The Army’s Junior Officer Drain Posted by: McQ
on Thursday, December 27, 2007
Billy Beck calls my attention to an article in the Washington Monthly entitled "The Army's Other Crisis: Why the Best and Brightest Young Officers are Leaving" by Andrew Tilghman. Actually it was Dale who drew my attention to Billy's post and in my discussion with him I pointed out that losing captains isn't anything new.
Now that's not to blow off Tilghman's thoughtful article, but instead to point out that it is at the rank of Captain that Army officers have the typical fish-or-cut-bait moment in their career. It is decision time. Is this what I want to spend the rest of my life doing or do I need to go find something new? For those with 5 year service obligations, like West Pointers and RA ROTC grads like myself, it is about the time that the obligation is up and you need to decide. As the article points out, that usually ends up being about 8% a year.
But what has Tilghman and the Army concerned is that has grown to about 13% a year.
First, let me note that reading the first few paragraphs of the story about Matt Kapinos hit me particularly hard. Why? Because if you changed his name to mine and put him in ROTC instead of West Point, it is essentially my story.
Kapinos moved around a lot growing up—thirteen places in all, including upstate New York, Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas, and Korea. From his perspective, these locations all appeared pretty much the same. No matter where he lived, at 5 p.m. everyone paused as the American flag was lowered to the sound of a bugle. He attended schools run by the Defense Department, where many of the teachers were married to soldiers, and where military police chaperoned the school bus at times of heightened security. It wasn't until he was a high school junior that his family first lived "off post." His father, then a colonel, got a job at the Pentagon, and so the family moved to Springfield, Virginia. Unsurprisingly, by then Kapinos could imagine only one career for himself: he wanted to be an officer in the Army.
Pretty much me. In fact, almost exactly me. But living among the Army isn't the same as being in the Army as most Army brats who join eventually find out. My brother once described our upbringing as Army dependents to be a "Norman Rockwell" existence. In many ways, it was exactly that. But the Army has never, ever been a "Norman Rockwell" existence and what you may feel about the Army based on that experience of growing up around it doesn't survive long once you join. So it isn't at all uncommon to see people like Kapinos and me disillusioned by the reality of the institution instead of the fantasy we once enjoyed.
Some call it a day and leave. Others cinch up their belts and plod on. But it is at Captain (CPT) where those decisions are made. What many find, however, is what they thought the Army was going to be like while they were preparing to join it and what they found after they joined were not at all the same thing.
There are other reasons CPTs leave as well. One, of course, is because there's a war on. Wars have a tendency to drive people off when they get the chance to go. Some of the other reasons they leave have to do with deployment cycles and marital status.
Kapinos returned to Fort Bragg in late 2003. His wife, Katherine—a smart University of Virginia graduate with career plans of her own—was relieved. They'd married the previous year and had hardly seen each other since. After a few months, they'd started to settle into married life. Then, at a holiday party for officers and their wives, a loose-lipped sergeant major revealed that the battalion was leaving for Iraq in two weeks. Matt and Katherine's first Christmas together was an anxious one.
I've known LTs and CPTs who at the time I first met them were unmarried, change completely after they married. They went from being totally satisfied with their job to mostly dissatisfied. Suddenly there were new and more important priorities in their lives. And our modern culture has much to do with that:
Perhaps the most powerful new element affecting officers' willingness to stay in the Army is the shifting dynamic of marriage and the roles of men and women in the family. Even in the rather traditional realm of Army culture, fathers now expect to be more actively involved in raising their children, and women tend to be less deferential to their husband's career. Among baby boomers, officers' wives were usually homemakers. Today, however, many officers' wives are doctors or lawyers or have degrees in international affairs, and there are few opportunities for them in places like Kentucky or West Texas.
I disagree with Tilghman's assertion that among baby boomers, officer's wives were usually homemakers. Not my experience. But there certainly has been much more emphasis on parental involvement in the raising of children and certainly less deference to the husband's career than previously. But as it stands, family is critical and multiple deployments take their toll:
While many officers don't oppose the war itself, returning repeatedly to serve in Iraq is a grueling way to live. One of the many reasons for this is that it corrodes their families; the divorce rate among Army officers has tripled since 2003. Internal surveys show that the percentage of officers who cite "amount of time separated from family" as a primary factor for leaving the Army has at least doubled since 2002, to more than 30 percent.
When I say multiple deployments, I'm talking about three or four:
As officers prepare for a third or even fourth deployment, a new wave of discontent is expected to wash over junior leaders. Studies show that one deployment actually improves retention, as soldiers draw satisfaction from using their skills in the real world. Second deployments often have no effect on retention. It's the third deployment that begins to burn out soldiers. And a fourth? There's no large-scale historical precedent for military planners to examine—yet.
First deployments actually increase satisfaction and retention because soldiers get to use the skills they've learned from their ceaseless training. And even a 2nd deployment is okay. But when you do your third 15 month deployment with a 12 month break, then burn out begins, and that burn out is manifested within families as much as it is within the professional skills of a soldiers. As with many things, moderation is the key to longevity, and the type of op tempo our troops are presently on is a killer in that regard.
Now when that effects an enlisted soldier, he just doesn't re-enlist. But with an officer, he must resign. With an enlisted soldier, we recruit and train a new one. Training up a new enlisted soldier doesn't require the time or experience necessary to make a CPT. So when you begin to lose CPTs, senior company grade officers, two things happen - one you lose their experience. Two, you reduce the number of eligible and proficient officers for promotion to field grade ranks. But the requirements and slots remain. So you see officers who, if the numbers were at historic retention levels, wouldn't be promoted get promoted. But on the other side of that, not every CPT leaving the Army is among the brightest or best either.
A note of caution here - I've seen officers who I didn't think deserved promotion to the next rank get promoted anyway and perform very well at that rank and above. Some are just late bloomers. So I don't want this in any way to indicate that those who might not have been promoted under normal circumstances can't do the job at the next level. When all is said and done, they're all professionals and the vast majority of them act like it and perform like it as well.
The key point is that with CPTs getting out at the rate they're leaving, the Army only has 51% of the senior CPTs it needs for future requirements.
And it has a ripple effect. You'll soon find LTs in primary battalion staff positions and commanding companies. I know all about that as I did both as an LT. But there was a reason for that:
After the Vietnam War, as the Army started to make the transition to a volunteer force, officers left the service in droves. Morale was miserable, and discipline was lacking.
Every word of that is true. It is the primary reason I left active duty. That isn't at all the case now. Morale isn't miserable and discipline isn't lacking. But our culture has changed and the op tempo of deployments is simply unsustainable. The drain of CPTs is simply an indicator of that problem.
Another note of caution. Before getting too wrapped up in the consequences of this junior officer drain, I want to again point out it was worse post-Vietnam, yet it was those who remained in the Army at that time who built the peerless volunteer force we have today. So again, I don't really buy into this "brightest and best" leaving the Army. Certainly we're losing CPTs we'd like to retain, but we're certainly not being left with the dregs by any stretch.
However, that brings me to another point of the article. The "senior officers don't know what they're doing" bit.
Again a familiar refrain. And, as I've pointed out, it usually takes a war to shake out the Ricardo Sanchez types in favor of the David Petraeus types. Believe it or not, that has a lot to do with these sorts of decisions as well. Junior officers watch what happens at the higher levels of command and often base a part of their decision to stay or go on what they see happening at those levels.
Knowing the strategy wasn't working in '04, '05 and '06, and after multiple deployments where they saw a worsening situation, many CPTs decided to call it a day. Gen Petraeus and the success he's had in Iraq (because he's doing something for which many junior officers have been clamoring for years) will actually influence some officers to stay.
However there is another well-known example which has probably done more to drive junior officers out of the Army than any I know of:
Like many young officers I met, Kapinos and Morin were particularly disturbed by the experience of a colonel named H. R. McMaster. McMaster earned a Sliver Star in Operation Desert Storm. In 2005, he commanded a brigade of several thousand men in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. He was lauded as the first upper-level commander to introduce progressive counterinsurgency strategies, rather than the traditional security-based mission that most other commanders were pursuing. He sought support from the entire population of Tal Afar. When his men released detainees, they asked them how they felt they had been treated (this was dubbed the "Ask the Customer Program"). The results were impressive. As the rest of Iraq deteriorated in 2006, Tal Afar was relatively calm, and President Bush touted it as a success. Despite these achievements, McMaster has been passed over twice for promotion to brigadier general. Kapinos concluded, "The junior officers see a guy who they worship—he's smart and successful—and they see him get the short end of the stick. If he doesn't make one star, if he doesn't go on to great things, if the cream stops rising at some point—then the good guys are going to say, 'What's the point?'"
Knowing McMaster's history and accomplishments, and knowing that he's a smart guy who has done it all right at every level of command and in combat to boot, yet is passed over for BG, those of lesser accomplishment say "hell, if he can't make it, what's the point of me trying"? And they don't. They figure why waste your time climbing a ladder which is going to top out at COL even if you do it all perfectly? Why not find a nice job which will allow the time with the family, eventually grow to a low six figure job and enjoy life a bit? It's a powerful argument to someone weighing the pros and cons of remaining in the military. And right now, it's a "pro" for leaving given the McMaster experience.
Of course what is happening is the slack is being picked up by Army OCS programs which are growing in size. But the drawback there is they take experienced NCOs and put them through Officer's Candidate School, thus drawing them away from where they are just as badly needed. That causes a negative ripple effect which may end up degrading capability. That is an area of concern.
While the drain of CPTs at the level we're seeing it isn't a good thing, it isn't as bad as when I was in during the '70s. And again, I want to stress it is the leadership, to include the junior officers of that time, which built the Army into what it is today.
So we should certainly be concerned about the loss of CPTs. And while the fixes are obvious, given the mission, they aren't necessarily something which we can quickly accomplish. We'd have to cut the number of deployments and give the units more downtime between them (the ideal is 2 years). We risk consequences on down the road with a continued deployment schedule like we have now. But, we also have to remember we're at a war, and sometimes when at war, you have to take strategic risks.
That being said, this is nothing new. CPTs leave the Army because they are at a point in their careers where that sort of decision is traditionally made. They leave the army because there's a war on. Marriages, cultural changes and the pressure of repeated deployments have exacerbated that problem as well. However, we've overcome worse drains and not only survived as an Army, but prospered.
I find the article to be misleading. The Washington Post did a story a couple of months ago on the deficit of captains and majors. It is not due to a sudden drain of captains and majors due to the war. Instead, it is due to the inability to increase their numbers fast enough to meet an increased requirement as the Army grows. The Post had a graphic explaining the "anticipated shortfall of about 3,000 captains and majors until at least 2013". It is here. Until we began to increase the requirements for such officers in 2005, we had a surplus of captains and majors. Since then, we’ve actually increased the number of captains and majors, which is the opposite from the impression Tilghman leaves us with. The deficit now (and increasing through 2013), is entirely due to our requirements for captains and majors increasing faster than our ability to create them (which, as I’m sure you know, takes years - say 10 years back would put us right in the middle of the Clinton Administration drawdown - and we’re seeing the effect of that today).
A second point with Tilghman’s article is that he says, alarmingly, that the attrition rate increased from 8% in 2003 to 13%. But the WaPo tells us that the average attrition rate for captains was 12.2% from 1999 to 2007, which is right around the 13% Tilghman seems to think is a big deal. Indeed, one Army spokesman said earlier this year in USAT that officers are staying in at "historically high rates", and that the deficit has to do with expansion of the Army more than attrition problems.
I’m not saying that the other things that Tilghman is describing aren’t true. Nor what you’re describing in this post. But there’s more to the story that Tilghman isn’t telling us.
As I said, the primary reason it is happening is because CPT is where most officers make the decision to stay and make it a career or leave. That’s as it has always been.
Any increase is probably due to other reasons, most of which I’d say were outlined in the post.
The deficit now (and increasing through 2013), is entirely due to our requirements for captains and majors increasing faster than our ability to create them (which, as I’m sure you know, takes years - say 10 years back would put us right in the middle of the Clinton Administration drawdown - and we’re seeing the effect of that today).
That’s certainly part of it, especially with the ongoing expansion of the Army, but it is being exacerbated by a higher than normal attrition rate among that rank.
This is one of the most well developed posts on the subject of military officer retention that I have read, anywhere.
I especially agree that too many articles parrot the falsehood that the best and brightest leave early. Hollywood is to blame for most of that myth. It seems as though modern movie makers can never bring themselves to depict officers, especially senior officers, as the competent and caring people whom almost all are.
As for good men not making flag rank (General or Admiral) the fact is, that the pyramid narrows very quickly at the top. Some good men who are not deemed politically correct, or who can’t serve as a poster child for some political agenda, will find themselves with a shorter career than perhaps what they wanted. Some get missed just because of the luck of the draw. When you are in a crowd where everyone has always been early promoted, have several degrees and have lots of medals with clusters and valor Vs, then it is tough to break out of the pack.
But, they don’t call it, "Serving your country" for nothing. You serve and that is it. The satisfaction is in how you served and not how high you rose in the ranks.
Some of the finest officers I have known were Warrant Officers and Senior Enlisted personnel who converted to a Junior Officer rank late in their careers. These men never made it past W-3 or W-4, or O-3, yet they had wonderful careers and made major impacts on the places where they served and on those whom they served with.
The sad fact is that today’s military has far too many senior officers. The Army and Air Force have way more Generals than they need and the Navy has more Admirals than they have ships.
While the latter part of the Twentieth Century found most organizations using technology to flatten their command structures, our Defense Department allowed the ranks of flag officers relative to enlisted personnel to grow to bloated proportions. The same is true (at least in the Navy) for senior enlisted personnel. The Navy could do away with the entire E8 and E9 ranks and not miss a beat. Those who fill those ranks today usually complain that they are shoved away from their rates by promotion, and become "paper-pushers." These senior technicians (the good ones) should be retained as E7s and receive the pay that they would have gotten at the higher ranks, but that pay should be in the form of proficiency pay and those senior techs should be able to remain where they are the most effective, that being, working on the gear that they have spent their career learning about.
Our military needs truly talented personnel at every level. The sooner our military returns to a merit-only based system of advancement and recognizes the value of keeping good techs close to the gear, the better our military will function.
How does Army retention compare to Navy retention for the same ranks? If repeated deployment is a cause for leaving the service, the Navy has been dealing with that for quite a number of years. Although there are shore billets, the majority of billets involve sea duty and extended deployments away from home throughout a career, not just during wartime.
McQ, excellent entry. Your experience in the Army seems to be a mirror of my own experience in the Air Force. I was raised a "brat" and only one who has experienced that can understand the life of BXs and Commisaaries, Teen towns and Pax Terminals, Movies and Bowling Alleys, the Cafeterias and Chow Halls of military life all over the world.
I found the most disillusioned of my fellow officers tended to be academy types. These individuals, especially those with no experience as a "brat" tended to view the military life from an academic rose tinted perspective. They had been taught the "book" answer and even lived the "book" answer military life and when faced with the real Air Force tended to become extremely bitter and could not wait to leave after their first commitment was up. (Note; It took me an entire career to find the REAL Air Force - I think you know what I mean.)
My own experience was that the Air Force tended to throw money at the retention problem. And for the Air Force, Pilots were the real focus of retention. Ridiculous efforts were made to keep the pilots from going to the airlines. (Even the use of a brown leather flight jacket to keep people in service) Pilot bonus money became the primary a tool for retention. I personally never knew of a single person who stayed in because of the bonus money. Either you were satisfied with your job or you were not - period. And that, more than any other single factor, determined retention. War and the threat of combat never really affected retention that I ever saw - but I have to admit there is a major difference between Army and Air Force when you are in a service where the only ones in harms way were those flying the missions - almost entirely officers .
Well since I blog in a style I enjoy and don’t blog to please you, it would seem you’re SOL.
And with irony, I note that it was that style which likely attracted Glasnost in the first place. It strikes me as predictable, yet ironic that he should more or less demand you change that style, now.
Someone mentioned the over-abundance of Flag Officers in the services. I would like to point out that this is simply the nature of the beast in a peace-time force structure. That is not to say that there AREN’T too many Flag Ranks, but to counter balance that with the thought that unlike the Second World War were the world-wide command structure and responsibility was backed up by a commensurately large FORCE structure. In that war there were 13 million citizens under arms, scattered around the world. Nowadays there are three Marine Divisions and 10 Army divisions, but the command responsibilities have not declined , there is still an Eighth Army, a Third Army, a First Army (IIRC), a Fifth Fleet, a Seventh Fleet, an Eighth Air force and the like...each with a different geographic focus, but no forces. In short the US has one army’s worth of troops (10 divisions) but many armies, so of course there will be a higher percentage of Four Stars to troops than there was in the Second World War. Patton commanded an Army’s worth of troops, now Patton’s successor commands a large HQ contingent and will get the troops s/he gets assigned. By the nature of the beast the US Armed Forces will have more Flag Officers than one might, at first glance, think necessary. The US still has interests in all the areas it had interests, forces, and commands in the Second World War, but the force structure has drastically shrunk, but not the need for the command structures, due to the interests.
I apologize for the late comment, but this statement caught my attention: "Among baby boomers, officers’ wives were usually homemakers. Today, however, many officers’ wives are doctors or lawyers or have degrees in international affairs, and there are few opportunities for them in places like Kentucky or West Texas."
This particular point argues for a return of military bases to close proximity to or even brought inside large American urban centers, eg, NYC, LA, Chicago, etc.. If our larger social and economic trends for higher-educated Americans are concentrating in the cities, wouldn’t it help retention if our higher-educated officers’ wives can be physically located where they can pursue their careers?
In the US, our bases are usually in the boonies. Outside of the US, it’s more common for US military bases to be co-located with large cities, eg, Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, ROK, where I spent a lot of my time in the Army. If bringing the military closer to socio-economic trends in civilian society is a concern, then I think bringing military bases back to cities is a solution.
How many live fire training excercises do you want in your neighborhood?
"How do soldiers stationed in or near cities OCONUS train?..."
For major training, they load their vehicles and other stuff on trains to go to major maneuver areas and ranges. This takes time and lots of money, and is only available for limited periods each year. By itself, this limited training period, usually only a few weeks, is insufficient. I don’t think you really understand how much land area and time is needed for infantry, artillery, and armored units to train properly, or how much damage can be caused by a convoy of tracked vehicles, even off road.
Training for military based in cities is not as unlikely as you seem to think. Certainly, MOUT opportunities would abound and MOUT is the primary 21st century tactical environment. American cities and their surrounding areas aren’t all midtown Manhattan. Which is to say, police forces working in/near cities train just fine. Some cities, like NYC, already have abundant military training resources close by, if currently underutilized. I served the majority of my time as a soldier in Korea, where most of our bases are in/near cities - foreign cities no less, which adds an additional layer of bureaucracy and rules - and not on isolated military reservations. True, we had to travel to most of our ranges and FTXs, but we did so as a matter of routine. Then again, when I was stationed in the US on isolated military reservations, our ranges weren’t next door to our barracks, anyway - we still had to travel to our ranges and FTXs. It’s not like every US base has NTC next door.
I highly doubt soldiers stationed in/near US cities would want for training facilities anymore than soldiers do now.
Training for military based in cities is not as unlikely as you seem to think.
I don’t think, I know. To use a tired cliché: been there, done that. In addition to doing military training in urban areas (to include participating in exercise URBAN WARRIOR) both on active duty and as a reservist, I am also familiar with police/firefighter training facilities so it’s not like this is a hypothetical to me.
Certainly, MOUT opportunities would abound
Not on any meaningful scale.
and MOUT is the primary 21st century tactical environment.
Which is why the military has MOUT facilities where they can train at their leisure, and those are not inside large cities.
American cities and their surrounding areas aren’t all midtown Manhattan. Which is to say, police forces working in/near cities train just fine
Police forces are not military forces, despite their penchant for military equipment, tactics and lingo. What did you do in the military? I know you didn’t work in S3/G3. How much familiarity do you actually have with MOUT?
Some cities, like NYC, already have abundant military training resources close by, if currently underutilized.
I served the majority of my time as a soldier in Korea,
I lived in Seoul for a while. ROK is not the USA.
we had to travel to most of our ranges and FTXs, but we did so as a matter of routine.
Routine for you and for the Koreans. USA is not the ROK. The biggest difference is that little DMZ a stone’s throw away from Seoul.
we still had to travel to our ranges and FTXs. It’s not like every US base has NTC next door.
And there aren’t many cities that can or would want to accommodate the kind of faculties that would be required to train a battalion of infantry. The reason a lot of these bases are in the boonies is not because the military enjoys the fresh air and scenic views.
I highly doubt soldiers stationed in/near US cities would want for training facilities anymore than soldiers do now.
Doubt away. My experiences lead me to a totally different conclusion. The Coast Guard can’t even get authorization to do live fire gunnery on the Great Lakes because the residents were opposed to the idea. If you think that urban residents are going to let their prime real estate be utilized for military purposes, guess again. Especially considering that many urban residents are not particularly fond of the military to begin with.
a special area needs to be set up, or set aside, for that, away from civilians.
They have "special areas" already. They are called "bases" and they are not in civilian cities.
"I highly doubt soldiers stationed in/near US cities would want for training facilities anymore than soldiers do now."
Check out the problems the Marines are having at Camp Pendleton, or the Navy used to have at Las Viecas. And, as I said, you really need to find out how much UNPOPULATED maneuver area is needed to train troops, even without live fire.
"What did you do in the military?"
Probably a HQ unit. Yongsan garrison is in the heart of Seoul, home to several HQs.