Looking for Leaders
The Army needs more than a few good officers to combat a shortage of captains and majors.
There's been a lot of hand-wringing in recent months about the Army's struggle to meet recruiting goals, but often overlooked is the fact that soldiers, especially those who have served in combat, are re-enlisting at higher rates than expected, exceeding the Army's retention goals and resulting in a more combat-tested force. It's a phenomenon that somewhat mitigates the failure to sign on as many new recruits as the Army wants. But a personnel challenge perhaps more worrisome than recruiting shortfalls is this: Who will lead these soldiers in the future?
The Army today is short several thousand officers, mostly captains and majors, those most needed to lead troops on the battlefield and train the Iraqi security forces that senior officials say are so critically needed before U.S. troops can withdraw from Iraq. To deal with the shortage, the Army is offering education incentives to keep young officers from leaving, promoting lieutenants faster, and turning to the Navy and Air Force for reinforcements.
The officer shortage and ensuing scramble to fill empty billets is worrying some senior leaders. Col. J.B. Burton, a brigade commander now in Baghdad, recently wrote a six-page memo to Army leaders outlining serious concerns about the officer personnel management system. It was posted online by The Wall Street Journal in July. "The main message from our junior officers is that their service is not about financial gain. . . . They want recognition for their performance and want a competitive [personnel] system that rewards top performers," he wrote. Such competitiveness is impossible to achieve when nearly all officers through the rank of lieutenant colonel are virtually guaranteed a promotion-a situation that is rapidly becoming the norm.
There are a number of reasons for the officer shortage. Most significant is the Army's restructuring from a division-based organization to one centered around smaller brigades that operate with greater independence. The new structure requires about 7,000 more captains and majors. Also, a report by the Congressional Research Service in July 2006 concluded that the Army in the late 1990s accessed too few officers in an effort to meet congressionally mandated force levels that have since been raised, a factor that contributes to the current problem. Additionally, attrition has increased slightly in the last two years, Army officials say.
"There are different ways to attack a shortage like this, but the bottom line is if we want a major it takes us 10 years to get one, and it takes us three years and two months to grow a captain. So whatever you do, you can't do it quickly," says Col. Paul L. Aswell, chief of the officer division on the Army senior staff.
Most officers who voluntarily leave the Army do so at the captain grade. That's when their active-duty obligation typically ends, after three to five years of service, depending on whether they were commissioned through Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., the Reserve Officer Training Corps at an accredited college or university, or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Captains who renew their commissions are more than likely to make the Army their career because by the time they again become eligible to leave the service, usually as majors nearing promotion, they have a serious financial stake in staying until retirement.
"We generally don't lose majors," says Aswell, unless they are forced out for disciplinary reasons. The few dozen majors who do leave voluntarily every year tend to do so for personal reasons-a family crisis, an unexpected financial windfall, or in some cases they are OCS graduates whose prior enlisted service qualifies them for retirement ahead of their peers.
The best thing for the Army is to try to keep the officers it already has, says Aswell. To that end, the service last year began offering incentives to graduates of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and West Point. They can attend graduate school during their first term of service or take an assignment location or job of their choice in exchange for an additional three years of active duty (on top of the four or five years they've already incurred)-an obligation that will extend their commitment to the point where they will be more likely to stay until they are eligible to retire.
Nearly 3,000 officers have accepted such offers. "That is a significant number, and it represents nearly a third of the population of [officers commissioned in 2006 and 2007]. That means already we have [kept] a lot of officers who normally would have separated, and accordingly we should have increased retention and improvement in our captain strength starting around 2010," says Aswell.
The Army also has called to active duty about 600 Reserve captains and majors, Aswell says, and placed a number of high-performing lieutenants in billets slated for captains. More controversial is the service's acceleration of promotion rates for lieutenants from 48 months in grade in 1999 to 38 months.
Through interservice transfer agreements with the Navy and Air Force under what's known as the Blue to Green Program, the Army has brought on about 400 officers who would likely have been forced out of those services, because they are shrinking while the Army is growing.
Capt. Richard Nygaard is one of them. Two years ago, he was a munitions and missile maintenance officer working on the flight line with the 46th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. When the Air Force announced it would cut his occupational specialty by 80 percent, he figured the chances of keeping his job were slim.
"I was married with three girls and told that I had only a 20 percent chance of keeping my job," Nygaard wrote in an e-mail from Iraq, where he has been working as an Army military intelligence adviser on a
10-person team training an Iraqi army battalion since late April. "I really wasn't ready to quit serving my country since I had just barely hit the four-year mark. I had heard of the Blue to Green option and looked into it. . . . They even offered a $2,500 bonus for making the transition, although I have yet to see any of that, to my wife's disgust."
The yet-to-be-seen bonus wasn't the only problem. "My daughter's medical records were lost, my dental records were lost, my pay date was incorrect, etc. There was a lot of fixing that needed to be done" when he arrived at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., last summer for the captains career course that would put him on the path to becoming an Army intelligence officer. All the problems aside, Nygaard said he would recommend the program to anyone. He's even talked another Air Force officer, Capt. William Simpson, into going green as well.
"I get to work with direct [human intelligence] sources and see how the intel process works from start to finish. . . . It's a great experience all around," Nygaard said.
Perhaps surprisingly, thus far the war in Iraq has not led to a spike in attrition levels, but nobody is taking the relative stability for granted, and recent indicators are cause for concern. On average, about 12.8 percent of Army captains leave the service every year. This year, however, that number crept up to 13.1 percent, and Army leaders fear it could grow, Aswell says.
"We have to ask ourselves, 'Is it the war? Is it the back-to-back deployments?'" says Aswell. For him, the question has personal resonance. "My son is a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and he's had four tours in Iraq. His friends have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. One friend has served 42 months in Iraq since June 2002. . . . That has to have some effect in the future."
"What's not amazing is that these officers get out. What's amazing is that so many of them do stay in."