Army aims to slow exodus of captains

An increasing number of junior officers quitting as war in Iraq wears on

August 28, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Jonathan Powers, a 27-year-old Army captain from Buffalo, N.Y., spent more than a year in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division and saw "a lot of good things being done" to help rebuild the country.

But when his four-year commitment came up, Powers decided last September to leave the Army because he was wary of additional tours in a war-torn land: "You're going to be in Iraq. That's the Army."

As the American military begins its third year in Iraq and President Bush vows to stay the course, an increasing number of captains and other junior officers are leaving the service, leading some current and former officers to fear an exodus of talent not seen since the Vietnam War.

Captains are effectively the junior executives of the Army, commanding companies of about 120 soldiers. Most have at least three years of active-duty experience -- some many more. This generation of captains probably has more battlefield seasoning and regional knowledge than any since World War II, Army officers say, and their loss would leave a hole that would be impossible to fill.

Lawmakers have worried for some time that the vast numbers of troops being used for long deployments in Iraq could lead to the departure of experienced soldiers, with a resulting deterioration of the Army.

"Ultimately ... warfare isn't about machines; it's about people. It's the quality of our people that wins the wars for us," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told Army leaders this year.

According to Army statistics, the attrition rate among captains -- those who leave the military instead of re-enlisting -- was 13.6 percent in 2004, well above the 10.7 percent average witnessed since the mid-1990s. The Army had no immediate information on whether that 2004 figure was matched or exceeded during the years before 1996. When company-grade officers are considered -- both captains and lieutenants -- the loss rate is 8.5 percent, the highest in four years and above the average of 7.3 percent for the period from 1996 to 2004.

Senior Army officers, acknowledging the demands of current operations, insist that the losses are manageable and say that they are proposing incentives to retain young officers. Overall, retention is strong among both the officer corps and enlisted ranks, they say, dismissing as alarmist any notion that the Army is "breaking."

"I think we're a hell of a long way from breaking the Army," the service's top officer, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, told reporters last week. "It is a lot more resilient than people believe."

`Artificially' high

Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the Army's personnel chief, said the attrition rate for captains appears "artificially" high because the Army now promotes lieutenants to captain 10 months earlier, and officers often leave at the end of their first-term obligation.

Better indicators, he said, are company-grade statistics, which show a loss rate only "slightly above" the average, though he had no explanation for the increase. The Army did not have more current data, though Hilferty said the Army predicts that this year's company-grade attrition will fall to about 7.1 percent.

Hilferty said that the overall number of captains has increased fairly steadily since 1999, when there were about 21,000 captains. There are now about 24,000, he said, and that number "clearly shows we do not have a serious problem."

But in interviews, a half-dozen captains who either left the Army or are planning to leave said they each know of at least several other junior officers who will also get out.

Dave Chasteen, a 27-year-old former captain who swept into Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2003, resigned from the Army last year, saying the prospect of additional deployments was "a real motivating factor in leaving." He knows of two other captains in his old division who plan on leaving when the unit returns home next year after its second deployment.

One captain now serving as an armor officer in northern Iraq, who requested anonymity, said that more than one-third of the captains he knows, six out of 15, are leaving his unit, which is also on its second tour in Iraq.

"I am single, but some of my friends who are married just cannot handle the operational tempo away from their families," he said. If the Army doesn't work to reverse the losses, he said, "next summer you will see a mass exodus of officers returning from their second" deployment.

Ted Doody, an Iraq veteran of the 1st Armored "Old Ironsides" Division, is a case in point. He hung up his captain's uniform last fall when he found himself caught between the prospect of multiple deployments to Iraq and the demands of home life.

"My wife had our first child yesterday morning," said Doody, now 28 and a real estate developer on the Gulf Coast, who foresaw countless months away from his young family. "I was looking at being deployed, on average, every other year until this thing is resolved."

Incentives considered

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