Earlier this winter, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, on a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, learned a hotel for injured soldiers had a faulty hot-water system. The four-star general told his staff that if the problem should recur, he wanted to know right away.
A few weeks later, Chiarelli was awakened around 3:30 a.m. with word of another complaint about the hotel plumbing. He got dressed and drove to Walter Reed to demand the replacement of a troublesome valve system.
The Seattle-raised Chiarelli is an emotional man who has emerged as an unconventional and outspoken advocate in a Pentagon push to improve soldiers’ welfare. The son of a butcher, during the Vietnam War he attended the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Seattle University, far from the West Point path, and then improbably ascended the ranks to become the Army’s vice chief of staff – its No. 2 uniformed officer.
In recent years, the Army has been battered by scandals about its outpatient care for the wounded. In addition, surging numbers of soldiers have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Chiarelli, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, says the mental health crisis in the military has been the toughest battle of his 37-year career.
Each month, he reads detailed briefs on the latest Army suicides, and then holds staff meetings to discuss each soldier’s death and how it might have been avoided. The Army suicide rate reached a record high in 2009, when 160 active-duty cases were either confirmed or under investigation.
Chiarelli has delved into neurobiology to understand the impacts of blast trauma. That research prompted him to push for new protocols to guide when a soldier who has suffered head injuries should be removed from further combat patrols so as to prevent permanent brain damage from another explosion.
In April, while in town to receive an alumnus-of-the-year award from Seattle University, he discussed those efforts with a group of students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
“What I’m trying to do is change the culture of the Army,” Chiarelli said. “I’m trying to get soldiers to realize that the wounds you can’t see are just as serious as the ones you can.”
Chiarelli, who graduated from Seattle’s Queen Anne High School in 1968, thought about enlisting in the Army, but his father insisted he go to college. So he enrolled at Seattle University and joined the ROTC program as Vietnam War protests roiled the city and campus.
“I remember a couple of times going down to a locker to draw our M1 rifles (from the ROTC classroom) only to find there were protesters there and they were trying to block the entrance,” Chiarelli recalled.
He graduated in 1972 with a political science degree and a questioning attitude that reflected a Jesuit education that emphasized philosophy and social justice.
After graduation, he began his military career as a second lieutenant at Fort Lewis. Later, he went to teach at West Point and would move repeatedly to Army posts in the U.S. and Europe.
By 2004, as the Iraq insurgency was set to explode, Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad in command of the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division.
He returned to Iraq in 2006 to oversee daily military operations for some 160,000 troops.
Chiarelli tried to shift the focus from killing insurgents to improving public health, putting people to work and finding other ways to convince the Iraqis that the American invasion could make a positive difference in their lives.
But he faced skepticism from within the U.S. government, as well as corruption and incompetence in the Iraqi government and, by late 2006, fierce sectarian fighting.
Also confronting mounting civilian deaths, he ordered new measures and equipment at military checkpoints. Those efforts reduced the civilian casualties at checkpoints by 80 percent but also irritated some of his colleagues.
“No one would criticize him to his face, but he confided to friends that he feared he was getting a reputation as ‘the general who doesn’t want to kill anybody,’ ” wrote David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, co-authors of “The Fourth Star,” a book that profiled Chiarelli and three other four-star generals.
Chiarelli hoped to return to Iraq for one more tour of duty, according to Cloud and Jaffe. Instead, in 2007, he was appointed a senior aide to new Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
At the Pentagon, Chiarelli’s highest-profile role has been in shaping the Army’s response to the plight of soldiers stressed from the long wars.
A 2008 RAND Corp. study found about one-third of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq had symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Reviews of suicide cases often find a link between the deaths and trouble with spouses; repeat deployments also appear to put soldiers more at risk.
Chiarelli says one of the most important influences on a soldier’s mental health is the cycle of repeated deployments to a war zone. Those erode a soldier’s bonds with family.
“The No. 1 thing we can do is to expand the amount of time all soldiers … spend at home,” Chiarelli said.