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Army Works to Halt Loss of Officers
Atlanta Journal Constitution  |  November 15, 2006
Washington - So many midlevel officers are leaving the Army under the strain of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Pentagon is worried it might not have enough generals 10 to 15 years from now.

Using aggressive incentives, the Army has slowed its loss of junior officers. Over the past year, 7.9 percent left. That's down from 8.5 percent in 2005 and below the 10-year average of 8.4 percent, said Col. Mark Patterson, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel.

The Army, though, is expanding. It's on track to add 30,000 troops over the next several years. The officer attrition rate will have to fall to 5 percent, said Patterson, for the Army to meet the growing demand for officers those increases will require.

"The question is are you keeping the future General Grants, the future General MacArthurs, the future General Eisenhowers, or are these people leaving? I don't know the answer to that," said Andrew Krepinevich, a West Point graduate who retired from the Army in 1993 after 21 years as an officer and now heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington defense policy research institute. "I suspect the Pentagon doesn't know either."

Options being added

The current number of lieutenants and captains --- what the Army calls company grade officers --- stands at 40,300. That needs to increase by 3,000 officers in the coming years to meet the goal of expanding the Army.

That's a particularly tall order given the pressures that multiple combat deployments are placing on young officers and their families.

"We know it's a strain on the force," Patterson said of the continuing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's a challenge that we're meeting head on. We're not waiting until we have a retention problem. We're working it hard right now."

The Army has expanded, for instance, the number of officers it sends to graduate school.

Traditionally, the Army has provided graduate school funding for about 400 mid-career officers each year. In exchange, they agree to extend their active service by three years for each year they spend in school. Last year, the Army added 200 scholarships to the program, with a goal of expanding it to 1,000 per year over the next few years.

The Army also has begun providing incentive options to cadets coming from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as well as officers commissioned through any of the 274 colleges and universities that offer ROTC programs.

Under the incentive arrangement, new officers can select either the Army specialty they go into --- infantry, for example, or military intelligence --- or the base where they will be posted, in exchange for a three-year extension of their active service obligation.

The officer attrition rate has been building for the past few years. After losing 5.7 percent of its lieutenants and captains in 2003, the year President Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, the Army saw its officer attrition rate jump the next year to 8.1 percent.

In 2005, the rate hit 8.5 percent, prompting concern at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

One key to retaining officers is keeping them in the service for at least 10 years. Beyond that point it becomes harder financially to justify leaving the Army, which permits Soldiers to retire after 20 years of service and receive half their pay for life.

Deployment strain

The future of the Army rests largely on the shoulders of junior officers --- lieutenants and captains who will be leading battalions and brigades over the next decade or so and will be running the Army in 20 years.

"You stay a captain for quite a few years, so they could be deployed two times, possibly even three times overseas, at a time when many of them have young families, they're just starting out," said Christine Wormuth, military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank. "This is putting a tremendous strain on them."

That issue drove Capt. Robert Cole to retire in 2003, six years after graduating from West Point. After deployments in Bosnia and Qatar, and domestic postings at Fort Gordon, Ga., and Fort Hood, Texas, Cole decided he couldn't continue in the Army and still do right by his growing family.

"You could just tell that it was just going to be more and more deployments," said Cole, now a Ryland Homes manager in Mansfield, Texas.

"They were getting me ready to take company command and then go back over [to Iraq] within a three-month period. We just decided it would be best for us just to get out for a more stable family life."

His wife, former Army Capt. Janelle Cole, also a 1996 West Point graduate, left the army in 2001 so the couple could start a family.

"You have a lot of family members who are saying, 'My gosh, I'm not sure we signed on for this,' " said Ret. Air Force Col. Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.

The group, based in Alexandria, Va., represents 365,000 active duty, reserve and retired officers from all branches of the military.

"The troops have been running on patriotism and adrenaline for a long time, but after a while they need some real relief," said Strobridge. "There is a loyalty to the organization, there is a loyalty to the mission, there is a loyalty to your friends. The issue is, how long can we keep counting on that?"

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