GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent an hour Friday fielding questions and providing top-level insight to hundreds of soldiers who recently learned they’re headed downrange at the end of the year.

Talking about everything from dwell time to cost-of-living allowances, Adm. Mike Mullen addressed mostly members of the 172nd Separate Infantry Brigade "Blackhawk" troops — many of whom recently returned to Germany following a 15-month deployment to the desert.

During that deployment, most of those soldiers were part of the Schweinfurt-based 2nd "Dagger" Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.

Telling the troops they had a hand in the fragile security in Iraq right now, Mullen said, "[When you’re] headed there at the end of the year, it will be different then it was."

While fielding a question about dwell time and possibly going back to 15-month rotations in Iraq, Mullen told the audience, "Have you been told it’s 12 months, or am I telling you that? It’s 12 months," referring to the upcoming deployment in November. He later added, "Barring and incredibly unusual circumstances, I would not see us going back in [the 15-month] direction."

As of yet, the Pentagon has not officially given word that the 172nd is scheduled to leave at the end of the year.

When asked about Mullen’s comments, U.S. Army Europe officials said, "We are aware of Admiral Mullen’s comments. However, it would not be appropriate for USAREUR to expand on his comments." USAREUR referred further questions to the Pentagon.

The brigade’s upcoming deployment is expected to be formally announced next week, a Pentagon official said Friday.

The official could not say exactly when the brigade will deploy.

While speaking of dwell time and the number of soldiers who’ve never deployed, Mullen asked whether anyone in the meeting was under stop-loss orders. When almost no one raised a hand, he asked whether any of the troops thought they’d be "stop-lossed" before deploying. More than half shot their arms up, causing many in the audience to sadly chuckle.

Stating that although unit cohesion and battle-hardened troops are essential in today’s wars, "the leadership wants to make [stop-loss] go away as fast as we can."

When Mullen asked what a soldier’s spouse would ask if she were in the audience, one man said his wife would want to know how much longer the military will be sending troops to Iraq.

"A possible drawdown in Iraq hasn’t been decided yet … we’re hoping it will go that way," Mullen said.

Previously, Mullen said he’s "modestly optimistic" of the recent progress in Iraq and that the U.S. will be involved in "real-world combat missions" for a significant time in the future.

Though focusing on deployments and dwell time, Mullen also answered quality-of-life questions, handing out cards to the questioners to provide a more detailed response in the future.

While fielding screwballs like, "can a friend I’m supporting be my dependant," Mullen addressed other issues, such as cost-of-living allowance, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, post vandalism and exceptional family members.

Mullen’s willingness to deal with local issues was not lost on soldiers like Sgt. John Harper, 25, of 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment.

"It’s good to know that he was curious about our problems and gave us a chance to talk about them," Harper said.

Another member of 3-66, Spc. Matt Golebiewski, 21, felt the same. Having returned from Iraq in November and moving from Schweinfurt this spring, Golebiewski also said that though it’s been tough on his unit and he doesn’t want to return to Iraq, he will if he has to.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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