"I believe we've gotto get it right for those who have sacrificed so much."
Born: Oct. 4, 1946
Family: Mullen, a Los Angeles native and eldest of five children, and his wife, Deborah, have two sons.
Education: U.S. Naval Academy, 1968; Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School
Awards: Stockdale Award for Leadership, 1987, nominated by peers and given to the best skipper in the fleet
At a recent White House meeting, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was admittedly caught a bit off guard when some of the attendees began posing questions about Navy matters. "It was sort of a surprise to me," he says. "Because I was the only Navy guy sitting at the table, I could see the discussion coming in my direction."
That discussion involved the location of Navy ships. But as the U.S. military heads into its fifth year of fighting on two fronts, Mullen's attention has been largely focused on ground wars. "I know a lot more about where all my BCTs"—Army brigade combat teams—"are than where my ships are. I mean, I knew a little bit but, fundamentally, that was the answer." As Mullen relates this story, he picks up a football signed by soldiers from the Army's 4th Infantry Division, which currently has responsibility for security in Baghdad. "I cherish this—I'm growing by leaps and bounds in understanding about the Army," he says. "It's been an incredibly tough fight for a number of years."
Indeed, though Mullen had the range of experience—he served more than two years as chief of naval operations before becoming JCS chairman and worked, for example, as chief engineering officer on the USS Fox in the Persian Gulf soon after Iran took Americans hostage in 1979—it was the concern he expressed about the war's strain on soldiers that got him the job. Asked what his top military concern was, "he didn't start talking about a new aircraft carrier or a submarine," says Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "He said, 'the Army.'"
Now six months into his work as the nation's top military adviser to the president, Mullen has garnered respect around the halls of the Pentagon for his quiet candor—and for his vocal concern for the plight of American troops. "I believe we've got to get it right for those who have sacrificed so much and do it in a way that takes them across the full spectrum of their lives," says Mullen. "We can't just say, 'ok, America, over to you—you figure it out.'"
Vietnam to Iraq. It is for Mullen a career that has been bookended by two unpopular wars. On the eve of Mullen's entry into the military, there was no shortage of raw reminders that America was in a time of upheaval. Robert Kennedy had been shot the day before Mullen's class of 1968 graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. In Vietnam, U.S. troops were seeing the highest spike in casualties since the war began. "We hit the fleet at a very, very difficult time in this country," says Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, a classmate at the Naval Academy.
Soon, Mullen became familiar with the demands of combat. "I was a brand-new officer trying to figure out how to do my job," he says. "I was stunned at the intensity of the conflict, the grueling schedule, and the high level of professionalism on my ship." Mullen adds that it was only later, as he prepared to ship out again in 1972, that he wrestled with the impact of a divisive war on the nation. "What I take away from Vietnam is the detachment of the American people from the U.S. military, the disconnect, and the unpopularity of the war," he says. The difference, he adds, is the universal support of Americans for troops today.
That said, Vietnam "is very much on my mind now," he remarks. "Iraq is an unpopular war, it's gone on for a long time, and we've lost 4,000 of our most precious young people." Vietnam marked the "beginning of what was a very drastic dive in terms of our military readiness," he says. "We just cannot afford to make that mistake again."
To that end, Mullen has stressed his concerns about the cumulative effects of multiple deployments on soldiers. In his first public address after taking over as chairman in October, he took up the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder—noteworthy in a military still wrestling with the stigma of mental health treatment. He has pushed, too, for a decrease in Iraq combat tours from 15 months—saying that was just "too long"—back to 12 months, a change that President Bush recently authorized.