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AP Interview: 101st leader sees changes for troops

By Kristin M. Hall
Associated Press / October 25, 2011

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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky.—At military installations like Fort Campbell, Ky., the period after a combat deployment is often a transitional time for both leadership and the troops they command. This year, the military is facing severe budget cuts as thousands of soldiers return to Fort Campbell after a rough year of fighting in Afghanistan.

Only about two months after taking command of the famed 101st Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. James McConville spoke with The Associated Press about his plans for the storied division during this period of upheaval and change.

"From a personal leadership standpoint, I believe very strongly that we have to manage the transitions," he said in an interview at his command headquarters at Fort Campbell on Friday.

This is the third time that McConville, of Quincy, Mass., has been assigned to the southern Army post on the Tennessee-Kentucky border where units have been deploying almost constantly since 2001. He is a master Army aviator and most recently served as the chief legislative liaison for the Secretary of the Army.

Every week, he talks to the new soldiers arriving at Fort Campbell, often young men and women fresh out of basic training. He emphasizes discipline, physical and mental fitness and training as the keys to being prepared for future operations, although the division currently has no upcoming deployment orders.

"Discipline is absolutely critical in every single unit," he said. "We expect our soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division to be in the right uniform, at the right time, at the right place doing the right thing without being told or supervised."

With financial restraints on military spending currently being debated in Congress, installations across the country are making hard decisions about where to cut.

"We don't know what the final resolution will be on the fiscal realities we face, but what I know is that we need to be very good stewards of the resources we get," McConville said.

There are more than 500 programs at Fort Campbell, which include a wide range of family support services, spiritual programs and legal and medical services. McConville is leading a comprehensive review of those programs to eliminate duplication of services and make the installation more efficient.

"We are going to be given a finite amount of resources and we are going to have to make some tough decisions, and I want those tough decisions to be made with input from my subordinate commanders, my families, and my civilian workers here. All of those have to come together," he said.

But that could mean that soldiers who are no longer frequently deploying or training will have to pick up additional duties at home. McConville said that assigning some soldiers to cover security at the installation's gates or working in dining facilities to save money on contracts could mean preserving programs that families really need.

He added that before the deployments increased because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers were regularly serving in these positions at home.

"As the demand comes down on the training and as we get additional dwell time, then we have to look at how we best manage this post," he said.

While a majority of the division has returned to Fort Campbell, more soldiers are expected home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months. It's a critical time for leadership to watch for signs of trouble as soldiers return from the high-energy environment of a war zone.

"In combat we will tell them we want you to do high risk things when there is a high payoff," he said. "There's almost an adrenaline rush that goes along with those high risk things they do in combat. So as they come back here, we have to channel that a little differently."

The last time the division returned from a major deployment two years ago, the post struggled with suicides. In 2009, 21 soldiers killed themselves at Fort Campbell and officials there called for a stand down for additional training to address the issue.

Five deaths this year are either confirmed or suspected suicides, a decline from the 2009 peak, but McConville says even one death is too many. The stigma in the Army toward seeking behavior health has decreased, he said, and families and fellow soldiers are more likely to take immediate action to get soldiers help.

"We see our junior leaders and our families every single day saving lives and I think that's why the numbers are much lower than they could be," he said.

The camaraderie that soldiers build with each other in battle needs to continue at home, McConville said. He expects soldiers to take care of each other at Fort Campbell the same way they look out for the soldiers to their right and left in battle.

"We don't leave anyone behind in combat," he said. "We don't leave anyone behind here at the installation."