Band of Brothers

The Army is trying to create more cohesive units that can better withstand combat stress.

Long-serving soldiers accustomed to the vagaries of military life have always known they could count on at least one thing from the Army: No matter how miserable or rewarding a particular assignment might be, it wouldn't last long, even in combat. During a 30-year career, most soldiers and their families will have moved well over a dozen times and changed jobs even more.

The Army's up-or-out personnel system manages soldiers individually, moving people in and out of jobs around the globe every two or three years, often in tandem with advanced training and education at military schools and civilian universities. Until recently, even war wasn't much of an impediment to the system, which routinely recalled commanders from combat if they were slated to attend a leadership development course required for promotion-never mind that leadership on the battlefield was likely to suffer.

In November 2003, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker put an end to the practice because mid-war leadership changes apparently were undermining troop morale.

Last year, acting on the widespread belief that so many job changes-among soldiers as well as their leaders-are neither good for the troops nor for the Army, Schoomaker took personnel reform a step further. He initiated a multiphase "force stabilization" plan aimed at reducing the turmoil inevitable in an organization that every year incorporates about 80,000 recruits, reassigns another 110,000 soldiers, and loses about 80,000 who retire or leave at the end of their enlistments. All these comings and goings make it difficult to invest troops and their leaders with the depth of skills necessary for sophisticated military operations.

Schoomaker deemed force stabilization one of his top priorities as chief. Beginning in August 2004, every soldier assigned to a duty position in the continental United States was eligible to remain there for subsequent assignments. That doesn't mean soldiers won't be assigned elsewhere-the Army reserves the right to make duty assignments in its best interest-but for an institution that historically has frowned upon "homesteading," or spending too much time in one location, the new policy represents a sea change.

During the next four years, as the Army redesigns its combat structure to create smaller, more versatile units, personnel managers will synchronize soldiers' assignments with the training and operational cycles of these new combat units. In the future, soldiers will no longer be individually rotated in and out of these units; instead, replacement soldiers will be rotated into units as a package during predetermined "reset" phases, so as not to disrupt the group dynamics and training schedule of those units. Likewise, soldiers will stay with those units until they reach the reset phase, about every three years, when they might leave to attend professional development programs required for promotion.

The aim of the stabilization plan is twofold: to give soldiers more predictability in their personal and professional lives, and to develop more cohesive military units that can better withstand the stresses of combat.

Maj. Donald Vandergriff, assistant professor of military science at Georgetown University and a longtime proponent of such changes, is guardedly optimistic. "Gen. Schoomaker deserves a lot of credit," Vandergriff says. For decades, Army leaders have bemoaned what is known as the individual replacement system, whereby soldiers are rotated in and out of units regardless of the mission or the soldiers' preparedness for that mission. Thus, units engaged in combat were perpetually losing some of their most seasoned troops while gaining new, inexperienced troops, all because that's the way the personnel system worked.

It is widely accepted that soldiers serving together over a long period of time will be more apt to develop greater trust and technical prowess, thus improving their performance in combat. In addition, soldiers' families who stay in one place longer are more likely to develop deeper ties to their communities if spouses have time to advance their careers and children can settle into one school for a while. Army leaders suggest that soldiers even will reap financial bene-fits from more stability, as more will buy homes and build equity in real estate. The belief is that happier families make for happier soldiers, and happier soldiers are more likely to stay in the Army, an increasingly critical issue as the military struggles to recruit new troops and retain the best among those now serving.

But it's also an extraordinarily complex undertaking. Changing any one aspect of the personnel system-in this case, the way duty assignments are made-will have far-reaching repercussions across the Army, affecting everything from how soldiers are educated and promoted to how units train for combat.

Perhaps more important, by adopting the stabilization plan, the Army is in effect acknowledging that the current personnel system, which encourages broad experiences across a range of assignments, is no longer the best system for developing and promoting the skills needed for today's conflicts.

The Army has tried-and failed-to make similar changes in the past. Those plans were never implemented across the service, however, and all withered because of a lack of institutional support. The real test of force stabilization, says Vandergriff, will be when the first "stabilized" soldiers come up for promotion, especially officers and noncommissioned officers.

"Will the personnel system adapt to the new goals? When [these soldiers] come before the promotion board, will they be rewarded?" he wonders. "A lot of people have a vested interest in the old system. Senior officers that were successful in that system, will they see the new system as less effective, since it was their experiences in the old system that produced their success?"

Vandergriff, who has done extensive research on the Army's personnel practices for a forthcoming book, Raising the Bar: Creating Adaptive Leaders to Deal With the Changing Face of War, says it will take a generation to make the new system work. "You have a culture, a rank structure and a force structure that was essentially created in the Napoleonic era. You can't change it overnight."

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