Army Offers Big Cash To Keep Key Officers

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Army is offering cash bonuses of up to $35,000 to retain young officers serving in key specialties -- including military intelligence, infantry and aviation -- in an unprecedented bid to forestall a critical shortage of officer ranks that have been hit hard by frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army officials said that lengthy and repeated war-zone tours -- the top reason younger officers leave the service -- plus the need for thousands of new officers as the Army moves forward with expansion plans have contributed to a projected shortfall of about 3,000 captains and majors for every year through 2013.

In response, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved the unusual incentives last month as a temporary measure for this fiscal year, and over the past three weeks, more than 6,000 Army captains have accepted cash awards ranging from $25,000 to $35,000 in exchange for committing to serve three more years.

In a speech at an Army conference yesterday, Gates said that holding on to today's combat veteran officers is vital to reshaping and rebuilding the force for the future -- and this could mean rethinking Cold War-era promotion policies. "There is a generation of junior and mid-level officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who have been tested in battle like none other in decades," he said. "These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced . . . to use their experience to shape the institution."

More than 18,000 Army captains are eligible for the bonuses and more than a third of those have taken them since the new cash offer was announced on Sept. 13, senior Army officers said this week. An additional 900 officers have taken other incentives to stay on.

Captains are a mainstay of the Army's combat units, even more so in the decentralized counterinsurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Infantry captains lead companies of about 120 soldiers, and most have served one, two or three year-long combat tours since 2001. In Iraq, such officers are considered key to the military transition teams that are expected to increase as the mission of the 169,000 U.S. troops there shifts from combat to training Iraqi security forces.

Captains, who are generally in their 20s or early 30s, usually have three to 10 years of Army experience and earn basic pay of $4,000 to $5,000 a month. The rank of captain is often a critical juncture in an officer's career, when most decide whether to leave the service or stay, often until retirement.

"It's a challenge because now we don't have the numbers that we need to fill all the billets," Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, commander of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, said in an interview Tuesday. The U.S. troop increase in Iraq heightened the demand for officers, causing the Army's premier school for majors to fill only 800 of its 850 slots this year, a trend that could jeopardize the education of the officer corps if it continues, he said.

"You have a shortage of both majors and captains . . . because we have a larger number make the decision that they have served honorably, they have had one or two or three combat tours and have made the decision to go into civilian life," he said.

According to Army data, the overall attrition rate for captains averaged 12.2 percent from 1999 to 2007. But the estimated captain deficits for the past year were pronounced in some fields that require heavy deployments, such as military intelligence, where the Army is short 10 percent; transportation, where the gap reaches 21 percent; and aviation, where the shortfall is 11 percent.

Army officials said the projected officer shortage is mainly the result of the Army's plan to add 65,000 active-duty soldiers to its ranks -- including more than 6,000 captains and majors -- by 2010. The cash incentives for captains are unprecedented in scope and size, and are intended in part as compensation for soldiers' long separations from their families.

"In the Army there has never been anything like this in memory," said Col. Paul Aswell, director of officer policy for Army personnel. "The bonuses are . . . a measure of payback to the family. They get this windfall to ease some of the pain of service in this environment."

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