatment for physical and mental injuries and, of course, much more. If you're in the military, or just out, if you're part of a military family, what does the new president need to know about you, your job and your life?
Our telephone number, 800-989-8255. You can also email us, email@example.com. Later in the program, the F-bomb and the Supreme Court, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times as the justices consider 'fleeting expletives.' But first, military voices. We begin with Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent. Nice to have you on the program, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you.
CONAN: And Tom's here with us in Studio 3A. Also with us is retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, the senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, also with us in the studio. Nice to have you back in the program.
Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Good to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And Tom, what's the first decision the president's going to need to make about the military on day one?
BOWMAN: Well, the big issue is Iraq, of course. And John McCain has talked about victory in Iraq. He's talked about listening to ground commanders. Clearly, there'll be reductions in forces into the next year, whoever is president. But Barack Obama, of course, wants to reduce the number of forces in Iraq at a faster clip. He's talked about one or two brigades per month, and one brigade is roughly 4,000 soldiers. So that's where - I mean, clearly, Iraq is the big issue, and that's the big issue with, you know, most soldiers and their families, of course. How much longer will they stay there? Will there be more repeat tours? And what numbers of forces will be there?
CONAN: And John Nagl, I see you shaking your head. No, Iraq is not the big issue?
Lt. Col. NAGL: Iraq remains very important, of course. But the biggest issue the military faces right now is the war in Afghanistan. After extraordinary efforts and a real turnaround in the way we approached the war in Iraq, we've accomplished some amazing things there. I was there in July and August of this year and was astounded by the progress. I saw jewelry stores open in Baghdad's Port Dora Market, which is a real sign of an economy that's doing well. And it's very clear that we are going to reduce troops in Iraq over the course of 2009.
The big problem is Afghanistan, where the new commander there, General McKiernan, has asked for more troops than we have available to give him. He's asked for a total of four more brigades, about 20,000 more troops. We found a brigade and a battalion to give him, but there's another 15,000 soldiers he says he needs right now to confront a Taliban that's clearly getting stronger. And where those troops are going to come from, and how we're going to turn around what has not been a successful policy in Afghanistan, that's the biggest problem the new president's going to face. And it's going to - he's going to have to make decisions about that, I think, before he's inaugurated.
CONAN: A lay person could say, well, even under President McCain, you're going to have forces coming out of Iraq. Why can't those forces go to Afghanistan?
Lt. Col. NAGL: You are - I think, clearly going to have forces coming out of Iraq whoever the next president is. The Iraqi government has been very insistent on making that happen. The security situation on the ground...
CONAN: Negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement, which would require it.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement. Right. And so clearly, the the next president is going to be pulling troops out from Iraq, but we aren't going to have enough troops out of Iraq under any reasonable projection of how quickly we're going to be able to withdraw troops there while maintaining security and stability in Iraq. We're not going to have enough troops to be able to shore up Afghanistan.
CONAN: And Tom Bowman, I know that you were in Afghanistan during some of the presidential debates. And I wonder, are the soldiers as engaged in this political election as the rest of the country seems to be?
BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. I was sitting in the dining halls at Bagram Air Base, and everyone was riveted to the, you know, to watching the news about the election, to the debates, for example. And people I talked with over there are very interested in the race. And it's split, really, between Obama and McCain. There was one office, they told me - maybe a dozen officers working in there, and they said it was roughly 50-50 between Obama and McCain. So I wouldn't say, you know, one candidate has the edge with the military voters. But clearly, there's an incredible amount of interest in the...
CONAN: That's interesting, in normal election years you would expect the Republican, who is, of course, a combat veteran himself to command the majority of the military.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Right. But, then again, you know, a lot of the military, they're younger people and the young tends to be, you know, more interested in Obama. We've seen that from polls. And also, you know, a lot of people think the military tends to be Republican, but I've talked to senior officers, one of whom told me he's leaning Obama, which kind of surprised me a bit. But again, the sense of the military all voting Republican, I don't think that holds true anymore. And maybe part of that is because of Iraq and Afghanistan.
CONAN: And we want to get voter, excuse me, voters of course but also members of the military, our listeners involved in this conversation. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. What does the next commander-in-chief need to know about you, your job and your life? Let's start with Shawn(ph), and Shawn's with us from Howell in Michigan.
SHAWN (Caller): Hi. First of all, thank you for your service, Colonel Nagl. We need to listen at all times. We need to listen to the ground force commanders that are, whether they're in Afghanistan or Iraq. We need to heed their advice, they're not there just to command and lead but they are there specifically we need to heed their advice and follow up. And if we can't get our own U.S. troops or enough brigades, then we need to rely on our European nations as well to back us up, and not just go in, but stay there and hold our ground until we get Afghanistan in a position to where we are a hundred percent sure that the policy there is going to work.
CONAN: And Shawn, when you talk about ground force commanders, you are talking about three-stars who were in command of the ground forces in those countries, or people down at lower levels of the chain of command?
SHAWN: Well, specifically the three stars, but absolutely anybody that's working at, you know, in a flag-star position, colonel and below at brigade levels. They are going to give over the specific information that's - as far as troop levels and strengths and enemy capabilities. And by listening to them and pushing that up through a chain of command, even up to the Pentagon, they are going to be the ones - they are going to be the ones telling us, this is what we need, this when we need it, and this is how long we're going to need it for.
CONAN: Colonel Nagl.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Shawn, I agree with that completely, and it's been very interesting over the last couple of months. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony before Congress several months ago, that it was not clear to him that we were winning the war in Afghanistan. And that really, I think, made it permissible for the officers under him to agree with that. And General McKiernan has been very clear that he needs more troops on the ground. And that, I think, is enormously helpful and enormously positive that we're having a free exchange of ideas from the commanders on the ground.
General Petraeus, of course, just took over command of central command on Friday. He's responsible now both for Iraq and Afghanistan. And he is, I believe, in Afghanistan today. I'm actually going to Afghanistan on Friday of this week to take a look for myself. I'd also just quickly like to pick up your comment that we need to get more help from our European allies. I agree completely. I've been over in both continental Europe and spent a bunch of time in England over the last two months, talking about just this issue. And I've made it very clear that both presidential candidates have said they want to win the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are willing to devote more resources to it, but we're going to look for more help from our European allies whoever the next president is. And I'm very hopeful that that's going to be forthcoming.
BOWMAN: If I could quickly add, you know, one of things is, you know, sending more U.S. troops over there, three or four brigades, they're looking at next year, perhaps more NATO forces. But it also goes beyond that. You talked to people in the ground in Afghanistan and also at the Pentagon. One of the things they want to do is accelerate the Afghan forces. They're talking about doubling the size of the Afghan army. It will take five years. They want to move that down to maybe two years or so. And the other thing is, somehow empowering - or engaging the tribes is the term they use, that could mean giving them some walking-around money, it could be arming the tribes. And also what we've seen a little bit of recently is the Karzai government talking with Taliban elements and Petraeus has also mentioned that. Which reconcilable Taliban elements can you talk with and which are those - who are those do you have to arrest or pull in?
CONAN: Just to be contrary and just for a moment, during the development of the idea of the surge, to send forces, extra forces to Iraq. The ground forces commanders were not in favor of that in Iraq. President Bush decided that over their heads; he's the commander-in-chief. And military history suggest that ground force commanders in some theaters are not infallible. Does the next president have to make his own decisions about what to do on the advice - certainly listen to these people, but make his own decisions, Colonel Nagl?
Lt. Col. NAGL: That's exactly right. And clearly, there was not particularly good thinking, I don't think, in Iraq from - arguably from 2003 through 2006. And it is the job of the commander-in-chief to choose his ground force commanders and find the ones who he believes can best implement his vision. So, one of the best books on the American Civil War is the book "Lincoln Finds A General." And President Lincoln had to go through a number of generals before he found Ulysses Grant, who could fight.
CONAN: James McPherson's new book, "Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief," is also a very good example of this. So, anyway, Shawn, thank you very much for the phone call; we appreciate it.
SHAWN: Thank you, sir. Have a good day.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's turn now to Keith. And Keith on the line with us from San Antonio in Texas.
KEITH (Caller): Hello, sir. Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
KEITH: Yes. As a military psychiatrist I just wanted to call and have a comment. It's a simple comment, but more and more the absolute stress that I see in my office with the military members and their families, it just seems to me from my limited vantage point from my office that we are surely reaching a point that folks can only give so much and they can only give so much so many times before it seems we really are reaching a maximum effort from the troops, and it does seem to be taking its toll.
CONAN: And Colonel Nagl, this another aspect of the overstretch that a lot of people say. Tom Bowman, our colleague Danny Zwerdling has done some wonderful work about the difficulties the military is having dealing with the numbers of people reporting mental difficulties.
BOWMAN: And I think that's one thing we probably as a country haven't gotten our arms around even to this day. There's a mental health advisory team at the Pentagon that puts out yearly reports. They talk about maybe a third of those who served one or two terms coming home with some, you know, mental health issues that have to be dealt with. But again, this is something this country is going to be dealing with for many, many years.
CONAN: And these problems do not go away, Colonel Nagl, as you know better than I, we're still dealing these difficulties coming out of Vietnam.
Lt. Col. NAGL: In fact, they get worse, and Keith is exactly right. As tours repeat, as soldiers go back, Marines go back for more and more tours, the problems multiply; it's not an additive problem so the...
KEITH: And an additional comment if I may - I think one of the most wonderful things about our service at this point is it truly is a committed and voluntary service, and I'm seeing it all around me and I don't think I'm the only one, really, that seeing it, is the stress of the repeated deployments is, there is becoming, I think, a retainability issue, especially in the medical corps, and in the medical services corps. It's just harder and harder to get people to re-up.
CONAN: And the officer corps as well. Thank you very much for the call, Keith. We'll take up those issues after we come back from a short break. If you're in the military or just out, if you're a member of a military family, what does the next commander-in-chief need to know about you and your job and your life? 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You are listening to an Election Day news special from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is an election special from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. By this time tomorrow, we should know who will be the next commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, and he will face any number of challenges. Today, we want to hear from members of the military. If you're in uniform or just out, if you're part of a military family, what does the new president need to know about you, your job, and your life? 800-989-8255, email us firstname.lastname@example.org, you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Our guest are Tom Bowman, who's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Tammy, and Tammy is with us from Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
TAMMY (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TAMMY: OK, I'm actually calling a reference or comment of what this commander-in-chief needs to know about the military. What I need him to know is not to just follow blindly, you know, advice from the ground commanders. If we're just going to do that, then the ground commanders can make all decisions for him and we wouldn't need a commander-in-chief to be over the military. The commander-in-chiefs are going go out there to fight a war, and that's what they're going to do, that's what's they're trained to do. We need - I need as a military member for him to look at the whole picture and then make a decision based on that information. Because once you decide to send us over there to fight the war, we're going to die. Soldiers are going to get hurt. There's no pulling back.
So, for me, I want it to be the last thing that we have to do, is to send our troops over there. And if he just listens blindly to people who wage war as a living then that's, you know, that's what soldiers do, you know, that's going to be our solution. So, I would - go ahead I'm sorry.
CONAN: I was just wondering, Tammy, if you were encouraged when you heard General Petraeus say about Afghanistan as well as Iraq that you can't kill and capture your way out of this problem?
TAMMY: Absolutely. Of course, we've had amazing success, you know, in Iraq so far, and I'm really proud of our troops. My husband was there, I'm doing military in the medical corps, and my husband was there in 2003. And it's been such a long, hard road and once we're in it, we're got to finish it. And that's why, before we take that step to send our most precious asset over there, let's do everything we can do before then, and that's what the commander-in-chief has got to do. Our generals can't necessarily go and function in democracy in the same way that our commander-in-chief can. So, as a military member, I don't want him to blindly follow, you know, the commanders on the ground because they don't see the same picture that the commander-in-chief sees.
CONAN: And Tammy, are you expecting to go over there?
TAMMY: Oh, absolutely, I'm actually training in a job right now which means I will absolutely deploy, and I'm eager to do it, and I'm so proud to serve. But, I consider my life a precious commodity so I don't want to be sent willy nilly without doing everything we can do because once a life is gone, it's gone. And it's - like the previous caller from San Antonio also said, the toll on the military is huge, and I know people who've gone five and six times back to back, and I don't know if their lives will ever retain or get back to normal. I think their lives will be forever be affected by that. My father was in Vietnam, and he died still having to deal with the trauma from that situation.
CONAN: Tammy, thanks very much for the phone call. You've hit a number of interesting points; we appreciate it.
TAMMY: Thank you, and I love NPR. Thank you for what you do.
CONAN: Thank you very much, Tammy. I think you can get it over there, too. So, we'll be talking to you there. And Tom Bowman, she raises the point we talked about earlier: the difficulties of balancing. When do you listen to the ground commanders' advice? When do you say, I'm sorry, we're going to have to replace you with somebody else.
BOWMAN: Well, clearly the commander-in-chief is called that because the decision rest with him about what to do with American troops and how to work with Congress and so forth. And some would argue that on the one hand, President Bush said, we have to listen to our commanders on the ground, General Casey, for quite some time in Iraq, decided to turn it over to Iraqi forces as quickly as possible and then all of a sudden, the strategy changed to one of sending more troops over. So...
CONAN: More American troops.
BOWMAN: The question of it, did he - was he actually listening to commanders on the grounds is questionable clearly because they changed their strategy.
CONAN: And Colonel Nagl, the military is not without political skills of its own. If commanders, senior commanders disagree, if the services disagree with what the administration is doing, they are not shy about letting that be known - not necessarily always with their names in the newspapers, but somehow this gets out, and there is going to be a fascinating battle with whoever is the new commander-in-chief given the financial realities that their, that we're going to be facing - well, one of the very few places where there is discretionary funding cuts available is in the defense budget.
Lt. Col. NAGL: That's exactly right, Neal. We've seen the seven fat years of defense budgets during the Bush administration, and there's no doubt that with the economic crisis facing the United States and the world, that the next administration is going to have to make some hard choices. Frankly, we don't have enough ground forces right now to fight all of the wars we're fighting. The situation in Afghanistan demands more ground troops, and what we're doing is wearing out our ground forces by sending them back too often, too many tours, not enough of a reset time in between. And that contributes to the - some of the silent wounds that we've been talking about.
CONAN: And on a lower level, wears out the equipment, too.
Lt. Col. NAGL: And wears out the equipment as well. So we've got a huge bill to pay to rebuild our military. We thought we're going to get a break after Iraq. But in fact, while we were focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan got worse and this is - this goes to the question of where do you find the balance? The commander-in-chief has to balance off a number of competing theaters, not just focus on one. So, we're facing some very difficult questions for the next administration.
CONAN: And Tom Bowman, at the same time, new generations of very expensive aircraft are coming online. New generations of very expensive ships are coming online. The Air Force and the Navy are not without lobbyists of their own.
BOWMAN: Absolutely. Clearly, the next president, whoever it is, there going to be some serious cuts at the Pentagon. When you look at something like the future combat system for the Army, the joint strike fighter, you could cut back in the numbers of those. I mean, these are hugely expensive - tens and hundreds of billions of dollars. And John's right. I mean, with the financial situation the way it is, and the bailouts of the banks and insurance companies, there's not going to be a lot of money that's around the Pentagon. The party is over, basically, with some of these supplementals that they're going to have really take it out of hide.
CONAN: And it's not as if raising another six or eight brigades - when you're talking about Army and Marines - that isn't very cheap, either. So this is all going to be - have to be worked out in very painful ways and a lot of oxes - oxen are going to be gored. Let's get another caller on the line. Bill is with us. Bill from Augusta in Kansas.
BILL (Caller): Yeah. I listen to you all the time, Neal.
CONAN: Thank you.
BILL: I'm a 20-year active duty-reservist combined. The thing now with reserves is we're gearing up to be rotated every five years. And when it comes to civilian warriors, we have to try to get - keep or maintain a civilian job. And employers are going to ask, are you a guard or a reservist? And if you say yes, they're not going to hire you.
CONAN: Because the requirement, if you are hired and you are called to active duty, they are required by law to keep that position open for you upon your return.
BILL: And there's ways around that now that they're using to not.
CONAN: And Colonel Nagl, he's not the only person who's been complaining about this. This is rife all over the country.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Bill is exactly right. We've gone from a model in which our reserve forces were a strategic reserve to be called upon only in times of general mobilization, very, very seldom for operations like the one in Bosnia. But by in large, if you were in the reserves, you could assume that you're going to not be called out until the big one. And the reserves have now become - being used as an operational reserve, during which they can rotate in every five years.
They can expect to be deploying to a combat zone. And I think we really need to have a national discussion, as the United States of America, as we're fighting in an era of protracted conflict. We're going to be in Afghanistan for a long time. There are going to be American troops in Iraq largely, I think, in an advisory role for a number of years to come. And we have to think real hard about where we're going to find the people to carry this burden. Too much of it has been born on the backs of a very small number of all-volunteer forces, and the strain is starting to show.
CONAN: And Tom Bowman, this is a legacy of the Vietnam War when primarily Sonny Montgomery, the then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, we had a situation in Vietnam where we fought that war without the Reserves and the National Guard. We will never do that again. We will make a system where you cannot fight a war without use of the Reserves and the National Guard.
CONAN: So it is a national effort, but then you would get into this protracted effort and situations like Bill is describing.
BOWMAN: Exactly. On the one hand, there's more experience, combat experience in National Guard and Reserves than we've probably seen since World War II. On the other hand, they're part-time soldiers being pulled away from jobs and families that didn't expect to be operational, as they are. The Minnesota Guard, for example, is gone 22 months in Iraq, and it's really hard on employers and their families.
CONAN: Bill, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.
BILL: You're welcome.
CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go now to Bob. Bob with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
BOB (Caller): Yes, hi. I just want to say it's a pleasure to be on the air with Colonel Nagl. I've admired him for some time now as, with Colonel McMasters and General Petraeus, men of vision.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Bob, you're putting me in company I don't deserve to be in, but thank you. You've clearly never met me, sir.
BOB: I was calling because when it comes to the next commander-in-chief, and Colonel Nagl is probably no doubt familiar with this, being a career officer, is that - you know, we wear two hats literally. One, we do have, you know, a thinking brain as far as our civilian side of the house and our military side of the house. No one gets into a war with the intention of well, you know, I really find fault with this war, let's lose it. So once you're in the game, you're in the game. As far as the civilian side of the house, we're not all painted with the same brush, as I think some people have been on the air saying. And Colonel Nagl himself said, we not all dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, we don't all love war.
Going back in terms of marrying up our military and political objectives, I remember when it was looking like I was going to be going in after the Dayton Peace Accords. And somebody said to me, a civilian said to me, why did we want to go there? Our strategic interests aren't at stake. And I said, let's see: mass graves, unrepentant, whatever, raping as a weapon, you know what? In terms of our national values, our alleged national values, that's probably indeed where I absolutely should be, because you know what, there's absolutely nothing at stake.
CONAN: Yet, interesting, Bob, that was a moment when there was the luxury to make that decision. I'm not sure, given the situation that we have now with the military, the way they are stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, that that option would be available today.
BOB: No. And I think that's what confuses some of us. Going back to Rwanda and before that, Somalia and now, the Congo. Our national values that are imbued to us is that when you see three guys beating up one guy, it's your duty to break that up. And when you see people being abused and you say, we really can't go in and stop the abuse because this, this and this. And you say, well, wait a minute, that's got nothing to do with the creed that I live by. I go back to General Steiner with special ops people in the northern no-fly zone at the end of the Iraq War. There are 12-, 13-, 14-year-old boys up there that - their middle name is, they're named after the Rangers and the Green Berets and the other special ops folks that protected those people, that kept those people from being slaughtered.
CONAN: I was up there, Bob, at that time, and a lot of that area describes itself as the 51st state.
BOB: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, for lack of a better term, and I think a '60s term is warranted, what we need to be doing is love-bombing these people. I mean, when we went in after General Franks drank the Kool-Aid and General Shinseki didn't, I mean, if we went in heavy afterwards with engineerings assets, signal assets, water purification, whatever, you know, that's how you make people know that this is what an American is, not what whoever, not what al-Qaeda is, not what militant Shia are telling you. Despite what they're telling you, this is what we are. We all share the same values. We are all fathers, mothers, brothers and throughout the globe, we basically have the same values.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Bob, it's John Nagl. I am now a great admirer of yours, sir. I couldn't have said that any better. God bless you for saying that.
BOB: Thank you, Colonel.
CONAN: And Bob, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
BOB: Thank you.
CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go to Pat. Pat's on the line with us from St. Louis in Missouri.
PAT (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Pat.
PAT: How are you doing?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
PAT: I'm really glad I finally got through on one of your military talk shows. As a former military member and a wife - spouse of a military member, I want know what the next commander-in-chief is going to do about programs like what they call RIFTing, which is reduction in forces, and things that are quote, unquote already in the pipeline. I hear all the time about how we don't have enough people and yet, last October, not just this past but October of '07, they cut 40,000 Air Force people. My husband happened to be one of them at 15 years.
CONAN: And were these jobs either because programs were eliminated, or were these jobs that were outsourced to a private contractors?
PAT: Many of them have gone to private contractors - literally one-for-one, or two-for-one on the base where he was at. People that have quit the military and then walked back in two weeks later as a contractor and therefore, they're, I guess, called outsourced or whatever. But then again, there are other people where their jobs have just disappeared. I mean, my husband hasn't worked for a year now except for doing things with the Guard because he rejoined the Guard in order to get his retirement.
CONAN: Yeah. And that is, again, a situation - this is going to do nothing but increase, John Nagl, as I think some parts of the military are bound to shrink.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Well, wait a minute because the Air Force has recently stopped those reductions. They put an end to that under the new Chief-Of-Staff Norton Schwartz. And one of the things they're doing is sending Air Force people places like Iraq and Afghanistan to guard facilities, to drive trucks and so forth. So they've stopped that, and the Air Force is now looking at increasing some things like drones, for example, intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance aircrafts. But they have put an end to reducing the force itself.
CONAN: OK, I stand corrected. Thank you.
PAT: Yeah, but it doesn't help the people who are already out.
Lt. Col. NAGL: You're absolutely right.
PAT: He actually tried to go back. I mean, he's been doing this entire adult life, and we're both children of Air Force people.
CONAN: And I wonder, Pat, if you could get a reaction to this email we have from Margaret in Tokyo: I'm an Army brat and an Army widow. I still do not know who will be the next president, but I do know the next commander-in-chief needs to understand that an Army is made of people: wives, children, mothers, fathers. Do you have any idea how hard it is to fight through the bureaucracy that is the United States Army?
PAT: Oh, I agree with her entirely because the whole thing is like I said, my husband's done this man and boy, as they used to say in the South, because his father was Air Force and my father was Air Force. He was dragged all across the country as a kid, and he went in right after high school. He went back on his own dime to become an officer, to get his degree to become an officer. He had three years as an officer and they went, oh gee, too bad, 'bye. And that was after 15 years of never anything less than an excellent to superior rating.
CONAN: Pat, we wish you and your husband the best of luck.
PAT: Yeah, well, in this economy, it's going to be fun, I can tell you that much.
CONAN: So say we all. Thanks very much for the phone call.
PAT: All right. 'Bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're asking members of the military and their families to call us today to tell us what the next commander-in-chief needs to know about them, their lives and their jobs. Our guests are Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent. Also with us, retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl who's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. We're going to take a couple of more calls with them when we come back after a short break. We'll also be talking with David Savage of the Los Angeles Times about a Supreme Court case today where, well, there was a lot of cursing going on. He'll explain. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is an election special from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: What the next commander-in-chief needs to know about the jobs and the lives of U.S. service members. Our guests are Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl who's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Here's an email from Mel in Concord in North Carolina. Good afternoon. I'm a retired Air Force officer. I'd like the next commander-in-chief to know that his retired folks and dependents often can't find medical care because the reimbursement rates for TRICARE are too low. We live in Concord, North Carolina, where there is a very large and hospital and medical community yet not a single family practice doctor will take TRICARE at this time. There is only two listed in the TRICARE directory as accepting the insurance. But when called, they inform you they aren't taking new TRICARE patients at this time. Tom Bowman, what's TRICARE?
BOWMAN: TRICARE is the military's health system and maybe as a retiree, maybe John can answer better - about how things are working and not working with TRICARE.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Ironically, I'm working with the Veterans Administration to get my disability adjudicated, and I've tried to get some appointments scheduled just today and was unable to do so. I'm in a fortunate position. I actually know some folks in the Veterans Administration but those who don't, the strain on the military medical system because of the wounds we've suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, the post-traumatic problems, the silent and invisible wounds that our military have, and the health care for retirees and their families is a serious problem that is going to take a lot of work. And I'm afraid that's another problem the next president is going to face.
CONAN: Let's get Don on the line. Don with us from Salt Lake City in Utah.
DON (Caller): Yeah. In fact, that's my concern right there. The next administration is walking into a huge problem with veterans of both wars. We're talking about suicide rates, violence at home, alcohol and drug abuse, divorce rates higher than they've been since what, Vietnam? These are serious problems that the administration is going to have to deal with.
CONAN: And Don, what about in your case? Are you getting the help you need?
DON: Yeah. I'm working on my first divorce right now after spending two years in Iraq since the war started. And countless buddies of mine. I'm in a National Guard situation where nobody was really expecting this and then in 2003, we had a week to get ready to leave, you know. They called us on a Thursday and a week later, we were out of the state going to Iraq, and I couldn't even tell you how many of my buddies are divorced because of it.
CONAN: It is, John Nagl, not uncommon.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Yeah, Don, I'm in the same position. A bunch of my buddies are divorced. My wife, still hanging with me right now, at least. But, I got to tell you, I'd be interested in whether you agree with this. I've often said that the hardest job in the Army isn't being a soldier, it's being married to a soldier.
DON: I totally agree. My wife was great during the deployment. It was dealing with all the BS once I got home and learning how to be a couple again, it really didn't work out for us.
Lt. Col. NAGL: I got back from Al Anbar and just a couple of months later, my baby brother Mark, Sergeant Nagl, went back over to just about the same place I'd been, and I tell you, it was a whole lot harder for me worrying about him when he was deployed than it was when I was over there myself. Because when you're over there fighting, you've got some control over your destiny. But when you're back home, you're just worrying and you're worrying all the time. And I really saw it. My mom really suffered with one of her two boys in Al Anbar for the better part of three consecutive years. So the strain we're putting on the families of our service members is real and palpable, and it's a national security concern.
BOWMAN: And I heard that time and time again when I was over in Iraq, how grueling it is to be away from your family for so long and particularly, soldiers and Marines who have young children. It's just awful.
CONAN: Don, good luck to you.
DON: Thank you.
CONAN: I wanted to read these couple of emails. This from Janice in Syracuse, New York. My son is now in his second month as a recruit at boot camp for the U.S. Marine Corps at Parris Island, South Carolina. I was not happy with his choice to join the Marines, but I'm learning what it's like to be the mother of a recruit, how to support him and keep my views about the war separate from my pride in his willingness to undergo this very difficult service. I am looking at a very scary future. I have supported Barack Obama, and hope he will be the next president. The war has seemed to fade as a central issue late in the campaign, but it has to be kept as a top issue.
And this from Amanda: I was in the United States Navy for six years and have been a civilian for 10 months. During that time, I was deployed twice to the Persian Gulf area. What I hope the new president does is increase the number of troops. I say this because the troops are now stretched in terms of increased number of deployments. I have friends who entered the military two years ago and by the time they finish a six-year enlistment at the same command, they will have gone on five deployments, more than double. This is a huge strain on military families and I feel will increase attrition rates. So, Colonel Nagl, we end right where we began.
Lt. Col. NAGL: This is an enormously difficult problem that the next president is going to face. Iraq is going better, Afghanistan is not. We're going to have to devote more resources to Afghanistan that we simply don't have from ground forces that are already under strength.
CONAN: Gentleman, thank you - Tom.
BOWMAN: I was just going to add. There are already planning in the midst of increasing the size of the Army and the Marine Corp by, I think, 92,000 combined.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent, and retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, both kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3-A. Stay with us, we'll be talking about the Supreme Court and the dirty words.