State News

Post-9/11 military build-up reversal hits officers

Posted April 22, 2014

— After the 9/11 attacks, tens of thousands of young men and women joined the military, heading for the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and dusty deserts of Iraq.

Many of them now are officers in the Army with multiple combat deployments under their belts. But as the wars wind down and Pentagon budgets shrink, a lot of them are being told they have to leave.

It's painful and frustrating. In quiet conversations at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Eustis in Virginia, captains talk about their new worries after 15-month deployments in which they battled insurgents and saw roadside bombs kill and maim their comrades. They nervously wait as their fates rest in the hands of evaluation boards that may spend only a few minutes reading through service records before making decisions that could end careers.

During the peak war years, the Army grew to about 570,000, as commanders worked to fill combat brigades and support units to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of newly minted officers came in during 2006-2008.

Already down to about 522,000, the Army must shrink to 490,000 by October 2015, and then to 450,000 two years later. If automatic budget cuts resume, the Army will have to get down to 420,000 – a size service leaders say may not allow them to wage even one major, prolonged military campaign.

While a lot of the reduction can come from voluntary retirements, resignations and decreased enlistments, Army commanders will have to force as many as 3,000 officers – nearly 10 percent of the planned decrease – to leave by the end of October 2015. Of those, nearly 1,500 are captains, 550 are majors.

So far, the Army has separated or retired 239 lieutenant colonels and colonels. Another 1,100 non-commissioned officers have also been removed from the ranks.

Behind some of those big numbers are soldiers in their late 20s who will be forced out of their military careers long before retirement age and into the still struggling American job market. They would leave with honorable discharges, but without 20 years in the service they would not be eligible for retirement benefits, although they would qualify for Veteran Administration health coverage and other programs.

"The captains are a problem," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "Because, when we increased the size of the Army, we recruited heavily in certain year groups. So, as we draw the Army down, those are over strength."

The military has been through this before. In the years after Vietnam and during the 1990s as the Cold War thawed, the Pentagon pushed thousands of service members out the door, creating what some felt was a hollow military that lacked the soldiers, training and equipment needed to fight and win.

"It's unfortunate. We've seen it over the years at different times, like the reduction after Vietnam and some of the other wars that we've had. So, it's kind of to be expected," said Dan Dedrick, who has been selling cars in the Fayetteville area for nearly 25 years.

Dedrick said the impact of a force reduction goes beyond the soldiers themselves to affect communities near military posts like Fort Bragg.

"The Army and the Air Force is the biggest employer. and any time there is a reduction, it affects the region, retail businesses around the communities of Fayetteville," he said. "It'll affect us, but hopefully it will be to a small degree."

Army leaders argue they're trying to do the reduction the right way. They're not asking for volunteers, because too many good people leave. So, they are combing through files, looking for soldiers with disciplinary or other problems in their annual evaluations – known as efficiency reports – to weed out lower-performing officers.

Col. Trevor Bredenkamp, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said he talked to all of his majors who were in that group, and he had his battalion commanders talk to their captains.

"The challenge is there are about 8 percent that they will have to select that don't have any derogatory information in their file. So, there will be some people that will say, 'I don't know why I was selected,'" Bredenkamp said. "I'm telling people, 'Hey, they're going to decide who they decide on, and if you've been working hard and doing a good job, by and large, the majority of you don't have to worry about it.'"

Capt. Fred Janoe, a battery commander with the 18th Fires Brigade at Fort Bragg, said the process may create a short-term decline in morale but will be positive in the long term.

"You keep your best performers and as an organization you're able to do more with less," Janoe said.

Sometimes, he said, "you see guys who just barely get by. I don't wish for anything bad to happen to them." But he added, "I grew up on a cattle ranch, and sometimes you cull the herd a little bit."

Other captains did not publicly discuss their concerns about impending separation. But there are broad concerns that when the young officers were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during the peak war years, the attention paid to their evaluations may have slipped a bit and many of them got largely the same positive ratings. Some worry that a less than stellar relationship with one senior officer may doom their relatively short careers, while others say many lower performers got high marks while deployed, skewing the system.

Some officers have even found themselves in the odd position of being up for a promotion at the same time as they are being considered for separation, with both evaluation boards going on at about the same time.

Sgt. First Class Myles Larsen said he thinks he will use the reduction as a reason to leave the Army.

"I'm at that 10-year mark and done the deployments, done the work, but I'm going to be 40 years old," Larsen said. "I'm starting to think about, if I do another 10 years, where do I stand at the age of 50?"

Odierno said he recognizes the concerns and the Army is trying to go through the process carefully once it gets to the officers who don't have problems in their files.

"We're doing that a bit slower. I want to make sure that they have enough years where we can do a proper evaluation," he said. "We want to keep the best. We want it to be very competitive."

Once chosen for departure, the young officers will have two months to leave.

"I think that's the scary part of it," Larsen said. "You could be that person that they tag, and you'll just never know."

"We have an obligation to help them land softly on the outside of the Army," said Bredenkamp.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • mike275132 Apr 23, 2014

    Much like after every War, WWI, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, etc. the Military downsizes.

    Especially with our current White House Occupant whose policy is the weaken the USA in all dimensions.

    One of the predictable results of a military wind down.

  • CaptLucy Apr 22, 2014

    In regards to the article, I say if you want to reduce the size then do not enlist any new people for a period. If people are at 20 and just there to earn more and more money off of retirement, force retire them at 20. On the "social programs" topic, if social security had been used correctly it wouldnt be categorized as such. It should have been able to almost sustain itself but you had stingy politics moving money around and people approaching their 60's wondering if they worked for nothing and if they will ever get to truely retire because so many other programs have sucked social security dry. Shameful. People that WORKED for that money may not be guarenteed, while people that havent worked receive the benefits.

  • Richard Eskridge Apr 22, 2014
    user avatar

    Funny, a story on Wired was about the Air Force being able to replace five crew members with a piece of automated software. A lot folks in this forum have pointed out that ARMY numbers have risen and fallen in years. However, that perspective lacks some perception. Newer technologies are here and will be implemented in ever greater rates than ever before. We need to retrain these soldiers to work on robotic contraptions. Because it is those robotic contraptions that will be the ones using the M4 Carbine (or its successor) in wars in the air, on land or in the sea in the not too distant future.

  • dlnorri Apr 22, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Well Yes we are, sort of, "Social Program" spending passed DOD spending in the 60's and has never looked back. It is "social programs" that drove up the budget under Reagan. It is social programs that ate up the entire 'cold war savings' we were supposed to see after the fall of the USSR. Even fighting wars in multiple countries the past few years, the DOD budget has never matched (or really come close) to social program spending (the budget is actually published, you can do the math). Medicare and Medicaid generally match DOD before you even toss in ADC, Social Security/Disability or the dozens of other programs. Even if you take a swag at the amount DOD money hid in DOE, State, and Ag budgets, it does not come close to spending on social programs.

  • Sandra Elizabeth Apr 22, 2014
    user avatar

    Please Vets check this out. You are NOT forgotten.

  • rushbot Apr 22, 2014

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    my friend, i would be happy to see the borders with canada and mexico with an iron curtain style fence....however, that would be expensive and would not cover human smuggling through the ports... ...much better and cheaper to impose a $10,000 per undocumented worker on employers........and mandatory jail time of 3 months first offense........double the fine for second offense........and make the crime a felony....

  • Return of... Apr 22, 2014

    View quoted thread

    so you have a problem with a guy not paying for some hay, but you never complain about the other deadbeats not paying their bills. You will gladly do it for them as long as they keep voting democrat

  • Return of... Apr 22, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Not yet, but the takers are outweighing the makers more and more and you cant fudge that. You will try your best to get everyone dependent on government. Thats why you wont do anything about the borders. Lazy hands + hungry mouths = votes

  • lopo Apr 22, 2014

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    i was in the infantry and it was our job to close in with the enemy and kill. And sometime the weapons didn't shoot. Any infantry guy would love to hand to hand with a 5'2 110lb female.

  • spoonman Apr 22, 2014

    "FDR and Woodrow Wilson were Democrats....I don't recall either skimping on defense spending in WW1 or WW2."

    that's not what i read previously on this board