The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Army officials on ‘pink slip’ controversy: We don’t have a choice

U.S. soldiers march in April during a field training exercise in South Korea. The Army’s way of managing its ongoing drawdown in forces has rankled many, especially in cases in which deployed officers have received separation notices while deployed. (Photo by 2nd Lt. Daniel A. Herb/U.S. Army)

For weeks, the Army has been taking a verbal beating for sending “pink slips” to officers while they were deployed. It was no joke or Internet rumor, either: About 1,100 captains received notice last month that they would be required to leave active duty within a year as the service shrinks, and some of them were in Afghanistan and other volatile areas.

Reaction was swift. It was a “stunning display of callousness,” one Army veteran wrote earlier this month in the New York Daily News. It was an “outrageous and and heartless way to ‘thank’ combat veterans,” responded one writer on It showed that President Obama was “putting domestic politics ahead of the security of our nation,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.). And those were some of the more civil reactions.

Army officials held a briefing with reporters Wednesday to address the complaints, weeks after the issue received widespread attention. The Army’s response, in a nutshell: We don’t like it, but we don’t have a choice.

The notices are part of the congressionally mandated steps needed to shrink the active-duty Army from about 570,000 soldiers in 2012 to about 490,000 by the end of 2015, officials said. The service is likely to continue shrinking to between 440,000 and 450,000 by 2019.

The captains who got separation notices were selected through an Officer Separation Board that was forced to look a specific groups of soldiers, one Army official said. Those who got “pink slips” in June all came into the Army in 2006.

“We have to have a plan that looks over time at how we draw down the officer corps, and we won’t get there with attrition alone,” one official said. “The numbers just don’t support the drawdown ramp that is necessary.”

It clearly remains a sensitive subject. The briefing was held on condition that the officials speaking be granted anonymity. When a reporter asked why that was necessary, officials responded simply that it was because it was a background briefing.

One official said that the officers who received notices have known for months that they were likely candidates to receive them. Nevertheless, the Army deployed some of the officers, setting the conditions for the outrage to follow.

The Army officials acknowledged that it’s unlikely that U.S. commanders overseas are pleased to be dealing with the complications. But they, too, had a heads-up the separation notices were coming, an official said.

“They knew this up front,” said the official. “They knew it was going to be a challenge. It’s always going to be a challenge to get the right person to replace that void that you now have in your formation. But we must be resilient, and look to the best way to make sure soldiers are being led by the best leaders we have…. It’s not going to put a smile on a commander’s face, but commanders do the best they can to cover down on what is required.”

The Army is expected to send 500 more majors similar notices this month.