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.
The Army must shrink from 570,000 soldiers at the peak of the war years down to about 450,000 by October 2017. While much of the reduction to its current size of 522,000 came 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—soldiers in their late 20s or early 30s who will be forced out of their military careers long before retirement age and into the still struggling American job market.
The military has been through this before, in the years after Vietnam and during the 1990s as the Cold War thawed. But this time, Army leaders argue they’re trying to do it right. They’re not asking for volunteers, because too many good people leave. So they are combing through files, looking for soldiers with disciplinary issues 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,” Bredenkamp said. “So there will be some people that will say I don’t know why I was selected. 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.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond 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,” he said. “I want to make sure that they have enough years where we can do a proper evaluation. 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.
“We have an obligation to help them land softly on the outside of the Army,” Bredenkamp said.