Still, as Mullen acknowledges, it will be at least a year before troops who serve in combat for one year or 15 months get at least two years of rest and training between deployments. Such news does not always sit well with soldiers, and Mullen hears about it. He collects E-mail addresses and invites candor in "all hands call" meetings with troops. During smaller meet-and-greets, he has been known to send senior officers from the room, so the soldiers "feel like they can speak more freely," says one Pentagon official. "He'll say, 'What you don't tell me, your wives are going to tell my wife.' "
Today, Mullen and his wife of 38 years, Deborah, share their experience as a longtime military couple. Both of their sons attended the Naval Academy—the site, too, of their first date. "Deb had always wanted to go to an Army-Navy game, so I asked her, even though she wasn't very enthusiastic about me," says Mullen. "Let's just say it wasn't a great weekend, but I pursued her, and later that year, we fell in love."
It was a tenacity that would serve Mullen well again a short time later when, as a lieutenant with his first command, his ship hit a buoy in a channel. "My career virtually ended," says Mullen. "I got a completely unsatisfactory evaluation." He figures it set his career back 11 years. "It was so hard, and he was so young," Deborah says. "He had to take that failure and turn it into something else."
Today, they are frequent traveling companions and often compare notes, particularly about the combat-deployment strains on military families. "You have someone who comes back from a war zone from multiple deployments forever changed," she says. "We need to find ways to really reintegrate these families."
Costs of war. Mullen has spoken openly, too, about strains on the military as an institution—and the opportunity costs of waging the war in Iraq. Mullen recently expanded on his most publicized remark to date: "In Afghanistan, we do what we can; in Iraq, we do what we must." Troop levels in Iraq are preventing U.S. forces from going to Afghanistan, he said in congressional testimony this month, where "doing what we can," he added, "is not doing all that we should."
Mullen hails from Hollywood, and learned an appreciation for a striking turn of phrase from his father, a popular press agent. "He handled big stars. I could watch him create a message," says Mullen. "I learned that very young." Early in his career, Mullen learned, too, the importance of leadership, he says. In his first big act as chief of naval operations, he relieved Vice Adm. Joseph Sestak, a top flag officer accused of mistreating his staff. It was a move generally greeted with stunned approval. "Joe was a friend," says a senior defense official. "But [Mullen] really believed it was the right thing to do." Says Mullen: "Good leadership has sustained me my entire life. In the toughest of times, I've watched great leaders emerge—sometimes surprisingly so and sometimes with great expectation." He cites Adm. Raymond Spruance as a historical hero. "He was known as the quiet warrior, and he was so stabilizing. He was not flamboyant; he just garnered so much respect."
Colleagues use similar language to describe Mullen. "Everybody is asking him, 'What do you talk about with the president?' Whatever it is, he will tell him the straight truth," says William Cobb, a Naval Academy classmate and retired rear admiral. "He's definitely not a yes man. And hopefully," Cobb adds, "that's holding him in good stead."