Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Senator Webb's floor remarks from today's debate on troop rotations

Senator Jim Webb--September 19, 2007:
I rise today to offer, along with Senator Hagel as the lead Republican co-sponsor and 35 of my colleagues, a bipartisan amendment that speaks directly to the welfare of our service members and their families. I have just learned from Senator McCain’s comments that Senator Warner will be offering a side-by-side amendment that goes to the sense of the Congress rather than the will of the Congress. I would like to state emphatically at the outset that this is a situation that calls for the will of Congress. It calls for the Congress to step in and act as, if nothing else, an intermediary in a situation that is causing our men and women in uniform a great deal of stress and which again calls for us in the Congress to do something about this.

We have been occupying Iraq for more than four years - more than four and a half years. During that time, it’s sensible to assume that our policies could move toward operational strategies that take into account the number of troops that are available rather than simply moving from one option to another, one so-called strategy to another and continually going to the well and asking our troops to carry out these policies. This amendment would provide a safety net to our men and women in uniform by providing a minimum and more predictable time for them to rest and retrain before again deploying.

If you're a member of the regular military, this amendment basically says that as long as you have been gone, you deserve to have that much time at home. This is a one-to-one ratio that we’re trying to push. Many of our units and our individuals are below that when the Department of Defense’s stated goal and restated goal of the Commandant of the Marine Corps not long ago was to move back to 2-1. In other words, our troops right now are being deployed in environments, many of them, where they are spending more time in Iraq than they’re spending at home, when traditionally, they should have twice as much time here in their home environments to refurbish their units, retrain, get to know their families and then continue to serve their country. For the Guard and Reserve, we have a provision in here that would require that no member or unit be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within three years of a previous deployment.

I would like to emphasize that this amendment is within the Constitution. There have been a number of members, including the Senator from Arizona, who have stated publicly that this is blatantly unconstitutional. It is well within the Constitution and I read from Article 1, Section 8, that "the Congress has the power to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces." This constitutional authority has been employed many times in the past, most significantly during the Korean War when the Administration in charge at the time was sending soldiers to Korea before they had been adequately trained. The Congress stepped in under that provision of Article 1, Section 8, and mandated that no one be deployed overseas ntil they had had at least 120 days of training. We are doing essentially the same thing in terms of a protective measure for the troops of our military but on the other end. We’re saying as long as you have been deployed, you deserve to have that much time at home.

This amendment is responsible. It’s been drafted with great care. We have put waivers that would apply to unusual circumstances into the amendment. The President can waive the limitations of this amendment in the event of an operational emergency posing a threat to vital national security interests. People who want to go back can go back. It does not stop anyone from volunteering to return if they want to waive this provision.

I have spoken with Secretary Gates - spoke with him at some length last week. I listened to his concerns. We put in two additional provisions in this amendment to react to the concerns that the Secretary of Defense raised. The first is a 120-day enactment period which is different from the way this amendment was introduced in July. In other words, the Department of Defense would have 120 days from the passage of this legislation in order to make appropriate plans and adjust the provisions. I also have a provision in this bill that would exempt the special operations units from the requirements of the amendment. The special operations units are highly selective. Their operational tempos are unpredictable and we believe that it is appropriate that they be exempted.

This amendment is not only constitutional, not only responsible,but it is needed. It is needed in a way that transcends the politics. After four and a half years in the environment in Iraq, it’s time that we put into place operational policies that sensibly take care of the people we are calling upon to go again and again. That is one reason why the Military Officers Association of America took the unusual step to actually endorse this amendment. The Military Officers Association of America is not like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, they’re not like the American Legion. They rarely step into the middle of political issues. But this organization, which comprises 368,000 members, military officers, took the step of sending a letter of endorsement for this amendment, calling upon us in the Congress to become better stewards of the men and women who are serving. It is beyond politics in another way. We are asking our men and women in uniform to bear a disproportionate sacrifice as the result of this occupation.

Mr. President, this is this week’s "Army Times." The cover story in the "Army Times" this week talks about brigade redeployments - who’s gone the most, who’s gone the least, who’s going next. At least eight of the Army’s 44 active brigade combat teams have deployed three or more times already, and these are year or 15-month eployments. Another six, including three from the 101st Airborne Division, leave this month for round three or four. There is one brigade in the 10th Mountain Division which is now nearing the end of its 15-month deployment to Baghdad that is on its fourth deployment. When these soldiers return in November, they will have
served 40 months overseas since December 2001.

That is about two-thirds of the time that we have been engaged since December 2001. This amendment is needed for another reason, and that is that it’s become clear since the testimony of General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker that the debate on our numbers in Iraq and our policy in Iraq is going to continue for sometime. We have divisions here in the Senate, we have divisions between the administration and the Congress. We’re trying to find a formula, the right kind of a formula that can undo what I and many others believe was a grave strategic error in going into Iraq in the first place. But we have to have this debate sensibly. In the meantime, because this debate is going to continue for sometime, we need to put a safety net under our troops who are being called upon to go to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I noted with some irony on Monday, as I was presiding, when the Republican leader expressed his view that it would not be an unnatural occurrence for us to be in Iraq for the next 50 years. This comparison to Korea and Western Europe is being made again and again and again. I go back to five years ago this month when I wrote an editorial for "The Washington Post" six months before we invaded Iraq, and one of the comments that I made in this editorial, five years ago, was that there is no end point, there is no withdrawal plan from the people who have brought us to this war because they don’t intend to withdraw. I said that five years ago. It’s rather stunning to hear that ratified openly now by people in the Administration and by others who have supported this endeavor. We need to engage in that debate. We need to come to some sort of agreement about what our posture is going to be in the Middle East and as we have that debate, it’s vitally important that we look after the well-being of the men and women who are being called upon again and again to serve.

I would point out that we are seeing a number of predictable results from these constant deployments. We’re seeing falling retention among experienced combat veterans, we’re seeing Soldiers or Marines either retained beyond their enlistment or being called after their enlistments are over and being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. We’re seeing statistics on increased difficulties on marital situations and mental health issues.

There was a quote in this week's "Army Times" by one Army division Sergeant Major who was saying after the second deployment, "It's hard to retain our soldiers. They’ve missed all the first steps, they’ve missed all the birthdays, they’ve missed all the anniversaries.” I’ve seen that again and again with people that I’ve known throughout their young lifetimes. One young man who is a close friend of my son just returned with an Army unit back for his second tour in Iraq and one of his comments at his going away party was that 15-month deployments mean two Thanksgivings, two Christmases, two birthdays.

So what we’re trying to do with this amendment is to bring a sense of responsibility among the leadership of our country in terms of how we are using our people. It's an attempt to move beyond politics as the politics of the situation are sorted out. It is constitutional, it is responsible, it has been drafted with care, it is needed beyond politics. I hope those in this body will step forward and support it to the point that it can become law. I note that my colleague, the Senator from Nebraska, has arrived, my principal cosponsor for whom I have great regard. He and I have worked on many issues for over 30 years. I’m very grateful to be standing with him today, and I would yield back my time and hope that the Senator from Nebraska could be recognized. Thank you.

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