Long Army deployments still a major concern

As the Army's senior enlisted soldier, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston said, questions about long deployments dominate his conversations with soldiers.

"That, by far, has been the biggest question for several years," Preston said.

He hopes the answer is more troops.

Preston spent Tuesday at Fort Jackson. He attended a ceremony in which Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa King became the first woman to lead the Army's school for drill sergeants. He also was the featured speaker for the Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude Leadership Lecture Series, which is hosted by the post's Adjutant General School.

Maude, the series' namesake, was serving as deputy chief of staff for personnel when he was killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon. His family established the Maude Foundation to promote soldiers' education.

As sergeant major of the Army, Preston is responsible for the training and well-being of enlisted troops and their families. He reports to the Army chief of staff.

During his speech to several hundred officers and enlisted troops, Preston explained that the Army is trying to extend the amount of time soldiers are home between combat deployments.

The Army has increased its total number of soldiers during the past three years. And, it's growing again with plans to add 10,000 troops by 2010, Preston said.

The growth will help increase the time between deployments.

And, it will allow the Army to remove its stop-loss policy, which allows it to keep soldiers beyond the date when their enlistment commitment is met.

Currently, soldiers deploy for 15 months and then have a 12-month break before their unit goes overseas again.

"It's not 12 months of sitting at home watching TV and eating popcorn with your family," Preston said.

Troops get 30 days of vacation after deployments, and the first 90 days after a deployment come with mandatory eight-hour workdays with weekends off.

Then, troops start training and preparing for their next deployment, and that includes overnight stays in the field and trips to training centers around the country, he said.

Preston said he got a chance to explain the effects of long deployments to President Barack Obama in January.

The president wanted the "unvarnished truth," Preston said.

Sgt. Arnita Miles, who is president of an association for single soldiers at Fort Jackson, said deployments take a toll on troops, even those without a spouse or children. It's good to know the top enlisted soldier is looking out for them, she said.

"He is the voice for soldiers," she said. "He speaks for us."