There were no signs of the shrapnel wounds from a roadside bomb in Iraq as Staff Sgt. William Pinkley raised his right hand and swore once more to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Despite his wounds — and despite the rising death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq — he and other soldiers are signing up for another tour of duty, re-enlisting at rates that exceed the retention goals set by the Pentagon.
Pinkley re-enlisted for three more years, citing the camaraderie and the challenge of a new assignment.
“To come out and work with you guys every day, it’s a good feeling,” Pinkley, 26, told his 101st Airborne Division buddies during the ceremony earlier this month. His wife, Kimberly, watched with a smile, their toddler in her arms.
As of March 31 — halfway through the Army’s fiscal year — 28,406 soldiers had re-enlisted, topping the six-month goal of 28,377. The Army’s goal is to re-enlist 56,100 soldiers by the end of September.
“It’s a very positive retention picture at this point,” said Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, an Army public affairs officer. The Army had nearly a half-million active-duty soldiers.
However, Childress cautioned that factors such as an improved economy and the Pentagon’s decision to keep about 20,000 troops in Iraq for longer than a year to help quell the violence could change the picture.
Some contend a poor job market and re-enlistment bonuses worth thousands of dollars are keeping soldiers in the Army. Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 101st’s 2nd Brigade, said it is more about camaraderie, patriotism and duty.
“They’ve had a personally rewarding and professionally developing experience,” Anderson said. “I think they’ve formed some bonds that are going to last a lifetime. It tends to make them want to stay.”
82nd Airborne falls short
The only Army division to not meet its goal in the six-month period was the 82nd Airborne Division, whose members have been sent to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq since the Sept. 11 attacks. The division wanted to re-enlist 1,221 soldiers, but got only 1,136.
At Fort Campbell, soldiers from the 101st spent seven months in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The entire division of about 20,000 soldiers was sent to Iraq last year for major combat, and the last planeload returned home in March. A grueling year in Iraq claimed the lives of 61 Fort Campbell soldiers, and hundreds more were wounded.
In the six-month period ending March 31, the 101st topped its goal of re-enlisting 1,591. It got 1,737 to sign up for another tour of duty.
Fort Campbell leaders said their numbers debunk the theory that yearlong combat-zone assignments — not typically used since Vietnam — and the casualties in Iraq would discourage soldiers from re-enlisting.
Shelley MacDermid, co-director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, said it is too early to know what effect the war in Iraq will have long-term on recruitment and retention.
“If the war were to end tomorrow, the impact on re-enlistments likely would be very different than three years from now,” MacDermid said.
‘You re-enlist a family’
Some soldiers, of course, are getting out, for themselves or for their families. (“There’s a saying in the Army — ‘You enlist a soldier, but you re-enlist a family’ — and that’s true,” said Command Sgt. Maj. James Plemons, who oversees retention for the 101st.)
Staff Sgt. Bobby Miller, 31, has spent more than 10 years in the Army said he is getting out when his term ends in less than a year. The 101st soldier has served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq and said he has barely seen his wife and two children in the past few years.
“It’s not that we don’t want to deploy; I’d like a little more stabilization,” Miller said.
Pinkley was riding in a Humvee the day after Thanksgiving when it was rocked by a bomb. He suffered internal injuries and is still healing from the shrapnel wounds. He said he and his wife discussed for more than a year whether he should re-enlist.
In the end, despite his pain and his wife’s fear for his life, they decided it was best for both of them, she said. His next position will be as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga.
“I’m excited about it,” his wife said. “It’s something he wanted to do. We told him we’d be supportive of him whatever he wanted.” As for the possibility of her husband being sent off to a combat zone again, she said: “We would definitely do it again if we had to.”