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."
Captains who choose the bonus receive a lump sum of $25,000, $30,000 or $35,000, depending on the severity of the shortage in their field.
The Army is also seeking to increase its ranks of active-duty captains by promoting lieutenants faster, in 38 months instead of 42, said Brig. Gen. Gina Farrisee, the Army's director of military personnel management. In addition it is recruiting hundreds of active-duty captains from the Army Reserve and Air Force, she said.
Army surveys show that the bonuses would persuade 40 to 55 percent of captains who intended to leave to sign new contracts. The Army's goal is for 85 percent of those eligible to stay on, either taking the bonus or another incentive such as attending graduate school or selecting their next post. About 600 of the 900 captains who chose incentives other than bonuses picked graduate school.
"This was the last opportunity for me to evaluate whether to stay in. [The bonus] reinforced my decision to stay," said Capt. Wayne Wall, 31, of Winston-Salem, N.C., who as an armor officer will receive $30,000. He expects to deploy soon to the Middle East.
"The choice to stay and go is more based on lifestyle," said Wall, who said he plans to invest the bonus money. "Some will stay on no matter how often they deploy. Others wear thinner and thinner and you can't put a price on it."
Capt. John Harvey, 30, of Milwaukee said he is unsure about whether to take the bonus or go to graduate school. The cash is "a great factor in staying in," he said.
Still, Army officials acknowledge that many eligible captains -- those promoted to that rank on or after April 1, 2002 -- would have stayed regardless. They say that they will not know whether the incentives are attracting officers who would have left until at least 70 percent sign up.
The officials said that while $35,000 might tilt wavering captains toward staying, it is unlikely to change the minds of those fundamentally opposed to three more years with likely war-zone duty.
"For a young family, these captains have known nothing but war and nonstop deployments," said Brig. Gen. Mark O'Neill, deputy commandant of the Army Command and General Staff College. "No amount of money can compensate me for missing . . . my daughter's first play," he said.