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May 23, 2005
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By Terry Boyd
Stars and Stripes Mideast edition
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — When he talks about it, he uses words like “scary” and “terrified.”
Sgt. Nate Benco isn't talking about the 15 months he spent dodging roadside bombs, mortar attacks and firefights in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division's 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment. Benco is talking about the prospect of leaving the Army. And he's doing a lot more than talking.
Benco's separation date is July 2. Benco, his wife, Monica, and his son, Nicolas, are already packed up and ready for the flight back to New Mexico from Baumholder.
The 23-year-old scout is better prepared to separate than most, having saved $30,000 from his pay and deployment bonuses for his new life. He's debt-free after four years in. But as he prepares to go to college, Benco anticipates “some pretty tough years,” he said. Getting out, he added, “is scary as hell. I'm terrified. I've lived and breathed the Army for four years.”
“I don't think anyone with a brain wants to leave,” said Spc. Michael Aubee, a 37-year-old missile technician with 1st AD's 47th Forward Support Battalion. There is no comparable job on the civilian side when it comes to days off and benefits such as medical care, Aubee said.
“Anyone you know who has experience in the outside world knows the service is a good deal,” said Aubee, a former electrician who joined at 29 years old. “It's an easy job with tons of benefits.”
Deployments don't bother him one bit, Aubee said. But Aubee said he's fed up with the “micromanagers and meddlers” in his chain of command, who are “starting to become concerned too much with [evaluations] and too little with taking care of soldiers.”
He plans to go back to Rhode Island and get a job with a contractor — working for the Army.
Benco and Aubee are joining a growing number of soldiers and officers who are leaving for myriad reasons. In interviews with dozens of soldiers, none ever said he or she hated the Army. But there is evidence the Army may be reaching a point where many — even those who once thought of the Army as their career — are finding more reasons to go than to stay.
“I love the Army,” said Keri Maloney, a former 1st AD captain and intelligence officer. “It was a tough decision to get out. But I have fulfilled my commitment, and I feel that it's time for a career change.” She's hoping to work for a congressman on Capitol Hill.
Spc. Erica Hill, a parachute rigger with the 24th Quartermaster Detachment at Vicenza, Italy, is getting out Monday. “I'm comfortable with the Army,” Hill said. “It's just that they're not giving me what I want right now,” which is a change both in job specialty and in her next duty station.
She'd stay a rigger if she didn't have to go to Fort Bragg, N.C., the only option the Army is offering her, Hill said. But, after a three-year Army career, Hill is set to return to civilian life — college and a part-time job — in Ohio.
The enlistment rate for the Army as a whole dropped nearly 12 percent the year the United States invaded Iraq. Re-enlistments dropped to 63.2 percent in 2004 from a peak of about 75.1 percent in 2003, according to data from the Department of the Army.
The amount of unemployment the Army paid out rose to $69 million for the fourth quarter, 2004, up from $46 million the previous quarter, according to Army documents. By comparison, the amount of unemployment the Air Force paid dropped to $12.3 million from $13.5 million during the same period.
The two Germany-based divisions — the 1st AD and 1st Infantry Division — historically have higher re-enlistment rates than U.S.-based divisions. Post-Iraq re-enlistment rates have remained about the same for U.S. Army Europe as before the war, Sgt. Maj. William Sharpsteen, command career counselor for the Heidelberg-based USAREUR, told Stars and Stripes in March.
But there are indications that even they are losing personnel.
For the fourth quarter of 2004 — July, August and September — the Army Career and Alumni Program's Baumholder office had 152 total client visits, 75 of whom were new clients, according to ACAP officials who help soldiers transition to civilian careers. That was just as the 1st AD began returning from 15 months in Iraq, and soldiers were going on block leave.
The following quarter, traffic increased about 700 percent, with 1,119 total client visits from 473 clients, 247 of whom were new clients, during October, November and December.
That increase in people coming in to get out is due partly to soldiers who were caught by stop loss before the division deployed to Iraq in May 2003. But ACAP counselors believe they're seeing more people who've simply decided that military life is not as attractive as the perceived opportunities in the private sector.
Dozens of soldiers interviewed by Stars and Stripes reporters listed a wide range of reasons for leaving — or at least considering leaving — the Army. Though there was no one, overriding motivation, roughly half mentioned deployments as a reason they were leaving, along with perceived opportunities in the civilian job market.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Coufal and his wife, also a soldier, have been married 12 years, and so far, they'd gotten lucky on deployments, said the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment soldier.
But with the increased ops tempo, it's gotten to the point where he and his wife, Sgt. 1st Class Molly Coufal, were both sure to be deployed at the same time, not an appealing prospect with three children, ages 8, 13 and 17.
Moreover, he has “no desire to go back to Iraq,” Coufal said. So, he's retiring at 39.
As a turbine engine expert, he feels like the job market is “wide open,” he said. “I know I won't be starting at the CEO level,” but he expects a good salary, enhanced by his wife's pay — then retirement benefits from both his civilian job and the military.
Others cite their frustration. “I'm fed up with a lot of things,” Nate Benco said, reciting what he calls “the dominoes of dismay” that made him weigh getting out. Those issues range from what he sees as an increasing tendency to scapegoat lower-ranking soldiers to too many unseasoned and poorly disciplined soldiers coming into his once battle-hardened company.
But a major concern is the amount of time he's spent away from his family. Benco has never been at home to celebrate any of his 6-year-old son's birthdays. He was either out fighting fires in New Mexico in his pre-Army life, or deployed.
“That's not going to change,” Benco said. “Anyone coming in has to know they're going to be gone most of the time.”
Reporter Kent Harris in Aviano contributed to this story.
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