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AFGHANISTAN: Senator Murray Questions Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen on the Costs of the War to Wounded Warriors and their Families

Jun 15 2011

Murray emphasizes need for these often unseen human costs to be factored in drawdown decisions

Listen to the exchange  |  Watch the exchange 

(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tough questions regarding some of the all too often overlooked human costs of the ongoing war in Afghanistan during a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget request for the Department of Defense (DoD).  Senator Murray also asked how these long-term costs are being factored into the decision to drawdown forces in Afghanistan.  During the exchange Senator Murray expressed her strong belief that these costs of war, including the rising rate of suicide among veterans, the lack of access to much needed mental health care, and the increased number of tours of current service members, must be taken seriously by the Pentagon and the White House, particularly in decisions to bring troops home.

“Many of these service members have sacrificed life and limb in Afghanistan and we as a country are going to be taking care of them and their families not just today, not just when they return home, but for a lifetime,”  Senator Murray said today.

Excerpts from the exchange and the full text of Senator Murray’s questions below.

Secretary Gates, last Friday I visited the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and had an opportunity to talk to a number of our wounded warriors, their dedicated providers, and their caregivers.

As you know well, many of these service members have sacrificed life and limb in Afghanistan and we as a country are going to be taking care of them and their families not just today, not just when they return home, but for a lifetime. 

As Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I take this issue very seriously and I’ve been trying to draw attention to this all too often unseen human cost of the war in thinking about how we should consider that as part of our decision in any long-term conflict.

I think you know, the major components of this long-term war include the fact that deaths from suicide among veterans and service members from this war are on par with combat deaths, many of our warriors are facing difficult challenges accessing needed mental health care when they return home, And that many of the service members serving in Afghanistan today are on their third, fourth, or even fifth tours.

So, while we have talked a great deal about costs in terms of rebuilding projects, Afghan aid, and military resources – I  wanted to ask you today what you – and the Pentagon - consider to be the biggest costs of this war to our wounded warriors and their families - particularly those costs that we will be paying for for a very long time and whether that is ever considered or factored in when you’re making decisions about drawing down in Afghanistan?

Excerpts from Sec. Gates’ response:

“I cannot say that decisions in terms of drawdowns or military strategy are made bearing in mind the costs of the soldiers, and the sailors, and the marines who suffer, it is on the minds of everybody who makes those decisions, but by the same token, it is the nature of war and it is frankly one of the reasons why, as I told an interviewer a couple of weeks ago, I feel I have become more conservative, more cautious, about when you use force because I’ve seen the consequences up front,” said Sec. Gates. 

“The costs are exactly as you described, in lives that are shattered, in bodies that are shattered, and in minds that are shattered,” said Sec. Gates. “So from our part, in addition to the VA, we have tried to make sure that these funds for these programs have been protected and will be protected in the future.”

Excerpts from Adm. Mullen’s response:

“Senator, first of all, I appreciate your leadership on this because it has to have a voice. I actually believe we are just beginning to understand this,” said Adm. Mullen in response to Sen. Murray’s questions. “Leaders have to continue to focus on ‘what are these costs’ and I thought you said it very well, it is to repay this debt for the rest of their lives and we need to stay with them so that we understand what that means.”

“There are time bombs set up that we know are out there, we just don’t know when they’re going to go off,” Adm. Mullen continued. “The relationship that the Pentagon has with the VA and with communities throughout the country has got to get stronger.”

 “These costs are longstanding, we don’t understand them as well as we should… not just for our members, but also for our families, we see that time and time again.  Our families have become almost as much a part of our readiness as anything else and it wasn’t that way 10 or 15 years ago.  Without them we would be nowhere in these wars,” said Adm. Mullen.