"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.
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."