Last year, Gates ended a policy he had implemented himself that let the military deploy Army units for 15 months at a time; now, most deploying units return in 12 months or less. He has also pushed for more "wounded warrior" programs to take care of veterans. Recently, he discovered that there were two standards for evacuating the injured from Iraq and Afghanistan – a one hour deadline in Iraq versus two hours in Afghanistan – and pushed commanders to accelerate evacuation in the latter.
And last month, he ended a longtime ban on media coverage of the return of the bodies of soldiers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, saying families should have the final say, not the Pentagon. He also offered to pay for families wanting to travel to Dover to receive their loved ones.
Gates visited Dover for the first time this month to witness the return of remains from Iraq or Afghanistan, boarding a parked plane alone to stand amid the flag-draped caskets. Asked about the visit at a news briefing Thursday, he said that it was "very difficult." Pressed further, he cut himself short to avoid being overcome with emotion.
"We need to do things that support the troops and their families," says says Geoff Morrell, Gates's press secretary. "Whether it's giving them force protection, or the tools they need to succeed, the medical care they deserve, or the respect they've earned."
In some ways, the military is stronger despite waging the longest war in American modern history. Recruiting and reenlistment are generally high, military pay is up 37 percent since 2002, and the US now has one of the best trained and most combat-seasoned force it may have ever had.
The Army is training its force with skills relevant to what soldiers are confronting, not just with deployments but to help families cope, says Master Sgt. Terry Easter, an infantryman who deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 and then to Iraq in 2006 for a 15-month tour.