In 1973, Dennis Dillard was a fast-track captain in the U.S. Army. Having already served two tours of duty in Vietnam, he was hand-picked to be the executive officer of a military police battalion in Germany.
Dillard arrived to the country in April, activated the battalion in June and welcomed his family in July, with household goods and the car en route. He never thought he would be a victim of the service's so-called reduction in force, known as RIF, that year.
"Approximately two weeks before the RIF, I reviewed my records with an MP branch colonel who was traveling with a Department of the Army Personnel Team," he wrote. "I remember his words, 'Capt. Dillard, you are golden.' He then laid out my probable next three tours, promotion to major and attendance at Command and General Staff College. About two weeks later, I was informed that I would be released from the Army in 90 days."
For many military veterans, the latest downsizing of the U.S. Army officer corps brought back memories of similar experiences they faced decades ago.
This summer, Military.com published a story about how the service planned to separate some 2,500 officers and noncommissioned officers involuntarily as part of an ongoing drawdown of the force due in part to federal budget cuts. Many of the soldiers had already relocated to another part of the country under a permanent change of station, or PCS, or even deployed to a combat zone.
The article generated more than 1,000 comments and dozens of e-mails from veterans of previous generations or their family members who wanted to share personal stories about what it was like when their military lives were suddenly over. The responses that follow have been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Dunham said that the article reminded him of what happened to his father in March 1972.
"My father was a major and did two tours of combat in Vietnam (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam and the 5th Infantry Division) and was given his papers," Dunham wrote. "He called it being 'riffed.' He went into the National Guard then back to active duty thanks to the venerable President Reagan. My father got his pension."
Even so, life wasn't easy after his father left the service, he added.
"I lived with grandma and grandpa for a short time afterward. I can never forget sitting with grandpa and watching Archie Bunker – a 9-year-old watching Archie Bunker!" Dunham wrote, referring to the title character of the CBS television sitcom, "All in the Family."
He added, "My own personal feeling is, dad got the shaft and deserved better."
John Smith said that the same thing happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
"We all sweated it out back then," Smith wrote. "Additionally, we only had three-year 'contracts.'"
Indeed historically, the U.S. military has shrunk in size following periods of conflict. The Army, for example, was roughly halved from almost 1.6 million soldiers in 1968 at the peak of the Vietnam War to about 800,000 soldiers in 1973; the service again contracted from about 780,000 soldiers at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s to less than 480,000 soldiers in 1999, according to Census Bureau figures.
After rising to 570,000 soldiers in 2008 during the war in Iraq, the Army has less than 520,000 soldiers today and is on pace to shrink to 490,000 soldiers by next year. It's bracing for even further reductions driven by automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
The Pentagon's proposed budget for 2015 calls for the service's end-strength to decrease to 440,000-450,000 soldiers by 2017. If sequestration remains in effect, the number may fall to as low as 420,000 soldiers -- tens of thousands less than the figure the Army's top officer, Gen. Raymond Odierno, said is needed to respond adequately to conflicts around the world.
Some active-duty soldiers questioned whether the Army was targeting prior-enlisted members or other demographics. Leaked documents show black officers were separated at a higher rate than white officers. Other soldiers were simply confused why the service didn't go after less qualified members.
"I find myself scratching my head," one sergeant wrote. "Why on Earth are not only good officers, but good soldiers and NCOs, being cut before trimming the proverbial fat … those failing drug tests and hiding in the warrior transition units all across DoD? We know for fact there are many, possibly thousands, skating on the system and simply collecting paychecks with no contribution."
Some readers offered advice to the current crop of captains and majors who were identified for separation, including the O-3 who was profiled at the beginning of the original story.
The captain, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the incident, had more than a dozen years in the service, including tours of duty in Afghanistan and other combat zones. The former NCO had just received orders to move to a new duty station. So he and his wife, newly pregnant with their first child, signed a lease and put a deposit on a home at the next location. A few days later, he was called into his post's commanding general's office and informed that, effective almost immediately, he would no longer be in the military.
A reader named Jim Farrell went so far as to offer to put the man in touch with some of his professional contacts.
"Regarding the officer in your recent story, where is he located?" Farrell wrote. "If he's in Texas or North Carolina and has the right skill set, I can make some job introductions. I'm sure he is getting all the help he needs. But if not, please let me know how I can help."
As for Dillard, the Vietnam-era captain, he said he wasn't alone in being dismissed. Also let go were four of five company commanders, including the intelligence officer, training and operations officer, and the supply officer. Only two battalion officers remained, both of whom were first lieutenants.
"Seems like the military continues to shoot itself in the foot," he wrote of the most recent dismissals.
Dillard and his wife and their two young children eventually returned to the U.S. and settled in Atlanta.
"Long story short, I found a reserve unit, completed C&GS by correspondence, served a couple of Active, Guard and Reserve tours, and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1993 with 12 years of active service and 14 years of reserve," he wrote. "Pass on to the young captain that all is not lost. He just needs to find out what is out there and use it to his advantage."
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org