WIESBADEN, Germany - Hundreds of U.S. troops crowded the bleachers inside a gymnasium at the historic garrison here as Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's top officer, tried to address what seemed to be on the minds of every soldier: the future.
Odierno strolled back and forth across the waxed basketball court as he took questions: As the Army shrinks by tens of thousands of troops over the next five years, will soldiers be forced to retire from active duty? What if they want to continue serving? And if they are ordered out of uniform, what about the Defense Department's commitments to the families?
Odierno, who was named Army chief of staff in 2011 after three command tours in Iraq that began in 2003, is responsible for organizing, training, equipping - and caring for - American soldiers.
''There is a lot of angst about where the Army is going, and where these soldiers are going," Odierno said in an interview at the conclusion of a recent trip to Europe to meet with U.S. troops and commanders and his foreign military counterparts. "I am trying to reassure the soldiers and their families, and decrease that angst."
The general's message: the Army's five-year drawdown to 490,000 soldiers from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000 would be accomplished mostly through attrition; and unlike the last time the Army shrank the ranks - in the 1990s after the collapse of communism and the first Iraq war - the service would do all it could to not lose military expertise earned the tough way since Sept. 11, 2001.
''I want to make sure that we are keeping the best, and I want them to know they have an important role in the future force," Odierno said. "My intent is to sustain a high-quality, all-volunteer Army that remains the most decisive land force in the world."
Odierno faces major challenges. After a decade in which military money flowed freely, the Pentagon is entering an era of sharply constricted spending. And even as the Army must shrink in size to save money, it still must find resources to replace or restore weapons worn out by a decade of warfare.
There are few precedents. Past drawdowns were carried out in peacetime. This time, it must be done while the Army remains in combat in Afghanistan.
Odierno said his goal would be to avoid the hollow force of the 1990s, when the Army kept some combat units on the roster even though they did not have sufficient troops or equipment to actually fight.
The budget restraints are certain to require eliminating some brigades. It is likely that Odierno will order changes to the internal configuration and organization of other brigades to restore some support elements stripped away in the years since 9/11. These potential reorganizations would be to ensure that these units could be effective and deployable in the face of threats.
The Army's budget proposal has been delivered to Congress along with those of the other services within the Department of Defense spending plan. Odierno - and the rest of the chiefs - now must defend the proposals as Congress debates, revises and eventually votes on the appropriations.
Europe remains a microcosm of the challenges facing the Army. During the height of the Cold War, when America's heavily armored and nuclear-tipped force in Europe comforted allies and deterred the Soviet Union, the Army reached a peak of 277,342 troops on the Continent.
Army personnel in Europe today number about 40,000 and are expected to drop to about 29,000 by 2015. Remaining in Europe will be an airborne infantry brigade, a brigade built around the Stryker combat vehicle and an aviation brigade, along with support and logistics units. But two heavy armored combat brigades now based in Germany will be cut.
Odierno said the smaller presence would remain a formidable force, and that units based i n the United States may rotate through Europe on temporary deployments.
The Army in Europe also will focus on sustaining ties with allies through an enhanced series of war games and exercises, in particular, he said, through the Joint Multinational Training Command that operates sizable ranges at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels, Germany.