Army Fears Exodus of Young Officers
Some senior Army leaders are worried that the strains of constant deployment will lead to the mass exodus of young captains who have completed their military obligation.
More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks spawned an era of unprecedented strain on the all-volunteer military, it is scenes like this [a rambling, unrepresentative anecdote that goes on for several paragraphs] that keep the Army’s senior generals awake at night. With thousands of soldiers currently on their second combat deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and some preparing for their third this fall, evidence is mounting that an exodus of young Army officers may be looming on the horizon.
It is especially troubling for Pentagon officials that the Army’s pool of young captains, which forms the backbone of infantry and armored units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be the hardest hit. Last year, Army lieutenants and captains left the service at an annual rate of 8.7% Ã¢€” the highest since 2001. Pentagon officials say they expect the attrition rate to improve slightly this year. Yet interviews with several dozen military officers revealed an undercurrent of discontent within the Army’s young officer corps that the Pentagon’s statistics do not yet capture.
Young captains in the Army are looking ahead to repeated combat tours, years away from their families and a global war that their commanders tell them could last for decades. Like other college grads in their mid-20s, they are making decisions about what to do with their lives. And many officers, who until recently had planned to pursue careers in the military, are deciding that it’s a future they can’t sign up for.
The officers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan just wrapped up a year of grueling counterinsurgency operations Ã¢€” a type of combat the U.S. largely avoided after its struggle in Vietnam and that many in the Pentagon believe is the new face of war. They were in Iraq during last spring’s uprisings in Fallouja and Najaf, June’s transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government and block-to-block fighting during the retaking of Fallouja in November. These officers have, in most cases, more counterinsurgency experience than any of their superiors. And they are the people the Army most fears losing.
The officers interviewed for this article are proud of what they accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are generally optimistic that the two nations can eventually emerge as functioning, if unstable, democracies. Those just returning from Iraq ended their combat tours on a positive note with successful parliamentary elections in January, which had been the singular focus of their deployment. Yet their pride is tempered by uncertainty about what lies ahead in an unconventional war in which victory may never be declared. “The undefined goals of the war on terror are making it really hard for the Army to keep people right now,” Fulton said.
A troubling situation, to be sure, but hardly unexpected. The Army’s ability to retain junior officers and mid-career non-commissioned officers is critical to maintaining an outstanding force. It is, and always has been, cyclical. More senior people have little leeway, as they have too much time invested and are too close to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–a rather generous retirement benefits package at the twenty year mark–to quit. So, young sergeants and captains are the ones who have to decide whether to make a career of it or seek greener pastures elsewhere.
The Army had a similiar problem during the mid-1990s, as people who had joined expecting large blocks of peacetime duty and war only in the event of a major international crisis instead got deployed to “peacekeeping” mission after “peacekeeping” mission. Many quit.
Most soldiers are willing–indeed, eager–to fight in the war on terror but the sacrifice of family is, understandably, more than many are willing to bear.