Burwell B. Bell III
Over his 39-year military career, retired Gen. Burwell B. Bell III said he has watched the U.S. Army transform from a weak, drafted force to a strong, all-volunteer model that will be well-postured to defend against threats if it continues to expand correctly.
“We’re no longer a forward-operating Army but a ready Army,” Gen. Bell said in a private interview with the Times Free Press last week, referring to a modernized stance he has helped foster through assignments in Europe, Asia and on various military bases in the continental United States.
“We’re the United States of America. We can protect our nation,” Gen. Bell said. “The question is how we’re going to defend it, not whether we’re going to be able to defend it.”
The transition began as U.S. forces worked to rebuild themselves in the 1970s and 1980s after the Vietnam War and the abolishment of the draft, the general recalled. The draft Army “was under enormous stress,” Gen. Bell explained, since it was filled with ranks of inexperienced soldiers without much dedication to their cause.
Those forced to enlist “would do things to get kicked out,” said Col. Robert D. Williams, a 25-year Army veteran who worked with Gen. Bell in his final assignment as commander of U.S. Forces Korea. “They had lots of discipline problems back then.”
Gen. Bell said he uses the term “horizontal” to describe a draft Army because soldiers in that situation “do their two years and pop out the other end.”
On the other hand, he said, “a volunteer force is one in which you want to go vertically up the ranks.” Since President Richard Nixon eliminated the draft in 1973, he said, “soldiers have stayed in the ranks, re-enlisted in record numbers, and their families stay with us... We all share adversity together.”
A stronger Army has been reinforced by the government’s renewed focus on quality of life for soldiers and their families, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. explained to those gathered to watch Gen. Bell retire at Fort Knox, Ky., on Monday. Better lives for Army families is something Gen. Bell’s wife, the former Kathleen Fields of Chattanooga, has championed for many years, Gen. Casey said.
“Katie mentored young spouses, and she championed our children,” Gen. Casey said. “Our future, both our Army’s and our country’s, is brighter because of (her) efforts.”
Helping soldiers’ families has encouraged greater retention rates and dedication to the service, observed U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Duane Thiessen, who also worked with Gen. Bell in Korea. Gen. Bell is well aware of the link between a happy home life and a satisfied soldier, Lt. Gen. Thiessen said.
“He understands that there is a consequence to morale (problems),” Lt. Gen. Thiessen said. “There’s a consequence to people’s longevity in uniform if they are not treated right.”
The next step for the Army is growing its force so it not only can continue to staff ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but also avoid vulnerability in the face of any future threats, Gen. Bell said. Though the Army is meeting and exceeding its current recruiting and retention rates, he said, growth beyond that is necessary for long-term stability.
“The biggest issue we have with the Army today is ... that the Army is not large enough to continue to meet the commitments of those two combat zones over and over again and still meet our other commitments worldwide,” he said.
Recent Congressional authorization to expand the force combined with ongoing efforts to foster good relations with worldwide allies should help, Gen. Bell said.
“This battle is a battle that America must lead, but it is not a battle that we should fight alone,” he said.
Increasing collaboration with other branches of the military also will help, Col. Williams said.
“It used to be Army working with Army, Marines with Marines and so on,” he said. “Now we have many more joint operations. We’re much more likely to work together on things.”