Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column
Top military managers insist that our all-volunteer Army isn’t stretched too thin from this country’s heavy and hazardous commitment to hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan and cooler places in another 131 countries around Planet Earth. They spout positive numbers like carnival hucksters, hyping enlistment and re-enlistment rates they keep insisting are at an all-time high.
“Loyalty, patriotism and seeing the results of successfully accomplishing their missions are the key factors in this success,” said Col. Elton Manske, an Army personnel chief in the Pentagon.
Except that’s exactly 180 degrees out from what hundreds of soldiers have told me during the past few weeks.
It also doesn’t square with the fact that the Army is currently extending 44,000 soldiers under stop-loss provisions – which, like a form of the draft, arbitrarily keep a soldier in service beyond the agreed-upon term of enlistment.
“Stop loss is not only a breach of contract, it’s a form of slavery,” railed a Special Forces senior noncommissioned officer. “There’s a tidal wave of folks getting out. … The number of senior SF NCOs leaving is amazing. Our battalion had three of five sergeant majors retire, and our sister battalion had two of five. The number of master sergeants was well into double digits. I predict that the exodus will devastate the senior NCO corps at a time when experience and stability are most needed.”
Despite all the accentuate-the-positive spin coming out of the Pentagon, the anecdotal reports I’ve received – especially from Reserve and National Guard folks – agree with the SF sergeant and point to a mass exodus that will reach the hemorrhage point by mid-2005.
“Speaking off the record,” writes a military wife, “my husband was supposed to come home from Iraq this week but has just been extended another 120 days. His old unit, 3rd Infantry Division, is already seeing an exodus of junior officers. Since their return from Iraq, 35 captains have left the Army for greener pastures. Several more – read: another 15-20 – are due to leave, but who knows whether or not they’ll manage to do so before more stop losses and stop moves come down prior to their return to the desert … Between separation from family, no guarantee of tour lengths, no clear mission and consistent pay problems, folks are pretty fed up. If they can get out, which is no small feat, they seem to be doing so while the getting is good.”
“Don’t use my name,” writes a senior sergeant. “I believe we are going to have a massive attrition problem in the Reserve. I have 24 years in the Army Reserve, and this is my second time in the Gulf. They’re talking about reservists having to deploy once every five years. I doubt our civilian employers and families are going to buy into that. I’ve got to get out when I redeploy if I want to stay married.”
“We’re stretched too thin,” reports a sergeant. “Our CO [commanding officer] admitted this to us during our tour in Afghanistan. He also admitted that morale is down due to the extending of tours. Yet the Pentagon insists there’s no problem with morale. We lost over 75 percent of our unit when we got back. I know other units are having the same problems. If this trend continues, we won’t have enough people to defend this country when the need arises.”
An Apache pilot in Korea says, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Army is going to be losing a lot of people as soon as they get the chance to vote with their feet.”
I’m sure the brass have all the paperwork to back up their propaganda campaign. But as far as the old saw that “figures don’t lie” goes, I’ve been around long enough to know that liars figure and soldiers know the truth. So I’ll go with the soldiers.
Unless so-called Army short tours in the badlands of Iraq and Afghanistan become manageable based on the number of troops available – right now the Army is trying to do the work of 14 divisions with 10 under-strength, active-duty divisions – we’ll see a mass exodus from the Green Machine and the inevitable return of the draft.