Army Keeping Problem Soldiers to Keep Troop Levels Up

The Army has raised the barriers for commanders seeking to oust problem soldiers in an effort to deal with lower enlistment rates.

To Fill Ranks, Army Acts To Retain Even Problem Enlistees (WSJ)

Faced with a long, tough war in Iraq, the U.S. Army has struggled mightily with recruiting. Now the service is battling to keep the new soldiers it has brought into the force. More of the new Army recruits are washing out of the service before completing their first enlistment, which typically runs three or four years. One recent memorandum from a senior Army personnel official branded the problem “a matter of great concern.”

The Army’s answer: Figure out a way to keep more of the soldiers who are now being forced out. “We need your concerted effort to reverse the negative trend,” reads the internal Army memo, which was directed to senior commanders. “By reducing attrition 1% we can save up to 3,000 initial term soldiers. That’s 3,000 more soldiers in our formations.”

The memo comes in the wake of a string of recruiting problems for the service. Last month, the Army announced it was 6,659 soldiers short of where it wanted to be this year, on its way to a goal of recruiting 80,000 soldiers. Not long after it announced the recruiting shortfall, the service suspended recruiting operations for one day. The pause came after a series of incidents in which recruiters were found bending or breaking rules to meet their quotas of new enlistees.

To keep more soldiers in the service, the Army has told battalion commanders, who typically command 800-soldier units, that they can no longer bounce soldiers from the service for poor fitness, pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse or generally unsatisfactory performance. Typically such decisions are made at that level. Instead, the battalion commanders must send the problem soldiers’ cases up to their brigade commander, who typically commands about 3,000 soldiers. “Basically it is another set of eyes reviewing cases. It lessens the chance that we will separate people who might still make good soldiers,” says Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Army officials say the move isn’t unprecedented. The service made a similar decision in 1998, when the strong economy and lack of a clear mission left the military struggling to meet recruitment goals. Still, some Army battalion commanders are less than pleased with the Army’s decision to try to keep more problem soldiers in the service. “It is the guys on weight control … school no-shows, drug users, et cetera, who eat up my time and cause my hair to gray prematurely,” says one Army battalion commander. “Often they have more than one of these issues simultaneously.” And some battalion commanders question whether it makes sense for brigade commanders to make decisions about which soldiers can cut it and which must go because the brigade commanders have less daily interaction with the soldiers and their immediate commanders.

Indeed, brigade commanders seldom have any knowledge of even the junior officers serving in their component batallions, let alone the privates and specialists.

Unfortunately, the raising and lowering of standards are part and parcel of the all-volunteer force. When the economy is booming or there’s a war on, it’s harder to recruit and retain soldiers. When unemployment is high and it’s peacetime, the reverse is true. During flush times, the Army throws out otherwise outstanding soldiers for being slightly overweight, just because they can afford to do so; when things are tight, it takes a lot to get thrown out.

When I was on active duty in the late 1980s and early 1990s, times were flush. It was hard to get an active duty slot coming out of ROTC and we were keeping people who desperately wanted to serve out. My unit was throwing out terrific mechanics because they were out of shape–mostly because they were up late nights eating pizza while keeping our vehicles combat ready. Then came the post-Cold War drawdown and we were having a major reduction-in force, getting rid of officers and NCOs who wanted to stay. Within five years, they were begging some of those same people to come back. Such is the insanity of bureaucracy.

Update: Phil Carter and Owen West have an interesting piece in Slate on this subject.

Dismissed! We won’t solve the military manpower crisis by retaining our worst soldiers

This new retention directive represents a regression by the Army, from the vaunted all-volunteer force of today back in the direction of the all-volunteer force of the 1970s, when drug use, race riots, and AWOL incidents were common among all services. The Marine Corps Historical Branch traces its own severe spiral to “the end of the draft and the pressure of keeping up the size of the Marine Corps. In the process, a number of society’s misfits had been recruited.” By 1975, the corps had so decayed that newly appointed Commandant Lewis Wilson sought permission from Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to implement a radical personnel proposal: Push the authority to discharge unworthy Marines down to the battalion level. Under the “expeditious discharge program,” commanders quickly cut 6,000 undesirables, sending a message that reverberated throughout the military, paving the way for the subsequent military performance surge credited to President Reagan.

Now the Army intends to reverse the policy, implying that battalion commanders are not able to weigh the needs of the total force against those of their units. By the time a soldier reaches the discharge point, the officers above him have already invested a great deal of rehabilitative effort. Forcing units to keep these troops—and indeed, to take them to war—puts a very heavy rock in the rucksack of any field commander who must now balance managing these subpar performers with his mission and the needs of his unit.

I agree that forcing commanders to keep subpar soldiers is a bad thing, although maintain that we’ve often done this tacitly over the years during periods when recruiting was difficult. Plus, most brigade commanders are going to follow their battalion commanders’ recommendations on matters relating to the lower EM in their units, so the policy change should only matter on the margins.

The comments in Phil’s blog post on the subject make a good point: A soldier who is a discipline problem or a drug abuser is a different thing altogether from one who’s slightly overweight, let alone pregnant. Lower level commanders are often forced to order the discharge of soldiers they’d like to retain (i.e., the chubby mechanics cited in my original post) in order to comply with the regs. If the brigade commander has the discretionary ability to grant waivers in such cases, this could conceivably improve the army.

Phil and Owen also make some interesting and logical recommendations for solving the Army’s recruiting problems, notably increasing retention bonuses in light of the cost of recruiting replacements and giving pay incentives based on hardship rather than rank.

Jack Army gives a Special Forces senior NCO’s take on the issue.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    I think it is baloney to throw in the issues of failed fitness tests and pregnancy, as if those two things actually make soldiers unfit (as compared to alcohol or drug abuse which was the other thing listed).

    My husband was in the Navy during the 90’s, and they were discharging people, because their BMI’s were too high, even though they could actually pass the fitness portion of the fitness test (one of my husbands friends was discharged for this).

    I also am not a fan of the pregnancy out. It bothered me that a lot of women would get pregnant on purpose in order to get the easy out, at the very least they should have to stay.

  2. Charles Fenwick says:

    My thoughts mirror Mr. Joyner’s.

    I enlisted in ‘lean times’ for the Navy (1999)
    when retention was under 50% and recruiting
    efforts were not filling the gap.

    At the time my enlistement was ending,
    retention was above 65%, In the time since,
    a number of things have ocurred to tighten
    the ability of people to re-enlist or otherwise
    remain in the Navy. For example, in 1999 a Third Class Petty Officer could get up to twelve
    years in service before getting separated for
    not being advanced (promoted). Now they are
    getting separated at eight years (unless they have a waiver).

    I would think overall, the Navy’s standards
    are getting back to where they were in the
    early 90’s during the drawdown. As posted, it
    is a normal cycle; standards float with the
    needs of the service.