By any standard, Admiral Mike Mullen cuts an impressive figure.
Sporting a chest full of decorations in his Navy blues, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stood before a full house at the Boise Centre this afternoon to give brief remarks before taking nearly an hour of unscripted questions. The event was part of Mullen's "Conversation with the Country," an opportunity for the Admiral to talk with citizenry about our time of war.
Mullen was a guest of the City Club at its best-attended session of the season (approximately 650 filled the midday event). Mullen, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Armed Forces and President Obama's principal military adviser faced a wide array of questions, ranging from the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the latest skirmish in Libya to benefits for returning servicemen and women to the growing ranks of homelessness among veterans.
"We already have over a million veterans who have returned home from Operation Enduring Freedom [the war in Afghanistan] and Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Mullen. "And we have hundreds of thousands of cases of Post Traumatic Stress and thousands of cases of Traumatic Brain Injury."
Mullen said it was not unusual for some major forces to have already cycled through five separate combat tours.
"And in some of our Special Operations Forces, we have men and women who have had 15 to 20 tours," said Mullen.
One of Mullen's first stops in his trip to Boise was to meet with families of soldiers currently serving in OEF and OIF. He also met with 13 families who have lost a relative in combat.
"They asked me for only one thing," said Mullen. "They asked that we never forget that sacrifice."
In regard to the growing homeless population, Mullen said as the ranks of women serving in the military grow, so does the issue of females who struggle when they return stateside.
"There's a growing number of women who wore a uniform that are without a home," said Mullen.
When questioned about retired military officers working as "talking heads" on cable news channels, Mullen was diplomatic.
"I'd prefer that you listen to those in active duty," said Mullen to a room of applause. "I'm concerned with the impression that they leave. The military must be completely apolitical.
In a somber moment, a question was presented on behalf of a friend of the mother of a veteran. She said her son, a victim of an IED (improvised explosive device) is a quadriplegic and refusing to access services for his injuries.
"I would tell him that 'we understand your plight,'" said Mullen. "This country will give back to you in every measure that you have given to it."