The Army's readiness and ability to fight is the new Army chief of staff's top priority.

In his first message to the force since being sworn in as the service's top officer, Gen. Mark Milley praised an Army he described as "the most skilled, ethical and combat hardened" in America's history and outlined his top three priorities.

Milley was sworn in Aug. 14, succeeding now-retired Gen. Ray Odierno. His message went out to the force late Wednesday.

"Our fundamental task is like no other – it is to win in the unforgiving crucible of ground combat," Milley wrote. "We must ensure the Army remains ready as the world's premier combat force. Readiness for ground combat is – and will remain – the U.S. Army's #1 priority."

The other two priorities on Milley's list are:

• Building an agile, adaptive Army for the future.

"We need to listen and learn," Milley wrote, from partners and critics alike.

"Developing a lethal, professional and technically competent force requires an openness to new ideas and new ways of doing things in an increasingly complex world," he wrote. "We will change and adapt."

• Taking care of the troops.

"Our collective strength depends on our people – their mental and physical resilience is at our core," Milley wrote. "We must always treat each other with respect and lead with integrity. Our soldiers are the crown jewels of the nation; we must love them, protect them, and always keep faith with them."

Readiness, which Milley wrote "is #1, and there is no other #1," is an issue the general emphasized in his speech after being sworn in as chief, as well as when he was the commanding general of Forces Command.

As the new chief of staff, Milley leads an Army in transition.

Amid increasingly tight budgets – and the looming threat of even deeper cuts beginning Oct. 1 – the Army has already cut 80,000 soldiers from its active-duty force. Another 40,000 must go by the end of fiscal year 2018 for an eventual end-strength of 450,000.

If sequestration returns in fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1, the Army could be forced to cut an additional 30,000 soldiers.

Milley also leads a combat-hardened Army that continues to respond to contingencies around the world even as it recovers from more than a decade of war and back-to-back deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In recent months, Russian aggression has pushed the Army to send more troops to Europe to train with and reassure America's allies. The rise of the Islamic State terror group has forced the return of American soldiers to Iraq. At the same time, the Army is still deployed in Afghanistan, and there are soldiers scattered across the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

"As citizens of the United States, we were granted a gift, the most precious gift of all, the gift of freedom," Milley said Aug. 14 after he was sworn in. "That is a very, very, very expensive gift, for it is paid for in the sacrifice and the blood of those who came before us."

Those who are living are "responsible" to pass along that gift to the next generation, Milley said.

"It is our job to carry the torch into the future," he said. "We are, in fact, the best equipped, the best trained, and the best led Army in the world, and we must remain that way."

The Army must continue to adapt as it looks to the future, Milley said.

"But there is no cheap way to change," he said. "The only thing more expensive than fighting and winning a war is fighting and losing a war. Winning is what the United States Army is all about."

Wars are also fought up close, he said.

"Wars are ultimately decided on the ground, where people live, and it is on the ground where the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. special operations forces must never, ever fail," Milley said. "If we do not maintain our commitment to remain strong in the air, on the sea and, yes, on the ground, then we will pay the butcher's bill in blood, and we will forever lose the precious gift of freedom."

In an October interview with Army Times, Milley, then the top general at Forces Command, said all three of the Army's components must be ready to respond to "the entire range of military operations" in an uncertain, volatile world.

"Our No. 1 task is readiness," Milley said at the time. "It's readiness now, because we have no earthly idea what will happen a month or two from now."

FORSCOM is the Army's largest command, and its mission is to prepare trained and ready forces to meet the needs of combatant commands around the world.

"An army, any army, doesn't matter which army it is, only has two tasks – it's either prepare for war or prepare for combat," he said during the interview. "Absent the actual act of fighting, then our fundamental task is to prepare for the act of fighting. It means training. It means manning. It means equipping. It means leading."

Milley, a 1980 graduate of Princeton University, commanded III Corps and has served in the 82nd Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group. He also served with the 7th Infantry Division, the 10th Mountain Division, the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

An infantryman and native of the Boston area, Milley also previously served on the operations staff of the Joint Staff and as a military assistant to the defense secretary.

In his letter, Milley said he is "honored to lead" a "remarkable" Army.

"No matter where we are around the world, America's soldiers are displaying courage, commitment and character," Milley wrote. "We are demonstrating unparalleled competence and agility. And no matter the challenge, no matter how complex the environment, or how dangerous the situation, our soldiers fight and win."

Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.

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