FORT IRWIN After five years of training soldiers for missions exclusively in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fort Irwin may be preparing them for conflicts in other regions by August of this year, the U.S. Army's most senior officer said during a visit to the training center Saturday.

Gen. George W. Casey also said that by October, soldiers will be able to deploy with the expectation of spending two years at home when they return to the U.S. The U.S. Army chief of staff spoke with Fort Irwin commanders on how the National Training Center is preparing itself for future missions.

Casey will retire from his position in April. Defense Secretary Robert Gates nominated Gen. Martin E. Dempsey as Casey's replacement earlier this month.

After saying in 2007 that demand for the Army's forces exceeded its resources, the number of soldiers have grown by 100,000, Casey said. Meanwhile in Iraq, forces have dwindled to 50,000 soldiers from 150,000. The draw down in troops from Iraq will allow soldiers to spend more time at home with their families, he said.

As the U.S. prepares for missions outside Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Training Center and others are developing more versatile training exercises. The Combat Training Center at Fort Polk recently began training soldiers for combat in other areas, Casey said. The NTC will do the same later in 2011.

"As we look to the future, we believe that we are in an era of persistent conflict and we are going to be deploying soldiers in harm's way for a long time," he said. "These training centers are critical to prepare soldiers for combat."

Another challenge the Army faces is helping soldiers who return from combat with post traumatic stress disorder and other mental issues. Casey said four years ago only about 10 percent of the Army's soldiers sought help for PTSD or related conditions. Now, 50 percent seek help. But the Army has to figure out how to help the other 50 percent who don't seek assistance.

One program to help soldiers deal with stress from being in combat situations is the Army's comprehensive self defense program. The program is designed to make mental fitness as important as physical fitness, Casey said. Soldiers, civilians and family members take a survey online and wind up with a psychological profile. They will also have access to self-help exercises online.

During his visit to Fort Irwin, Casey visited with soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The soldiers began arriving at the National Training Center Jan. 7 and will deploy to Afghanistan later this year, said Col. Richard Kim, the brigade's commanding officer.

Kim, who knew that Casey would be visiting Fort Irwin during his unit's rotation, but didn't know the exact date, said he was sure the chief of staff would be happy with what he saw.
"They're really motivated," he said. "They're really getting into this training."

After the training it received, Kim's brigade will leave the training center more of a team and better prepared for its mission, Casey said.

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