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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The Army is trying to find ways to prevent soldiers from facing back-to-back overseas tours, but it is still possible as long as the nation is at war, said Command Sgt. Maj. Jack L. Tilley, sergeant major of the Army.

The Army currently has about 330,000 soldiers in 120 countries, Tilley said during an American Forces Network Korea radio call-in show Tuesday. The service is working to prevent soldiers going from Korea to units going to Iraq and vice versa, but “we’re at war. That’s the bottom line. That’s what we get paid to do,” he said.

“Because we are stretched out so much, there are going to be soldiers who have back-to-back tours,” said Tilley, a Vietnam veteran who has been in the Army for 35 years. “The Army personnel system is trying to look out to prevent that.”

Lt. Col. Stan Heath, an Army spokesman for personnel matters, said that Army assignment officers are making a point of ensuring that soldiers assigned to Korea are aware that a particular stateside unit is due to rotate overseas.

When a soldier assigned to Korea chooses as his follow-on unit a group that is scheduled for an Iraq or Afghanistan deployment, Human Resource Command officials “actually go back to soldiers to check [whether] they knew up front that their choice” was about to deploy, Heath said in a Tuesday telephone interview.

“We ask all these guys,” Heath said.

In some instances, “soldiers didn’t know, and they back out, but a lot of them knew and said ‘That’s okay, I’ll take [the assignment] anyway.’”

The Army is considering a system where senior soldiers could be stabilized in units for as long as seven years, as older soldiers close to retirement seek to settle in, Tilley said. But everything that was previously normal in the Army “isn’t necessarily normal right now” with the war footing, he said.

Deployments stress families and soldiers, but morale is high in Iraq now, Tilley said. The chain of command can help soldiers deal with those stresses, said Tilley, who retires in January. He said he will return to Iraq next year on a USO tour with entertainers.

“We are doing the right thing,” Tilley said. “If we are not fighting terrorism over in Iraq and places like that we’ll be fighting terrorists in Chicago, Atlanta and different places in the United States of America. I think morale is OK.”

Tilley, who became the top enlisted troop in the Army in June 2000, set five goals at the start of his tenure: pay, quality of life, medical care, retirement benefits and operation tempos. Progress has been made in all of those areas, Tilley said.

Tilley’s first paycheck when he entered the Army in 1966 was $63. Servicemembers will get a 4 percent pay raise next year. This year was the first that a first sergeant with 20 years in the service made more than a captain with six years.

“That’s a heck of an adjustment,” Tilley said. “But I think we have a lot further to go.”

The Army needs to improve its acquisition system and get soldiers the right equipment where they need it when they need it, Tilley said. In Iraq, the Army has experienced shortages in bulletproof vests and armored Humvees, proven life-saving equipment during guerrilla attacks.

Another improvement is making soldiers more aware of financial planning and retirement benefits, Tilley said. The Army is considering adding financial planning to the professional leadership development course, attended by specialists selected to become noncommissioned officers.

“We should do that a lot younger,” Tilley said.

Lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq should be incorporated sooner into soldier education programs, Tilley said. And Americans also need to value their education.

Tilley said he went to Afghanistan and observed soldiers giving medical aid to some Afghan children and adults. None of the Afghans knew their age, he said.

“You talk about education — we really as Americans are sometimes a little bit arrogant, but sometimes we don’t really understand other cultures,” Tilley said. “I think we need to take the time to understand.”

Lisa Burgess contributed to this story.

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