Image: 031117_moran_trooplevels_hup
U.S. Army 101st Airborne troops on a patrol near Mosul in northern Iraq in late September.
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msnbc.com
updated 12/9/2003 11:51:12 AM ET 2003-12-09T16:51:12

For Robert, joining the Army last May was a no-brainer. With the job market stagnant and his hopes for a college education hanging in the balance, the Army’s promise to trade tuition for a three-year stint seemed like a good bet, especially since he was able to defer his enlistment for six months. Now, as his December induction date approaches, Robert is having second thoughts, like many other recruits who deferred enlistment.

“Back in May I thought the war was over,” says the 19-year-old Bronx native, who asked that his last name be kept out of the story. “Now I’m thinking what I may have to do in Iraq, and I’m worried.”

Army recruitment figures have held up so far in spite of the steady casualties being suffered in Iraq. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the Army made its target of recruiting 73,800 new soldiers; the Navy lured 41,000 new sailors and the Air Force added 32,000 new recruits. The Marines drew 38,914 “good men” and women.

But Army recruitment officers and military analysts alike caution that the true impact of the war on recruiting and re-enlistment is only beginning to be seen.

Robert’s story is not typical, but it is not completely isolated either.

Asked about Robert’s case, Staff. Sgt. William Howard, who runs the Army’s recruiting station in East Orange, N.J., said “We’ve had a lot of these kids changing their minds. Look, we’re not trying to trick anybody into going into the Army. We spend a lot of time explaining to them this is serious stuff, not just tuition and a job.”

Robert is the first to admit his recruiter didn’t candy-coat the Army.

“We talked about how the Army is out there in the front lines,” says Robert. “I guess I didn’t really think about things going down like they did in Baghdad, though.” He says he hasn’t decided whether he will try and get out of his commitment, and Army officials would not provide any figures on recruits like Robert who have done so since the Iraq war began.

A BRIGHT PICTURE, SO FAR

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is quick to point out that retention and recruitment are holding firm. However, he always adds a caution:

“We have not yet seen any adverse indications with respect to recruiting or retention that are notable,” Rumsfeld said in October. “On the other hand, the effects of the stress on the force are unlikely to be felt immediately.”

The stakes for the military, and for the Army in particular, are high. Already, the Iraq occupation, deployments in Afghanistan, South Korea, Colombia, the Philippines, East Africa and other regions have the army’s troop rotation schedule in tatters. Tours of duty in Iraq were extended to six months then nine then to a year. Time with family across the board is drastically down.

Last month’s announcement that more Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops would be mobilized further complicates the picture, adding new stress to these auxiliary forces.

Nonetheless, says Charles S. Abell, Rumsfeld’s deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the system is bearing the load. Abell runs the Pentagon office which monitors figures for recruitment and re-enlistment collected by each of the four services — the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

“The reserve components are achieving their strength goals, and they have done so by adjusting resources and emphasis in response to trends,” Abell told MSNBC.com in an e-mail interview. “If attrition declines, recruiting efforts can be adjusted accordingly. Conversely, if there are indications that attrition is edging up, additional resources, incentives and emphasis can be placed on recruiting.”

Put simply — the Army so far has been able to divert money (in the form of re-enlistment bonuses and other benefits) and recruiters at the first sign of trouble.

SIGNS OF STRESS

Experts say the first signs of trouble are surfacing now in the Guard and Reserve, whose soldiers are generally older than their active duty comrades, many of them with families. Even as the active duty services and reserves made their recruitment targets in fiscal 2003, the Army National Guard was behind in meeting its target of 60,000 new recruits by nearly 15 percent with only a month left. A huge last-minute infusion of bonus money and other benefits helped close the gap, but the warning signs were noted. Indeed, because of the annual nature of the figures, many feel the dip the Army National Guard experienced in fiscal 2003 may not even reflect the full impact of Iraq’s descent into guerrilla fighting.

There is real concern that 2004 could see retention rates drop dramatically as the stress of long-term deployments and combat duty on family-oriented Guard and reserve troops begins to show.

“Retention is what I am most worried about. It is my No. 1 concern,” Lt. Gen. James Helmly, the head of the Army reserve, told USA Today last month. “This is the first extended-duration war the country has fought with an all-volunteer force.”

On Tuesday, acknowledging the strains on the system, Rumsfeld vowed to adjust the mix of specialties that reside in the Guard and Reserve and move them back into the active duty force.

Since Vietnam, when a draft enabled the military to bulk up without mobilizing large Guard and Reserve units, the Army has restructured and given the Guard and Reserve tasks that would be central to any major war. The idea was, in part, to ensure that no protracted conflict could be waged, as were the Korean and Vietnam wars, while the bulk of the American public proceeded as if the nation was at peace. Now, Rumsfeld wants this “linkage” undone.

“We have people in the Guard and Reserve where we really need to have those skills on active duty,” Rumsfeld told Seventh Fleet sailors in Tokyo. “And we probably have some skills on active duty that would be better off in the Guard and Reserves.”

Additionally, he touted the idea of shifting some support roles — truck driving, cooking, maintenance — to civilian contractors, and ending a practice known as “up-or-out,” which forces mid-career officers who are passed over for promotions to retire.

A BILL COMING DUE?

None of the fixes proposed by Rumsfeld will be fast in coming, however. Analysts suggest that if the Army does reach its “tipping point” — the point where retention and recruitment drops below the ability to sustain current training and missions — it may catch the Pentagon by surprise. While current figures show no problems, as Abell notes, he concedes it may be too early to say for sure.

“There is a data lag that we are working to reduce,” says Abell.

The “lag” in numbers already is rather small — a month at most. Yet nothing in current figures will give the military any warning if an entire “class” of soldiers — troops whose commitment ends at the same time — decides they’ve had enough. The same is true of officers, many of whom serve out obligations they took on in exchange for tuition or attendance at one of the military academies.

“The way the Pentagon tracks this could be storing up trouble,” says Andrew Krepinevich, a military analyst who has testified before Congress on retention and current force levels.

Because the military requires soldiers to sign fixed-term contracts, any negative effects due to the bloody Iraq occupation are likely to take up to a year to know. This fact runs across all three key components of the military — the active duty forces, the reserves and the Guard.

“I think the problem is that nothing’s going to show up until next spring,” Krepinevich says. “At that point — about a year after the beginning of the Iraq war — it will become evident whether people are voting with their feet.”

Another factor skewing the numbers right now — though which was is not possible to know — is the “no out” clauses the Army has imposed on some officers and specialists in South Korea, meaning that, for the time being, they must remain on active duty until further notice.

THE UPSIDE DOWNSIDE

A final complication for the military is the improving economy.

The Army and other services market themselves heavily to recent high school graduates seeking college money through the “G.I. Bill,” and to men and women early in their careers seeking new job skills. The military tends to thrive, reflected in an improved quality of recruits, when the job market is tight in the civilian economy.

Krepinevich and other experts believe the years since Sept. 11, 2001 have been an anomaly — a time when intense patriotism and a very poor job market conspired to make it very easy for the military to meet its recruiting goals.

“If the economy picks up significantly, that is going to complicate things enormously,” says Krepinevich. “The problem then becomes not only in attracting new recruits, but that you are going to start losing some of the best people to the civilian economy — especially those with high-tech skills.”

Robert, the young recruit struggling over what to do about his upcoming induction day, says he hasn’t seen any change in the job situation. “If I felt like I had a career path right now, my decision would be a bit easier,” he says. “What the papers are saying about the economy picking up — I’m not seeing it. I’m kinda hoping they’re wrong about what’s going on in Iraq, too.”

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