ORLANDO, Fla., June 20, 2009 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke to a nontraditional audience that believes in some very traditional American values here today.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics annual convention that its members are in a position to connect veterans – especially wounded veterans – to their greater communities.
The chairman spoke about the role that sports has played in his life, and how coaches – going back to a Little League coach in mid-1950s Los Angeles – influenced him along the way. It also made him a Dodgers fan, a Lakers fan and a UCLA basketball fan, he added.
Sports even influenced the admiral’s decision to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. He played basketball in high school and wanted to play on the East Coast where Bill Bradley – a standout for the Princeton Tigers – played. Sports allowed Mullen the opportunity to attend the Naval Academy, which he called “a place that literally changed my life forever.”
The admiral said he wants the athletic directors to do what they can in their communities for wounded warriors, noting that young men and women from the Wounded Warrior Project were attending their convention. “What you do and the people you touch make such a difference in our country,” Mullen said to them.
The 170,000 to 180,000 young men and women in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are his main concern as chairman, Mullen said. The military is in its eighth year of war and the force is pressed, he added, noting that, on average, servicemembers are on their fourth deployment.
The admiral told the athletic directors that he is a Vietnam vet. “That was my first war, and I remember it like yesterday,” he said. “I am fortunate enough to be in a position of leadership to make sure that some of the things that happened back then – particularly the disconnect between the American people and its military – never recur. Your support of these young men and women is a big part of that.”
The country must take care of those who are wounded and provide for the families of those killed, Mullen said. “We must take care of, provide for [and] create opportunities for them for the rest of their lives,” he added.
The directors’ participation, he told the group, is important to recognize the sacrifices servicemembers have made and to help wounded warriors and their families continue. “Their lives have changed forever, but their dreams haven’t changed at all,” he said.
Recognition on college campuses around the United States helps to connect the American people to its military, the admiral said.
“We’re a much smaller military than we used to be – 2.2. million men and women who serve – and being able to tell their stories and to connect with the rest of America is absolutely vital,” he said. “Those who serve overseas in these wars just want to know one thing: Are the American people behind us? When that question is answered positively, they don’t have questions. They don’t worry about the politics; they carry out the mission. And the American people are behind our men and women in the military.”
More than 35,000 young men and women serving in the military have been physically injured since Sept. 11, 2001, the chairman noted, along with “tens of thousands more who are suffering from combat stress, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries – the signature injuries of the war. I believe that we, as a country, owe them for what they’ve done, even in tough economic times.”
It all goes back to their dreams, Mullen said. These veterans want an education, a good job, a chance to send their children to school and to own their own homes. “The dreams haven’t changed, but the path has,” said he told the athletic directors.
Civilian communities, he told the group, are part of the map that charts the path. The Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have a role, he said, but so do communities.
More than 100,000 servicemembers need “people to put their arms around them and support them as they move to their future,” Mullen said. “The only way we can do that is to have communities throughout the land know that combat warriors are living in their communities, and to match up the individual needs with community support.”
He spoke of meeting a young Navy SEAL who had been blinded in combat. His home county had people waiting for him when he got home, the chairman said. They helped him with education, training and rehabilitation, and in finding a job. And the young man is poised – like the rest of his comrades – to contribute to the United States for the rest of their lives, the chairman said.