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Army Reserve Must Grow to Shrink, Leader Says

Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas Jr. spoke to reservists with the 7th Civil Support Command at a town hall Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Kaiserslautern, Germany. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)
Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas Jr. spoke to reservists with the 7th Civil Support Command at a town hall Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Kaiserslautern, Germany. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

DAENNER KASERNE, Germany — The U.S. Army Reserve needs to grow in order to then shrink the right way, says the organization's top enlisted leader.

The Reserve's current authorized end strength is 205,000 soldiers. With the reserve topping off at just over 196,000, that means there's room to expand, Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas Jr., the command sergeant major of the Army Reserve, said Saturday. He was speaking at a town hall in Kaiserslautern for reservists from the 7th Civil Support Command, the Army's only Reserve command stationed entirely overseas.

By 2019, however, the Army Reserve is slated to drop to 195,000 soldiers, Thomas said.

Despite the future downward trajectory, he said the Reserve is still trying to fill its ranks. It is particularly keen on retaining and bringing in soldiers with jobs for which there's a current need. These include fuel handlers, foreign language speakers, and those working in military intelligence and psychological operations, to name some.

"The reason you want to go up is so that you come down with quality" and retain the right mix of soldiers, Thomas said in an interview after the town hall.

With the active Army undergoing an even larger drawdown — the force is scheduled to contract from 513,800 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 by 2019 — more soldiers could be knocking on the Reserve's door.

Recently, 771 soldiers opted to leave the active Army early and join the Reserve as part of an "Active Component 2 Reserve Component" pilot program at Fort Hood, Texas, Thomas said. The pilot began in May and ended Sept. 30.

Soldiers joining the Reserve retain certain benefits and can earn years toward reserve retirement. "You still have the camaraderie of being part of the Army family and you still have the opportunity to serve your country," he said.

The Reserve is working with the Army to ensure soldiers separated from active duty for performance or disciplinary issues don't fly under the radar and get a slot in the Reserve, he said, responding to a question during the town hall.

It's happened but only with a "very, very small percentage" of soldiers, he said.

"We've asked the Army to do more vetting" and flag soldiers who may not be qualified for Reserve service, he said.

Thomas said he's working on a policy change aimed at reducing the Reserve's backlog of 19,000 soldiers who are overdue for professional military education. "What we're doing now is we select soldiers for promotion, promote them and then we train them," he said. "We're putting people into leadership positions for which educationally we have not trained them."

"I'm asking us to go back to something that was in effect when I was coming up, which was train, select and promote," he told reservists.

"Soldiers will either go to school and get promoted or they'll be separated from the service or they'll be reduced in rank," he said.

Also contributing to the backlog is reservists who have been "flagged" for not meeting height and weight or physical training standards, Thomas said.

"I know it's difficult with soldiers coming one weekend a month, two weeks at a time throughout the year, but as a leader you have to figure out … how do I motivate this soldier? How do I inspire this solder to be all that they can be?" he said.

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