Army Facing Officer Retention Crisis?

Thom Shanker reports that generals are worried that company grade officers are leaving the Army once their obligation has ended.

Young Army officers, including growing numbers of captains who leave as soon as their initial commitment is fulfilled, are bailing out of active-duty service at rates that have alarmed senior officers. Last year, more than a third of the West Point class of 2000 left active duty at the earliest possible moment, after completing their five-year obligation. It was the second year in a row of worsening retention numbers, apparently marking the end of a burst of patriotic fervor during which junior officers chose continued military service at unusually high rates.

[…]

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Army has had a far more difficult time in its recruiting than the other services because the ground forces are carrying the heaviest burden of deployments — and injuries and deaths — in the war.

Given the combination of an all-volunteer force, multiple rotations into combat zones, and a booming private sector economy (including work as a contractor with the Defense Department) this is hardly surprising.

Still, the numbers are not particularly scary:

In 2001, but before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 9.3 percent of the Army’s young officers left active duty at their first opportunity. By 2002, the number of those junior officers leaving at their first opportunity dropped to 7.1 percent, and in 2003, only 6.3 percent opted out. But the number grew to 8.3 percent in 2004 and 8.6 percent in 2005.

So, retention is higher now than it was pre-9/11 but slightly lower than it was immediately after 9/11? So,we have three changes in the circumstances:

  • The post-9/11 patriotic surge has died down
  • The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged on for years
  • The recession has ended

And yet have only gone from a boom of 92.9% retention to a lull of 91.4% retention? That’s frankly astounding; I would certainly have expected a much bigger drop. And, by the way, there was a Stop Loss going on during the early post-9/11 period that might have kept some people in who would otherwise have resigned.

The statistics are even more striking among West Point graduates, who receive an Ivy League-quality education at taxpayer expense — and, in the view of many senior officers and West Point alumni, owe the nation and the Army a debt of loyalty beyond the initial five years of active duty.

B.S. They owe the country exactly what they promised when they took the oath. Those who enter the military academies, usually at 17 or 18 years of age, essentially commit sight unseen to twelve years of military service (four years at the Academy, five years active duty after graduation, plus another three years of active or inactive reserve service). Many if not most of those who enter the academies turn down scholarships to elite universities or, at very least, ROTC scholarships that demand much less sacrifice of freedom. Why do they owe even more?

The retention rate at the five-year mark for the West Point class of 1999 was 71.9 percent in 2004, down from 78.1 percent for the previous year’s class. And for the class of 2000, the retention rate fell to 65.8 percent, meaning that last year the Army lost more than a third — 34. 2 percent — of that group of officers as they reached the end of their initial five-year commitment.

Cori Dauber wonders how the West Point retention rate could be so far below that of the general junior officer population. My educated guess–and it is nothing more than that–is that there are several factors at work. First, USMA grads have already endured four years at the Academy before entering active duty, so their burnout threshhold comes more quickly. Two, USMA grads are more likely to enter the combat arms branches than their ROTC counterparts, exacerbating the Iraq effect. Three, USMA grads are more heavily recruited by head hunters and otherwise have more lucrative civilian opportunities than their counterparts who graduated Podunck State U.

The bottom line, though, is that West Point graduates are a small subsection of the officer corps and overall retention of junior officers is amazingly high given the circumstances. This is hardly a “crisis.” Indeed, it is not clear that it is even “news.”

Update: Commenter Phil Smith alludes to something I forgot to include in the penultimate paragraph above: The nature of military academies, certainly USMA, is that it instills a somewhat utopian view of the nature of military service. The idyllic nature of the institution, where highly intelligent and dedicated cadets are trained by similar officers, in a highly structured environment where one leaves the doors unlocked because it is simply a given that all of one’s fellows are honorable can lead to utter disappointment upon entering the Real Army. While most officers and men there are decent as well, the Real Army is a bureaucracy where “selfless service to the nation” meets careerism, bureaucracy, corner cutting, and less than zero dishonesty. That can make an Academy Grad jaded in a hurry. An ROTC graduate, by contrast, already lived in that world while in college.


Related posts below the fold.


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Elsewhere: James Joyner, “Backdoor Draft?” TCS, 11 January 2005.

OTB: Military Personnel, General

OTB: Military Recruiting

OTB: IRR

FILED UNDER: General, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Phil Smith says:

    I wonder if the class of 2000 had expectations about the shape of the world and nature of their service that have not come to pass.




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  2. Richard Gardner says:

    I’m surprised to see a call for involuntary servitude in the pages of the New York Times. Oh, but it is to the state, so it is OK?




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  3. legion says:

    I recall in the late 90s the Army having this _exact_ same problem – severely below-expected retention of captains after their initial committment. The main complaint was disillusionment with superiors who were basically career-minded jerks. And this was Army-wide, not just USMA grads. Another suggested reason was a booming hi-tech economy, for which a Combat Arms career is not a good prep. 9/11 apparently put a hiccup in that trend, but now its back, because the Army (apparently) never really addressed the problems they were having before 9/11.




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  4. McGehee says:

    …but now its back, because the Army (apparently) never really addressed the problems they were having before 9/11.

    Right — they’ve been too busy doing their job.




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  5. jacob says:

    Right � they�ve been too busy doing their job.
    Join the army, travel the world, meet strange new people and kill them.

    Just great for moral.

    Hey, really want to support our troops (you nitwits with the stupid yellow ribbon decal on your car) then BRING THEM HOME.




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  6. legion says:

    McG-wtf? Managing the ebb & flow of their own personnel _is_ part of the Army’s job. Congress sets the overall grand total, but who else would you suggest keep tabs on the recruiting, commissioning, and training pipelines?




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  7. Barry says:

    “The nature of military academies, certainly USMA, is that it instills a somewhat utopian view of the nature of military service. The idyllic nature of the institution, where highly intelligent and dedicated cadets are trained by similar officers, in a highly structured environment where one leaves the doors unlocked because it is simply a given that all of oneâ??s fellows are honorable can lead to utter disappointment upon entering the Real Army.”

    This was something that I noticed, back in the early 1980’s. In a standard platoon, the quality of soldiers ranked from officer material/future CSM to ‘awaiting discharge/court martial, whichever comes first’. It can be very hard for a young lieutenant to deal with that.




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  8. Seth says:

    As a class of 2000 USMA grad, I am enjoying reading this thread. My only observation is in response to the comment that the lower retention rates marked the “end of a burst of patriotic fervor” among the junior officers.

    I can assure you that you that there is no loss of patriotic fervor among officers in general and West Pointers in particular. We all have the same patriotic fervor we started with (however much or little that may be). However, I think there is a new understanding of the correlation between patriot fervor and staying in the Army. Or perhaps there is a lack of understanding of the correlation between the events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

    In any case, any ebbing of a “burst” of patriotic fervor caused by 9/11 would not be a cause for the low retention among junior officers this year since the vast majority of them entered the army long before 9/11. The class of 2000, for example signed on for their 12 years back in 1996.

    Finally, it is bordering on offensive to suggest any lack or end of a burst of patriotic fervor in relation to Army retention without first discussing the millions of young Americans who don’t sign up in the first place. If there is any end or lack of patriotism (and I absolutely don’t think there is), let’s start with recruitment, not retention.




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