Army Offers Incentives to Try to Retain Officers

Capt. Matthew King, who served already in Iraq, is being called up a few months before his service commitment ends.
Capt. Matthew King, who served already in Iraq, is being called up a few months before his service commitment ends. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Army, forecasting a shortage of several thousand officers as wartime demands grow, is boosting the incentives it offers to try to hold on to experienced commanders.

By 2007, the Army projects it will be short 3,500 active-duty officers, primarily captains and majors -- positions that are needed for new combat brigades and other units that are critical to plans for expanding and reorganizing the nation's ground forces. One factor in the shortfall is that the Army took in too few officers in the 1990s, personnel officials say.

The need for officers is expected to be acute in career fields strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as transportation, aviation, Special Forces and military intelligence, Army personnel statistics show. Demand is also high for skills concentrated in Army Reserve units heavily deployed in Iraq, such as military police and civil affairs. The Army projects it will fall 7 percent short of the number of active-duty officers it needs with ranks from captain to colonel, with shortages rising to 15 to 50 percent for dozens of specific ranks and skills.

In another sign of the pressing demand for officers, the Army is recalling hundreds of officers who had returned to civilian life but who are still subject to call-up, sparking protests from some who have already served in Iraq and now face more than a year of extended war-zone duty.

The looming officer shortage is part of a wider manpower crunch the Army faces stemming from the surge in demand for U.S. ground forces at home and overseas since the 2001 terrorist attacks. But it is distinct from the Army's recruiting difficulties, reflecting less a problem with signing up new officers than one of promoting and retaining experienced officers.

The shortfall could worsen if the number of officers leaving the force continues to grow. The percentage of officers -- from lieutenants to colonels -- who leave the Army each year has been rising since 2004. And while those rates are still broadly in line with 10-year averages, officials are concerned that the rates could continue to creep upward. Many junior officers -- in particular, those who have served two tours in Iraq -- now plan to get out, according to recent interviews with dozens of Army officers in Iraq and the United States.

"I want to have a normal life with my wife," said Capt. Adam M. Smith, an intelligence officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which after two Iraq rotations since 2003 is having difficulty retaining experienced junior officers. "I have spent two years in Iraq with about ten months [at home] in between," Smith wrote in a recent e-mail from Iraq. "We all joke that we live in Iraq and were deployed to Fort Carson for ten months." Deciding to leave the Army was hard, Smith said, but he estimated 40 percent of officers in his unit are making the same choice.

"We are worried," said Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey. "So what we're trying to do is give them an incentive to stay."

One new Army program increases from 400 to 600 the number of slots for junior officers to attend fully funded graduate school on the condition they serve three additional years for each year of study, Harvey said. Unlike in the past, infantry and other combat arms officers can participate, offering them a break from war zone rotations.

"We do not have our head in the sand; we're being proactive," said Col. Mark Patterson, chief of officer policy for the Army. "We're not waiting for the numbers to go up. We're implementing these programs now."

The Army has also accelerated and expanded promotions -- primarily for lieutenants and captains -- to fill holes in its leadership ranks. It now takes only 38 months for a lieutenant to become a captain, compared with 42 months two years ago. "I can't grow a major, it takes 10 years, but I can promote people faster to get them there quicker," Patterson said.

In addition to speeding promotions and rolling out incentives to entice officers to stay, the Army is also using involuntary 545-day call-ups to compel inactive officers to leave civilian life for duty in Iraq.

Since last fall, the Army has ordered hundreds of officers from the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) to report to U.S. bases to prepare for Iraq deployments, according to interviews with more than a dozen officers and Army officials with knowledge of the call-ups. The IRR is a pool of about 111,000 trained soldiers who have left active-duty or reserve units but remain subject to call-up for a specified period.

The latest call-ups have targeted scores of officers who graduated from military academies or other universities in 1998, including at least 60 West Point graduates, who are less than four months away from finishing up their eight-year obligation in the IRR pool. Many are being called to serve as civil affairs officers -- a key shortage area for the Army -- but lack experience in that field. Most have already served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both, and many have requested congressional inquiries into the Army's call-up decisions, which they consider unfair.

"It's a back-door draft," complained Capt. Melinda Thein, who said she earned a Bronze Star for her role in the invasion and early occupation of Iraq. "Why don't they get us at the beginning of our IRR commitment? They are getting us at the very end," she said in a phone interview. Thein's required time in the IRR will end in May. But under her new orders, which she received in a Western Union Mailgram on Christmas Eve, she will be extended for 18 months to return to Iraq.

"The sheer panic of maybe having to leave my family is more stressful than being in a war," said Thein, who completed active-duty service with a quartermaster unit in September 2003 and now has an 11-month-old boy. She has written to her members of Congress and requested an exemption based on family hardship.

Another member of the officer class of 1998 is Matthew King, 30, of Madison, Miss. He had served on active duty for more than seven years, including 17 months deployed, 11 of them in Iraq, when he left his unit June 28 last year. Required to stay in the IRR until in May, he is being called up for Iraq again. "Why am I getting called up so soon after I got out?" asked King, especially given the Pentagon's desire to reduce troops in Iraq.

Harvey said he would look into any complaints of unfairness in the mobilizations, and acknowledged problems in record-keeping. Simply finding IRR members remains a problem, he said: "We don't know where the hell half of them are, or 40 percent of them are."

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