By John Rogers
Sunday, March 16, 2008
I'm a captain in the U.S. Army, an institution I love and respect, and one that has made me a better man. The Army has taught me how to relate to people of various ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. It has taught me how to stay calm under fire and in other stressful situations (an especially handy lesson as my fiancee and I plan our wedding). It has taught me how to exact discipline and how to approach people with different personalities in different ways.
All these lessons will, I'm convinced, make me a better friend, a better husband and, one day, a better father.
But after four years, I've decided to resign my commission and leave the Army.
This isn't what I envisioned when I joined up in 2004 as a 24-year-old college graduate. I hoped to spend at least eight years in the service, maybe more. I wanted to lead troops in combating terrorism and making our home front safe. I wanted to command a company, something you can achieve in about six to eight years. Instead, come April 1, I'll take off my uniform for good and become a civilian again.
And I'm not alone. Many other captains I know are making the same decision, or considering it. Let me be clear: I'm not a spokesman for some mythical "United Bureau of Captains Leaving the Army." But as I've talked with other captains, attended conferences with superiors on this issue and listened to my peers' reactions to what I've written here, I've heard a collective echo arising from the ranks of captains who are leaving. My reasons for this decision strike a chord with many of them.
Those reasons are threefold: First, I'm about to get married, and I want a family. Second, I can earn as much or more in the civilian world as I do in the Army. And finally, my experience with war has left me feeling angry, frustrated and mismanaged.
I've lost confidence that I can serve both a wife and the Army. It's not that my fiancee is putting demands on me; this is a conclusion I've reached on my own. Staying in would mean six months of Army schooling in the Captain Career Course. We'd have to move from Seattle to Georgia or Kentucky. My wife would have to quit her job to be with me. Then I'd move again to a deploying unit or become an adviser to the Iraqi army for another 12 to 15 months. My wife would be uprooted and replanted in a place where she'd be alone, knowing no one, and without the job she loves. She'd be unable to pursue her goals or use her talents. That's no recipe for marital bliss.
Also, soldiers need to train, so I'd spend a lot of time away in the field -- at weapons ranges or training centers, or fighting simulated battles. A marriage needs time to blossom. But a captain's career path, whether he's deployed or at home, can bulldoze it before it blooms. And deploying every other year raises certain obvious challenges to starting a family.
As it happens, I have (a very beautiful) someone. But not all soldiers do, and many of them would like that to change. Where staying in for me means not having the time to develop a relationship, for others it means not having the time to find one. Then there are situations like that of one captain I know who has a son who's nearly 4. He missed the baby's birth and has been present in his boy's life for a total of one year. I hope you can see why I, and others like me, feel that we have to choose: family or Army. Each person's situation may be different, but we're all in the same shoes . . . and they stink.
Second, I feel no financial pressure to "stay Army." I'm confident that I'll be able to land a job that pays enough to cover a mortgage and put food on the table. Placement firms such as Cameron-Brooks, Lucas Group and Orion have good records in helping former officers find positions in the corporate world. Most captains have college degrees and know that they can get a job outside the Army and begin a new profession. We find phrases such as "stock options," "incentives" or "no firearms permitted in the building" enticing. We like the idea of promotion based on merit, not a timeline. Some want to work for the FBI or the CIA, agencies they believe are more effective in the fight against terrorism.
An initial drop in salary won't hurt me, even if I have to pay for medical coverage. Besides, money isn't my motivation for serving -- which is why I find no incentive in the Army's $25,000 to $35,000 bonus for staying in.
Finally, I'm frustrated by the war and how I was managed and blocked in doing my job in Iraq. Take the following incident. It's not the only one I could hang my hat on, but it's the most pointed.
My mission as a platoon leader was to clean up police corruption and reintegrate the Iraqi police into the security structure of Ghazaliyah, a district in western Baghdad. Over time, my platoon built a relationship of trust with Iraqi policemen, who gave us leads on insurgents. On one patrol, we detained a Sunni whom our battalion's intelligence officer confirmed as a genuine criminal. This man had threatened local residents, preventing them from participating in a clinic we had restarted.
A search of his home yielded illegal weapons, sniper bullets, insurgent propaganda, gobs of money and lists of Iraqi political and military officials' addresses. When we learned that he was the leading Sunni insurgent in Ghazaliyah, our platoon felt like world-beaters. Morale surged. Finding this man validated counterinsurgency theory -- empowering indigenous forces, patiently letting them take the lead, and collecting intelligence through local and national networks that know the "human terrain" better than foreign armies. It taught my men to be patient with it, and gave them pride.
Moreover, a change came over our counterparts in the Iraqi police. You could see their hope awakening. They began to feel safe in giving us the names of corrupt policemen and police car numbers. We secretly built a case against their leader (which this very newspaper inadvertently exposed in late 2006 when it published the full name of my Iraqi confidante, creating even more stress for my troops.)
So, good grab, right? Wrong. We later had to release the detainee. Somehow the evidence to hold him was lacking -- even though he had discussed his role in sectarian violence under questioning by our intelligence officers. At the detention facility, I learned that most of the evidence we had collected against him had never been analyzed. I was told that a high-ranking official (I don't know whether it was a diplomat or someone from the CIA or the Army) had called the facility, incredulous that the man was being detained. Later, I found out that our detainee was politically well-connected, which supposedly played a role in his release. But we lost credibility with the Iraqi police. And we were ticked off at the waste of our time and our unnecessary exposure to danger.
It's possible that there was some great rationale for releasing this man. But my men and I will never know why he was really let go. We knew that he was contributing to sectarian violence. Could someone at least tell my men that everything they did counted for something? What did I risk their lives for?
In the Army, junior captains and lieutenants, mainly as platoon leaders, as well as senior captains who are company commanders, are the primary group of officers manning the trenches and facing battle alongside enlisted soldiers (sergeants and privates). When a soldier dies, we feel it more than generals and colonels do. Along with the sergeants, we're the ones who explain to young enlisted men why a 23 percent interest rate on a car loan is not the best idea. Or that while a soldier may qualify for a loan to buy a Lexus (to attract girls), he also needs gas and insurance. And that stripper poles don't equal marriage altars. In short, we help raise them.
During war, we're the ones who are there when the bomb goes off or an enemy's bullet meets its mark. On one occasion, one of my fellow captains had to deal with a firefight even as he tried to calm a soldier whose genitals had been blasted with shrapnel slivers.
I'm not indicting generals and colonels. The point is that the experience of lower-ranking officers on the front lines creates a gap between us and other officers, and it makes us want to catch our breath before deploying again.
Older captains and higher-ranking officers can get jobs in the Army and "hit pause" before redeploying. They might, for instance, become ROTC instructors or go to graduate school. I tried for an ROTC job at a university and got a good reaction. Awesome, I thought -- my fiancee would get to keep her job, and I would use my experience to prepare future officers for combat, returning to command matured and refocused. Another captain was accepted into a graduate program starting in 2011. But the Army requires both of us first to attend the Career Course and deploy again as commanders -- and see our fiancees/wives two years later. The other captain wants to stay in, but he's wavering.
After experiencing the front lines, we'd stay in if we had a chance to take a break. We'd get family life right, mature, dissipate the frustrations and refocus. But Army career management policy doesn't allow it.
I love a lot about the Army and I don't want anyone to think that it's an evil institution. It's not. But I can't stay in any longer. It will be too long before I've achieved enough rank to work to change it. That's for generals and colonels, which is 16 years away for me, assuming that I'd keep getting promoted. My desire to start a family, the possibility of other jobs and my frustrations have combined to usher me into a new season of life earlier than I had planned.
John Rogers served in Iraq from June 2006 to September 2007.