Military's loss, private sector's gain

Many graduates of academies quit after required hitch

September 27, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The nations' three military academies have promoted themselves for decades as the schools that train the "future leaders of tomorrow," producing career officers equipped with an elite - and free - military education.

But recent budget cuts, low morale and the tightest labor market in 30 years have contributed to a growing number of departures from the military, not just of young officers, but of those whom military officials most counted on to stay: the academies' alumni.

Academy graduates have become among the most sought-after workers in the world, offering leadership experience, technical training and an almost guaranteed sense of personal responsibility.

Their increasing departure rate after five years of military service is raising questions about the schools' $1 billion-a-year price tag, which has been justified to Congress in the past by the academies' claim of producing career military officers.

In response, the three academies are beginning to change their message, pointing out that their graduates continue to serve the country well as civilians even if they leave the military after their required commitments. Because taxpayers pay for their $250,000 education, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy graduates must serve five years in the military. West Point graduates serve a minimum of four years.

Naval Academy officials note that 1,500 of the country's chief executive officers are Naval Academy graduates.

"This is the worst [retention rate] I've seen since the post-Vietnam years," said Harry G. Wilson, a Houston-based executive recruiter who specializes in recruiting military personnel. "The average junior military officer I see is ... angry and disappointed."

Ten years ago, fewer than 20 firms specialized in placing military officers in other jobs. Now, there are more than 400 companies and individuals vying for the officers' attention.

"Personally, it scares me," Wilson said, "because you do want a percentage of these kids to stay in the services, no matter what we can offer them. ... It makes me real nervous."

Statistics from the three academies show a declining rate of retention after five years for officers from the graduating classes of 1990 through 1994, who have finished their mandatory military service.

At West Point, the proportion of graduates choosing to stay in the military after four years has dropped from more than 80 percent for the classes graduating in the 1980s to 67 percent for the class of 1994. West Point expects the percentage to be even lower for the class of 1995.

At the Naval Academy, Capt. Glen Gottschalk, director of institutional research, said statistics showing retention rates after five years were not available, but he estimated that 80 percent stay beyond the minimum requirement.

"If there's any increase we're seeing, it's the number of graduates who are leaving after five years," Gottschalk said. "These things go in cycles with the economy and, additionally, when the military downsizes. It has a psychological effect."

At the Air Force Academy where the retention percentage for young officers traditionally hovers in the high 90s, the percentage fell to the high 80s for the graduating classes of 1993 and 1994. A little more than half of the graduating class of 1990 is still in the Air Force.

Academy graduates, while often grateful for their military experience, express many reasons for leaving the military, ranging from poor pay to disillusionment. The most commonly expressed reason is a weariness from back-to-back tours of duty caused by budget cuts. For Naval Academy graduates, frequent three-week deployments are often scheduled between six-month deployments.

Army troops have been deployed overseas 10 times from the Vietnam War to 1990. Since 1990, the Army has been deployed 33 times, with half the number of troops filling those overseas jobs.

Many graduates said they did not want their names used because they felt guilty for having left the military. Others, including 1995 West Point graduate Heidi Trush, who left last month to take a job as a transportation manager for a Midwestern health care company, said she enjoyed the Army but wanted more stability.

"I always thought I would be in longer," Trush said. "You always think about selfless service, about being a leader of character, serving the common defense ... but I got to the point where I looked at my life goals and I realized I can't even maintain a steady date without telling the guy I can't see you again for six weeks because I have to go back overseas."

Married West Point graduates Jeannie and John Koehler who met at the academy, left the Army this week even though they had expected to stay for many more years. They found jobs in Minnesota within two weeks of going to their first job fair.

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