By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Fort Hood Herald

Over a lunch of MREs and Gatorade on Friday, the acting under secretary of the Army told soldiers they could ask him anything.

Questions ranged in topic from the upcoming presidential elections to deployment lengths to retirement benefits.

Nelson M. Ford, the acting under secretary of the Army and assistant secretary of the Army for Financial Management and Comptroller, visited with soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team after watching them demonstrate the Close Quarter Marksmanship course at the North Fort Hood Rifle Range.

The visit was part of a Fort Hood tour the under secretary took while in town to help sign the Army Community Covenant, an agreement “designed to develop and foster effective state and community partnerships with the Army in improving the quality of life for soldiers and their families,” according to information from the Army.

Signing the covenant won’t change anything, Ford said, because local communities are already as supportive of the Army as possible.

“It is clear, Central Texas, that you signed on years ago,” he said.

Ford was joined for the signing by Lt. Gen. (promotable) Raymond Odierno, III Corps and Fort Hood commander; the mayors of Killeen, Temple, Copperas Cove, Harker Heights, Belton, Lampasas, Gatesville and Salado; and Bell, Coryell, Lampasas and Williamson Counties; Colleen Saffron, Fort Hood’s volunteer of the year; Michael Edwards Jr., Fort Hood’s youth volunteer of the year; and Sgt. Emily Warren, a 1st Medical Brigade soldier and Fort Hood’s noncommissioned officer of the year.

No other post deploys more soldiers, Odierno said, adding that 35 brigades and 300,000 soldiers have deployed from Fort Hood since 2001.

“Our communities have stepped up to the plate,” he said.

Later that day at the range, Ford was joined by Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, the division’s commander, who asked the soldiers what the under secretary could do to convince them not to get out of the Army once their contract ended. The biggest factor for the soldiers who answered was deployment lengths. A soldier is deployed for 15 months, then comes back and has 11 to 12 months at home, said one sergeant, but a lot of that time is devoted to field training or rotations to training centers. That is hard on families and it is hard to keep a family going with all of the deploying and training, he added.

Another soldier said that the time away from home is starting to hit his family a lot harder and he was getting out to spend more time with them.

It’s hard to keep a sable household, a specialist added. In the Army’s effort to streamline training, they’ve compressed a lot into a short amount of time. That takes away from soldiers’ downtime with their families, he said.

Ford acknowledged the war and its toll on the Army, saying that the United States has been sprinting for six years and “nobody sprints for six years.” It’s a theme he used throughout his visit to Fort Hood and the surrounding communities.

Ford said he knew it was hard to believe, but told the soldiers that folks in Washington are thinking about the bigger problem.

It’s always great to get out with soldiers, Ford said of his first trip to Fort Hood.

Citizens read a lot about soldiers and their problems, he said, but “what we don’t read about is the stunning competency of young soldiers.

“The general public is missing the extraordinary capability, competency of our soldiers and if they understood that, they wouldn't be worried about the Army.”

The media captures the flaws, not the strengths, he added.

“The flaws are there, but they’re small.”

The under secretary has two sons in the military, one in the Air Force and one who is set to graduate from the Special Forces School at Fort Bragg, N.C., soon. Both have deployed in support of the Global War on Terrorism.

Ford can relate to the people he met during his trip to Fort Hood, saying that he knows what it’s like to hold his breath for a year while his children deployed.

“It’s not just the operations, it’s the anxiety that you feel ? it’s the prayers you send that are really essential,” he said.

He remembers what it was like waiting for phone calls, something that military families experience, but very few know about outside the military world.

Having children in the military gives him perspective in his current positions. As he thinks about how to employ the resources as his disposal, he said, he has to keep in mind how it will impact the families.

Ford also visited the Oveta Culp Hobby Soldier and Family Readiness Center and the Gold Star Family Support Center during his visit.

Representatives at the soldier and family readiness center took Nelson on a tour, explaining features, including on-site daycare, Military Family Life Consultants, meeting rooms and internet facilities. The center is so popular, they said, that 12 to 15 groups are turned away each week because there isn’t enough space for their activities. Since the center opened on July 31, 2007, more than 35,000 people have been through its doors, they said.

The under secretary then visited the Army’s only Gold Star Family Support Center and its director, Debbie Busch. They discussed how the center has helped improve the process of dealing with a fallen soldier, for both the family and the post’s Casualty Assistance Office.

“We can’t afford not to take care of these families,” Busch said.

The center, and its organization, “"Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors,” is a non-profit agency, and Busch admitted to Ford that she was at first weary of that status. She has learned, however, that it is the better way to care for the families because the center doesn’t have to follow the Army’s sometimes-difficult procedures.

The downside is that the center doesn’t get money from the Army and fundraising is the most difficult part.

“You need an angel,” Ford said.

“Let me see what I can do.”

“We’ll be here (waiting), sir,” Busch said.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at or call (254) 501-7547.

Sgt. 1st Class Kap Kim of 1st Cavalry Division public affairs contributed to this story.

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