Amid two wars that have required many troops to embark on repeated lengthy tours of duty, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said military members and families have developed great fortitude.
"It's about psychological resilience," he told the audience at the Monterey, Calif.-based school. "It's about dealing with the kind of pressures that we're under and building that kind of resilience for the long haul, because we're going to be in this a while."
Mullen, who graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School with a master's degree in operations research, delivered remarks that recalled his student days when he wore fewer naval decorations. "I recall sitting out there where you are in 1983. I never had any vision of anything like this happening," he said of his induction.
Speaking about the youthfulness of today's military, Mullen noted the average age of servicemembers is 20 to 21. "They are extraordinary; they're the best I've ever seen," he said. "And yet we ask of them all of this in ways that many of us didn't even imagine we could a few years ago."
Mullen said the resilience extends beyond those who wear the uniform, noting the vital role families play in sustaining the forces.
"The focus that we've got, not just on those who wear the uniform, but [on] our families, is absolutely vital to the sustainment of our long-term military force in ways that affect those who come in and ways that affect those who make decisions about retention," he said.
"It's still a family decision; it's not an individual decision," he continued. "And because we've asked so much, we've got to make sure we've got that focus exactly right."
One anecdote Mullen shared to illustrate the strain on military families is of a boy who was 10 years old in 2001, and whose father deployed with the Army five times since then. Now, the boy is a young man about to go off to college.
"The amount of time that that father and some mothers have spent with that 10-year-old since the war started is not very much," he said. "So we've got to recognize that and address it."
The trend of continued deployments is likely to persist for the foreseeable future, Mullen said, and preparation for enduring conflicts is a top priority.
"We don't get to pick where we go or what conflict we're in," he said of the military. "And in that regard, we believe that we will be engaged for the foreseeable future -- 10 or 15 or 20 years -- and that we will be deployable and deploying in places that some of us couldn't even imagine, even right now.
"So it's not just about winning the wars that we're in, which is at the top of the list, but we've also got to be ready for the future," he said.