"There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend," Gates said.
The premise underlying an all-volunteer force also has changed. Initiated in 1973, the concept was that such a force would fight in short, conventional conflicts like the 1991 Gulf War, or defend the U.S. and its allies against Soviet aggression.
But after almost a decade of warfare since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, troops who have escaped combat unscathed still faced repeated deployments with long separations from their families. In Iraq at one point, some combat tours stretched to 18 months. More than 1 million soldiers and Marines have been deployed there during the course of the conflict.
The consequences of long deployments in combat zones have been real. Suicide figures have increased, while the divorce rate among enlisted soldiers has nearly doubled.
"No matter how patriotic, how devoted they are, at some point they will want to have the semblance of a normal life — getting married, starting a family, going to college or graduate school, seeing their children grow up — all of which they have justly earned," Gates said.
Without offering specifics, Gates said a system must be created that is generous enough to recruit and retain people without causing the Defense Department to sink under the weight of personnel costs.
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