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No timeline for shorter deployments

TIMES WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
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WASHINGTON — Defense officials had no firm answers Tuesday about when the Army will shorten the 15-month combat tours they acknowledge are straining military families and possibly contributing to increasing rates of divorce and suicide.


The Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, David S.C. Chu, said trimming the length of deployments remains the Defense Department's goal, but reaching it depends on factors he cannot predict: how fast the Army grows, the pace of drawdowns in Iraq and any sudden missions elsewhere.


He said he could not make any promises — a sentiment shared by Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel — at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.


At a hearing on the other side of the Capitol, though, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that tours might be shortened to 12 months this summer, assuming the administration sticks to its plan to gradually cut the number of soldiers in Iraq.


The hearings highlighted the strain hitting the Army, as well as defense officials' new willingness to acknowledge its severity.


In one of the day's more stark comments, Gen. Rochelle warned the Army could be nearing a breaking point that compromises readiness, recruitment and retention. Already, he said, the Army is short on doctors, psychiatrists and other health professionals.


When that point could come, he said, he did not know, but the Army might pass it before realizing it had happened.


"I don't know the answer quite yet," Gen. Rochelle said. Army families want shorter deployments, as well as more than 12 months at a time back home, he said. "So we're in a bit of a quandary."


Lawmakers and the Bush administration have been debating the pace and length of deployments for a few years, but the argument has become sharper as evidence grows that the Army is suffering from the high demand.


Most recently, the department reported increasing numbers of suicides and attempted suicides, as well as marital problems, depression and other symptoms possibly connected to long stints away from home and the painful experience of warfare.


The Defense Department has been scrambling to hire more mental health professionals to deal with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder; the chairman of a House defense spending panel, Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., has said he plans to visit Fort Drum to see how commanders are handling PTSD and wounded soldiers.


An internal Army study in January showed that suicides among active-duty members of the Army in 2007 reached the highest level since records started in 1980. A total of 121 soldiers killed themselves, 20 percent more than the previous year.


Self-inflicted injuries and attempted suicides have climbed sixfold since the Iraq war began in 2003, the Army reported, totaling 2,100 in 2007.


The Washington Post first reported on the issue in late January.


In Congress, Democrats particularly have pressed the administration on deployment lengths, trying to limit them through legislation. But a bill to enforce a year-deployed, year-at-home policy failed last year, opposed mainly by Republicans who said Congress was overstepping its authority.


In addition, said Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, the Army could not meet such a requirement without expanding further — an effort that is under way but a few years from completion. Mr. McHugh is ranking Republican on the Personnel Subcommittee.


But Mr. Chu appeared to leave open the possibility that expanding the Army alone will not bring shorter deployments.


Despite the somber news, recruitment and retention in the Army remain at or close to goals, officials said. However, the service faces a shortage of mid-level officers and has continued to accept more recruits without high school diplomas than it prefers, as well as more recruits who score relatively low on a written qualifying exam.


For the four months ending Jan. 31, a total of 82 percent of Army recruits had high school diplomas, missing the goal of 90 percent, officials reported. In addition, 58 percent of recruits scored at or above the 50th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, short of the goal of 60 percent.


Officials expect the Army to reach the goal on the qualifying test this year, Mr. Chu said.


The Army also is accepting more recruits on moral waivers, which can indicate past brushes with the law.


Mr. McHugh asked whether the Defense Department should consider other measures of recruits' readiness for military service. But Mr. Chu defended the system, saying high school diplomas and other benchmarks are generally good predictors of a soldier's success.


"There is a balance here," Mr. Chu said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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