WASHINGTON — Pete Geren, President Bush's nominee to become secretary of the Army, acknowledged the stresses on America's wartime military Tuesday while promising senators that he would be an advocate for soldiers and families to "make sure their voices are heard."
The former Texas congressman seemed assured of winning Senate confirmation after a relatively noncontentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in which he drew accolades from members of both parties.
But at the same time, he also confronted pointed questioning on an array of topics — from extended troop deployments to the Walter Reed medical scandal — that underscored congressional misgivings with the president's war policies.
"I would submit that somebody needs to go in to the big boss and close the door and talk about what this is doing to the United States military," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a decorated Vietnam veteran whose son is a Marine infantryman who recently returned from Iraq.
Webb told Geren that he is "deeply troubled" by the Defense Department's decision to extend overseas deployment from 12 months to 15 months, with a year in the United States. The extended deployments, Webb said, "are going to wreck the military."
Geren said the extended deployment was the better of "two bad choices" as military leaders determined how to most efficiently deploy over-stretched manpower. The Army could have kept deployment capped at 12 months, with possible shorter stays at home, or extended overseas assignments to 15 months with a guaranteed year at home.
"We were asking a lot before," said Geren. "With this, we're asking more. But when I consider the two options that were in front of us, I felt it was the better of the two."
Geren conceded there have been shortcomings in the system, particularly with the much-publicized reports of shoddy treatment of wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Medical Center, the Army's premier hospital. "A few let down the many and broke that bond of trust," he said.
Geren fielded topics ranging from the National Guard's preparedness for hurricanes to complaints about a massive backlog of mail deliveries at Walter Reed. He said he moved quickly to deal with the Walter Reed mail problem but added: "I can't tell you that we don't have that problem elsewhere, and we're looking across the system to make sure that we do not."
Geren joined the Pentagon as a special assistant to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and was later acting Air Force secretary and undersecretary of the Army. He became acting Army Secretary in March after then-Secretary Francis J. Harvey was fired over the Walter Reed scandal. Bush nominated Geren as full-time secretary on May 24.