In Q&A, Pentagon personnel and readiness official Carson talks sequestration, morale
WASHINGTON — Former Oklahoma congressman Brad Carson seems to have a hard time holding a job.
Either that, or he gets a lot of opportunities.
Since leaving politics in early 2005, Carson has taught at Harvard University, worked for the Cherokee Nation, served as a Naval intelligence officer in Iraq, taught law at Tulsa University and run the National Energy Policy Institute at TU.
Since early 2012, Carson has been at the Pentagon, first as general counsel for the U.S. Army. Early last year, he became the Under Secretary of the Army.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama nominated him to be Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, one of the top civilian jobs at the Department of Defense. He is now serving as the acting undersecretary and awaiting Senate confirmation.
Carson, 48, served an eastern Oklahoma congressional district from 2001 to 2005. In 2004, he was the Democratic nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma, but lost to Republican Tom Coburn.
Since he started working at the Pentagon, Carson has earned bipartisan support. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has voted twice to confirm Carson to Pentagon posts and has endorsed him for the new job.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Sill and who is an influential voice on defense funding, called Carson "remarkably qualified" for the undersecretary position.
Carson sat down in his office at the Pentagon last week to answer questions from The Oklahoman. Like most civilian and uniformed leaders in the Defense Department, Carson is worried that another round of automatic budget cuts — known as sequestration — will hit the military hard in a few months if Congress does not provide relief.
Oklahoma has five major military installations: Tinker, Fort Sill, Vance Air Force Base, Altus Air Force Base and the Army ammunition depot in McAlester.
Some questions and answers were edited for brevity.
Q: You've been nominated for one of the top civilian jobs at the Pentagon. Ten years ago, would you have thought that your career would have taken this direction?
Carson: I had no intention of ever coming back to Washington. And I'm as surprised as anybody. And when I took the first job (as general counsel of the Army), I was hoping to leave after about a year of doing that.
And I was actively thinking of going back to TU and back to Claremore, but was lucky enough to get drafted into the undersecretary of the Army job and then up here.
So it's actually been one of those courses in life I didn't plot in any way. And for that reason perhaps, it's been a more pleasurable experience than any I've had.
Q: The title, Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, sounds like — and does — cover a lot of ground. Could you just describe, in layman's terms, what you focus on the most in all that jurisdiction?
Carson: Sure, it's P and R. So the personnel side, we're the largest civilian employer in the federal government, with 700,000 that work for us … So we have a big say in what the federal government's whole policy is going to be for civilian workers.
We also have a couple of million people in uniform, about a million on active duty and another million in the reserves. So all the policy that affects them, we set as well.
So everything from women in combat to transgender service to pay and benefits to issues affecting families, the benefits on post, from commissaries and exchanges, all fall underneath the work we do here.
Q: That's a lot.
Carson: That's a lot. It's vast.
The R side — that's readiness — is a concept that's not well understood outside the Department of Defense. But really, the job of the Department of Defense is to provide ready combat forces, which means people have to be capable of going into theater, fighting, being sustained over time.
So monitoring that, and making sure that we have a good understanding of how ready the force is and what we can do to improve them … We're about readiness. I mean, that's what this building is.
Q: One of your concerns is the morale of the forces. Do you feel like morale has gotten better or worse since you first came to the Pentagon?
Carson: I think it has stayed about the same. I think there's lots of concerns on the force about downsizing because most of the services have had to cut people, sometimes involuntarily.
There are questions about pay raises and some of the benefits that come to families. There are lots of concerns and there's lots of churn, of course, as we move back into more of a garrison posture as the wars have wound down and people have been coming back to the states. We're closing bases in Europe and elsewhere.
It's something to be monitored, but still, the morale I think is high. We've had over 15 years of war now. It's been incredible to see the commitment of both service members and their families.
Q: I was going to ask you about the downsizing, particularly in the Army but also in the Marines. You also have the uncertainty of sequestration but still the necessity of readiness to fight. The Army, it's the smallest force since when?
Carson: Since before World War II. If sequestration holds, it's possible the Army could be forced down to 420,000 (active duty soldiers).
Q: And at that point, what do you think?
Carson: The Army's near breaking point if you go that low, I think. Already we see the fact that people are demanding the Army do many missions — from West Africa and the Ebola crisis to now resurgent problems in Iraq, Syria. Russia of course posing a threat.
So the demand on the Army is not slackening at all, and at the same time, their numbers are falling.
This means people in the Army are deploying more often. They're very busy. This has a real cost, a real cost to their readiness, because when they're out in the field, they're not training. Across all the services — the Marine Corps the same — the personnel cuts have been deep. And if they go much deeper, they will become a matter of grave worry to us all.
Q: What about the Guard component? How much does that add? And if you could also talk about the combined force, the deployment and everything.
Carson: In the Army for example, the reserve component is about 55 percent of the total force. There's 350,000 in the National Guard, a little less than 200,000 in the Army Reserve. So it's bigger than the active component. And we have seen in the last 15 years, they can play a key operational role.
And that's one of the debates going forward: What is the role of the reserves?
I think the answer to that is they're going to be operational, while still providing strategic depth. In the Cold War, they just provided strategic depth. If you were in reserves, you didn't get called up until Armageddon was imminent.
Here, they're out in the field every day, all across the globe, working hand in glove with the active component. That's going to be their continued role. So as you see a downsizing in the active component, and as the burdens on the active component increase, you're going to see some of that displaced to the reserve component as well.
Key capabilities really are in the reserves and not really in the active component anymore.
Q: Is there friction from your level down to the soldier level between Guard and active duty people?
Carson: What I've found in the field is that there is no friction between the active component and the reserve component.
People work side by side. When I was in Iraq as a reservist, I worked with the Navy, I worked with the Army, mostly the active component. And no one knew the difference between them all. So I don't see the friction at the lowest levels.
There has been in the past some friction between leadership of the reserves and active components. But really under (Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's) leadership, most of that has been squelched. And I think you see a tight integration in what's called the Total Force today than what we've seen in a very, very long time.
Q: Speaking of integrating: Since the president took office, the Pentagon has been charged with integrating gays in the military, transgender and women in combat.
How seamless has it been? How much adjustment has been necessary?
Carson: The great thing about the military is they are capable of changing on a dime and they understand what the mission requires.
If you take Don't Ask, Don't Tell, its repeal, I think everyone sees that as having gone beautifully. And there have been no incidents. The services have absorbed gays and lesbians openly serving in their ranks. It's been a great success story.
Women in combat I think will have a similar outcome in that already most fields are opened up. The Air Force, the Navy — most jobs are opened up.
Q: You have a deadline Jan. 1 — what specifically is that deadline?
Carson: That's when (top Pentagon leaders) at the time said there's going to be a review process and that the secretary of defense would announce by Jan. 1, 2016, whether any exception requests that were offered up by the services would be accepted or not.
Right now we're in the process where the Army — all the services — have done a lot of studies about what women can do in combat, the limitations that might exist and debating whether they should ask for an exception. Because there's a presumption that women will be serving in all units.
And over the fall, we'll know more about that. Right now, I think the services are still kind of wrestling with that. But the good news is, nearly everything is opened up to women already. It's only a few disciplines — infantry in the Army and at the Marines Corps; Special Ops has not been opened up to women.
But nearly everything has been, and it's gone very, very smoothly as well. And women have played a vital role in our success in the last few years.
Q: Were you concerned at all about the study reported in the Marine Times (showing all-male Marine Corps combat teams greatly outperformed mixed-gender combat teams in a months-long test)?
Carson: I've just had a chance to skim that.
I think it is true that you'll probably never have 50 percent of the infantry be women. Not that many women have a high propensity to serve in these jobs, perhaps. And the physical requirements are so severe that (even) most men can't do that.
I think the more interesting question is: If people can meet the standards, should you permit them to do so? And I think for the most of the services, for most jobs, the answer is yes. This is a standards-based organization.
And that's a good way to think about who can serve and who cannot serve. We have very strict standards. But if you meet the standards, we don't care if you're gay or straight, African American or white, from Oklahoma or New York City.
It's a high bar. But if you can clear that bar, we should find a way for you to serve our country.
Q: To get back to the budget cuts: Will there be fewer people who can make a career out of the military?
Carson: Well the Army is at 450,000 — maybe half the size it was at the end of the Cold War. So, yes, by definition, there will be fewer people who stay in and make a career out of here.
But there will still be ample opportunity for those who can meet the standards to serve a career here. Not that many people choose to do that. Only about 17 percent of the force makes a 20-year career out of the military. And the downsizing of the force means we can be more selective in who we take and more selective in who we keep.
Q: Military suicide — it's really distressing to the public. I think there was a study last year that suggested it wasn't just because of repeated deployments, or even a single deployment.
When it comes to the front end — who you accept — is there a way to address it there? I know Congress and the Pentagon have been really concerned about addressing emotional stress for those returning (from deployments).
Carson: I think there are imperfect ways to get at that question. The Army has worked on non-cognitive tests that measure resiliency, among other things.
That's really the umbrella term we often use around here — how resilient you're going to be when you face trauma and difficult circumstances.
And trying to get that to the question of measuring resiliency and using that as an accession standard — the other services are experimenting with it. I think you'll see over the next few years more use of these non-cognitive tests to measure how mentally strong someone is coming in.
That is an important part of having a strong force, because the stresses of combat are severe and the military life is not an easy one, even if you're not in combat, and it's not for everyone.
And so finding better ways to measure non-obvious characteristics is a really important part of what I'm pushing up here — this Force of the Future initiative that I run.
Q: What have you learned about the causes? And it is a high rate, right? There's no question that the military hasn't experienced this rate of suicide, not just the numbers.
Carson: The numbers are a few hundred (annually). But the percentages over the last few years have exceeded the national average.
I think we're struggling to understand all of the reasons, because most of these don't have a single explanation or one that is consistent over the entire population. We're spending a lot of effort and a lot of money to do cutting edge research to understand these questions better.
We have an unprecedented amount of data that researchers are going through to try to get to the bottom of these questions and help us predict.
So what we've found — and it is from the Army data, more than what I've seen in this job — is that most people who attempt to take their life have certain things in common. But these are things in common that most people who have them don't commit suicide or try to do so. So it's hard to use them to identify people.
Divorce, financial stress, combat — these are things that lots of people have that never contemplate suicide. But most people who commit suicide have them.
So we're trying to find better diagnostics, something we're committed to, and finding world-class treatment for people who have behavioral health issues, something I think the military has really led the way in.
Q: It's not like it didn't exist after Vietnam or any other war. It just seems to be worse now.
Carson: I don't know if it's worse, so much as there has been an understanding and an openness about it. Now you can find senior leaders in the uniformed services who will talk about PTSD, the fact that they themselves have suffered from it, about their own wrestling with depression or anxiety in combat.
You know, those used to be verboten … it was a sign of weakness. Well, now we realize it's a sign of strength to talk about these kinds of health care needs. So I think there's just been a wider public recognition that behavioral health is a real consequence of combat and that as a result you see more people talking about it.
Q: With the budget cuts, will the military still be able to provide the kinds of things military families have come to expect on their bases?
Carson: They are, because we realize they're important to a successful and ready military. You know, we recruit the service member, we retain the family. And so for the spouses and children to have good schools and amenities make us a better fighting force.
So, those are going to be maintained for the force. Nothing is worse than being in Iraq or Afghanistan and not thinking that your is family is being well taken care of back in Fort Sill or Fort Hood.
Q: Base closures — of course there hasn't been a round for 10 years, and the Obama administration has been asking for another round (for a few years). What are the negatives of not having another round? What is it preventing the Pentagon from doing by keeping all these bases, some of which the Pentagon considers to be obsolete and excess capacity?
Carson: It's costing us money at a time when we're trying to find efficiencies because of the budget cuts. The idea that we have millions of square feet that are unused doesn't make much sense to us. That we could consolidate and save money would allow us to put that money into people and into things that are priorities for us.
Q: Tell me what your priorities are, what you're working on that we haven't discussed.
Carson: I spend a lot of time working on what the secretary of defense calls Force of the Future. We're trying to think — after nearly a decade and a half of war — what we need to do have a force that's ready for the next conflict.
We know the nature of the war is changing. While we have a world-class force today, we can't take it for granted. The millennial generation is beginning to dominate the labor market with their unique demands that are different than Generation X, my own or Baby Boomers or even Baby Boomers' parents. And therefore, (the department is) trying to fashion a force that can meet their needs — a force in which we now have families in which they're both working.
In the 1970s, — (and) before that — you typically had a man with a wife who didn't work or was underemployed. And this is very different today where our best leaders, whether enlisted or in the officer corps, are married to very high-powered people. That's just a trend across society.
So, we have officers who are married to doctors and lawyers, professors … And they're not as keen to move to Fort Hood and then Fort Jackson every two years, you know where their spouse has no opportunity to do their profession. And therefore, they too often leave the service altogether.
We know that the operations tempo — the way we organize ourselves — is not an easy life, especially for women who bear still a disproportional burden of family rearing and household duties.
Therefore, while only 22 percent of the force are women, they leave at twice the rate of men. So we're trying to figure out how we can maintain our world-class combat capability and at the same time trying to think of how we can recruit people into the force from this new generation and keep them around as well. Then there's the whole readiness piece ...
Q: I was about to ask. What's the threat that keeps you awake? I assume preparation and training evolves constantly to address new and emerging threats.
Carson: Geopolitically, the threats of Russia and China are the threats that keep people here in the building awake.
For me, and the work I do, sequestration is a grave threat, in that the readiness of the force will suffer. Because the training is expensive, but the training is essential. And when you miss a certain rotation, it can set people back for years at a time because all of these activities are cumulative. And so if you miss one, you don't get a chance for two or three years and so perhaps you never get to experience that training iteration at that particular rank you're in.
So sequestration and the budget cuts have hurt readiness in the past. And they're revisited upon us. And I am fearful that our readiness will suffer again, in a way that sometimes takes five or ten years to dig out of.
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