Fort Riley, Kansas (CNN) - A wartime defense secretary, it seems, has to learn a lot about classroom size, health care co-pays, and squashing rumors.
Of course, there are more traditional questions, like: When will the United States military be out of Iraq and Afghanistan?
For an hour or so Saturday at Fort Riley, Secretary Robert Gates patiently fielded questions, and a few complaints, from military spouses.
He made a little news that made the locals happy: announcing he was asking Congress next week for authority to transfer some Pentagon funds to the education budget to help alleviate overcrowded classrooms at the post by building a new elementary school and renovating existing schools.
He also promised to look into an array of concerns and complaints about the military health care system, including a lack of mental health counselors and specialists.
And he said alternative treatments like acupuncture and aromatherapy were proving successful in helping troops deal with post traumatic stress, and perhaps should be covered in health plans for spouses.
He made a joke at the top about how he didn't think he needed to tell the spouses to speak their minds, and he wasn't disappointed.
One asked about a rumor that after Sept 1, when US troop levels are scheduled to fall to 50,000, troops deployed in Iraq would no longer get augmented combat pay.
First he has heard of it, Gates said.
Another pointedly asked when the wars would be over, so that she could plan when she might see her husband more than every other year or so.
Gates acknowledged the strain of nearly a decade at war, but also said he hoped the spouses appreciated the significant turnaround in Iraq, from which he said US forces are "on our way out with our heads held high."
In Afghanistan, he said he had agreed to support President Obama's timetable of beginning a U.S. withdrawal next summer – July 2011 – to send a message to those in Afghanistan who were not urgently working to improve their own security forces.
But he added those troop levels most likely "are not coming down really fast" and the U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan at least several more years.
Still, Gates said the Army hoped by late 2011 to be "close" to its goal of having soldiers get two years at home for every year deployed overseas.
In the long term, Gates said the Army's plan envisioned five to 10 brigade combat teams deployed at any given time.
Today, there are 25 deployed.