Top Military Officers Abandon Armed Forces

The military dedicates countless resources to recruit and train the best people. But many top officers exit the armed forces once they hit 20 years. Former Air Force officer Tim Kane says it's not just the money, it's that the military is too bureaucratic and doesn't value independent thinking.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The military dedicates enormous resources to recruit and train the best officers, but many of the men decide to leave once they hit the 20-year mark and qualify for pensions and VA benefits.

Former Air Force intelligence officer Tim Kane counts a big percentage of the brightest and most promising among the departed. His piece "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving" appears in this month's Atlantic.

If you're coming up on 20 years in the military, what are you going to do? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation and find a link to his piece at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tim Kane, now a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. TIM KANE (Kauffman Foundation): Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: And as an example, you cite the case of John Nagl, a name many listeners will recognize. He's been a guest on this program many times. You describe him, in his previous life, as an officer who might have ended up with four stars on his shoulders.

Mr. KANE: Well, I think he should have. That was my frustration. So, Neal, I knew John back when we were cadets. He came from West Point and spent a semester at the Air Force Academy where I was. I really looked up to him and of course saw his career take off. He was a Rhodes Scholar and basically helped develop counterinsurgency doctrine. And as you point out, he got to the 20-year mark. The Army hadn't yet made him a colonel, let alone a general. And he had an opportunity to do better on the outside, still influencing the Army, still influencing national security as the head of CNAS.

CONAN: Yet he could have, if he'd stayed in the Army, have had a great influence on the institution that he spent his entire career with.

Mr. KANE: He might have. I think he would have had a - you know, he recognizes, I think, that he could have had a greater influence outside. But even so, I'm not sure he would have had a great influence. I'm not sure John would have made general. And that was really my frustration. What's going on, Army?

So I started to dig into it, obviously, and found out not only are we losing talent, bleeding talent out of the military at the 20-year point, but at the five-year point, the 10-year point. People see this bureaucracy. They get frustrated. They can't serve their nation how they want and they leave.

CONAN: We hear so much about the strain of repeated deployments. From your research, that wasn't it so much.

Mr. KANE: No. I think the op-tempo, they call it, is number five on the list. So I surveyed 250 West Point graduates, and it included a huge chunk of active duty officers, and the number one reason that they thought that the best and brightest were leaving, that retention was a problem, was the military bureaucracy, frustration with the bureaucracy, and fundamentally the three aspects of the personnel system that I identified.

CONAN: And they are?

Mr. KANE: Well, job matching's one. Just the ability to have, say, an Arab linguist go into a job that required them to use their Arabic. Promotion.

CONAN: So they - you're an Arab linguist. In some cases the military spent money teaching you Arabic, and you could get assigned to the infantry.

Mr. KANE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, there's mismatching. It's just - it's an impossible task for a centrally planned bureaucracy to match supply and demand. That's something that sort of we learned with the last 50 years of history, but it hasn't been learned inside the military.

CONAN: And some of the others beyond job matching?

Mr. KANE: So promotions. The promotion system was a big aspect and the fact that people are stuck in year groups, for example, and that there's not a meritocracy.

CONAN: So what that means is if you are - if you joined as an officer in, let's say, 1990, all those officers are then promoted at the same time - they're still in the military - ...

Mr. KANE: Right.

CONAN: ...to the next rank of, you know, if you're a second lieutenant to lieutenant to - on to captain and...

Mr. KANE: Exactly. So one of the statistics...

CONAN: Until you get further up the chain.

Mr. KANE: Well, it becomes a meritocracy. And one of the jokes I heard from an Army officer was of course the Army's a meritocracy. You just have to wait in line for 20 years for it to kick in. And that's an awful long time. I mean, if Bill Gates had, say, joined the Army, he - at the 20-year point, he'd be the best I.T. officer at some base. That's not the best way to promote leadership.

CONAN: And the third one?

Mr. KANE: You know, you're challenging me here because we're getting into the weeds. Job matching, promotions and evaluations. Performance evaluations are sort of this politically correct, everybody walks on water, they're all firewalled. So it's impossible to distinguish not just the best and the brightest but the weak leaders. And letting weak leaders continue in any - or in any organization is very bad for morale.

CONAN: So performance reviews, as we call them in the civilian world, they're not conducted honestly? Everybody sort of gets to skate(ph) through?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KANE: I wouldn't know if I'd say they're dishonest. I just think they're very superficial. And it's really frustrating for the people that get evaluated, and it's very frustrating, I think, for the evaluators too, that there's - it's just a politically correct system and it doesn't allow distinguishing between talent.

And it's not really just a matter of a linear scale, Neal, like, this guy is great. This guy is not. It's maybe a woman who has a particular skill, it's very hard for that to show up and be job matched and be evaluated properly.

CONAN: And there is also what you describe, and many others have described, there is a zero-defect psychology. If you have anything wrong...

Mr. KANE: Right.

CONAN: ...on your record, you're out.

Mr. KANE: Right. Right. As long as you have a pulse, you're going to, you know, make rank, you'll make lieutenant colonel. But don't commit a crime. Don't drink and drive, you know, just - and I'm not saying those are little things, but, you know, speeding ticket or what, just little glitchy things that might get you in trouble...

CONAN: Bounce a check.

Mr. KANE: Yeah. Yeah. So you create this anti-entrepreneurial workforce and, in fact, we need creative thinkers in our military. And, you know, that shows that - I think it took General Petraeus, to turn the Iraq War around, thank goodness he stayed in the service and he was a creative thinker - but I think that took way too long.

CONAN: So in other words, what you're suggesting is that it's hard to believe that a George Patton, for example, would have achieved the rank that he achieved in a zero-defect environment.

Mr. KANE: Yeah. So when I surveyed the West Pointers, I asked, you know, is the retention problem harming national security? A majority - I think, 65 said yes. Is it leading to a less competent general officer corps? I'm sorry, 65 percent said yes to that, 78 percent said it's hurting national security. So this isn't a sort of a superficial sour grapes thing. This is really maybe causing us to lose lives and lose wars.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in the military or perhaps those of you who were in the military. What decision did you make and why, as you came up to one of these points at which departure was possible? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Jake(ph), and Jake's on the line from Valdosta in Georgia.

JAKE (Caller): Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm very well. Thanks.

JAKE: I'm an Air Force officer here in Valdosta. And I've been in about six years. I found one of the reason people leave, peers of mine especially, is that the military is kind of reluctant to let you do any sort of career broadening a lot of times. Once they train you up and something, you're almost locked into that exclusively, things like, you know, maybe going back, teaching at the academy, doing embassy-type things.

And a lot of times, when you do get released from your current field, I've known guys who, within a span of 24 hours, they get the initial release, and before they can apply for anything, they get put on a 365-day TDY, you know, to Iraq or Afghanistan so...

CONAN: Temporary Duty Assignment, TDY.

JAKE: Yeah. So it's just - it's pretty frustrating. I know two guys, just coworkers of mine who that happened to, and they opted to just get out instead of, you know, take the assignment.

CONAN: And it sounds, Jake - can you tell us your specialty and what you might like to do instead?

JAKE: Yeah. Well, I'm a pilot, and I enjoy doing it. And, you know, you - I understand to an extent, you know, they put a lot of money into training you to fly. But, you know, I've been told basically to not think about doing anything other than fly for the next, you know, five - and I've been doing it for four years now, for at least another six. So I would like to go back to the academy and teach someday. So that's kind of a specific example.

CONAN: And Tim Kane, Jake might have been telling your story, too.

Mr. KANE: Oh, no. I wasn't a flyer, but - I was an intel. But, you know, that's a story you hear again and again is the lack of flexibility which helps, you know, the bureaucracy do its administrative job, but it's not really helping retain people.

And there's another issue, too. This can sound like it's just a problem of retention, of bleeding talent. But there's internal bleeding as well, like we've pointed out earlier, just a mismatch of jobs and a general frustration that sort of leads to a dulling of the sharp edge of the military.

CONAN: All right, Jake, check six.

JAKE: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Peggy(ph) in Valentine, Nebraska. My brother-in-law retired from the air force two years ago after 20-plus-year service. He recently was hired to a civilian position with the Air Force to do essentially the same job he did before. Now he gets a very nice salary from the Air Force for his new job on top of his very nice Air Force retirement. While I have no desire to deny him his retirement, I see the double dippers as a strain on the national debt.

Mr. KANE: Yeah. It's tough because the military right now is structured to give people a retirement at 20 years. I wouldn't want to take that away from anybody because that's what a lot of folks are sort of banking on. At the same time, you've got to wonder about the incentive structure for that.

I mean, defined benefit plans aren't really good for long-term incentives. Maybe up their pay and change that sort of benefit to a defined contribution. That's kind of in the weeds. But I think the issue is, on every aspect you look at where the military is essentially doing things wrong, it's trying to have a command and control organization instead of a market force, letting things run. And it's been through this revolution before, Neal.

CONAN: And - well, it did try to fix it before and it clearly has had little success.

Mr. KANE: They've taken swings at the plate. But the great lesson of history is that the military realized the draft wasn't working after Vietnam. 1973 went to this all volunteer force. That was rejecting forcing people to do something, central planning, for a market. So they had to have better pay, better housing. And it worked fabulously, even though it was controversial at the time. A lot of Army officers thought it would fail. But it's not a market inside the military, only at the entry door.

CONAN: And you're talking about the Army or you're talking about the Armed Forces in general?

Mr. KANE: Exactly. All the branches - and I should say all five branches, including the Coast Guard, operate this way. They recruit volunteers in, but the volunteering ends at the front door.

CONAN: And you're situation - you were, you said an intel officer, but thought you might have a career broadening opportunity.

Mr. KANE: I love doing intel. I was lucky to get that career field. But I would think I was in the similar position to Jake, where I wanted to go and get a PhD in economics. I'd sort of done my five years. And they didn't really have a need for that. I can't get back in now. And that's sort of one of the problems is that the military doesn't let its people go out to make their own choices and come back in. It's sort of like the priesthood. Once you leave, you're out. And you really got to wonder if they shouldn't want some Silicon Valley executives to come back in, help with cyber warfare.

CONAN: We're talking with Tim Kane, a former Air Force intelligence officer, now a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, wrote "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving" for the Atlantic. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with John(ph). John with us from Indian Head in Maryland.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I just got a couple of comments. I'm in a high demand group right now in the Air Force, exploded ordinance disposal. And we have a terrible retention problem between the 10 and 20-year experience mark. In fact, right now, a third of our group field has served before 2001, before 9/11. Everybody else is - only there has been. And we have actually only 35 individuals with more than 20 years time in service. And so, what we're experiencing now is a -not a knowledge deficit but a - the breadth of people's experience is very narrow, you know.

There's a lot of other things that we do other than just dealing with IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a lot of the younger guys, they don't have that lot of experience, because they just bounce back and forth to Southwest Asia. And when they are home, they're mostly doing training and not actually getting a lot of stateside experience.

CONAN: So that is, John, I'm sure, very frustrating. But you would think if there's a retention problem, other lower ranks would move up very quickly.

Mr. KANE: Yeah

JOHN: They are. We have - that's been the another thing, you know, all the old guys crab about that, too. The - you know, you have guys making staff sergeant three or four years now and becoming team leaders. When I first came in, they had guys who were taking nine or 10 years to be a team leader. So they had all their bases covered by the time they were in that role.

CONAN: Yeah.

JOHN: And they're trying throwing money at it. You know, they have monthly incentives and then reenlistment bonuses, but they just are not able to keep people in past 20. And I rarely speak to anyone who says that, yeah, they're going to hang on and try to make chief and hang out until 30 years.

CONAN: He's obviously talking about the enlisted ranks but...

Mr. KANE: Yeah. No, John makes a great point though. This is - even though the survey I did was West Point graduates, this affects all officers. It affects the enlisted. In fact, opinion can often be strong when you talk to enlisted folks like my dad and ROTC guys. So, you know, John points out that you have a system where central planning is having a very hard time getting supply to meet demand. It doesn't happen if you use market structures. And that's really the radical reform in at least 55 percent of the people on my survey, even 55 percent of the active duty troops say military needs this change.

CONAN: Thanks, John, very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: And going along that line, Ken(ph) in St. Louis said good enlisted people also leave the military not just the officers.

Mr. KANE: They're there.

CONAN: I got out after 23 years as an enlisted second class petty officer. I could not advance because of quotas set up by the Bureau of Navy Personnel. I've seen a lot of good people get out because they were so frustrated with their not so good people that were being retained. I loved my years in the military and knowing what I know now, I would not have joined when I did. I would have gone to college and would totally bypassed the military all together.

Mr. KANE: Hmm.

CONAN: This is from Joshua(ph) in - I recently separated from the Army as a sergeant. I decided not to reenlist because I received a much better opportunity to establish a private career in the banking industry. I am so much happier being out of uniform, but I certainly miss it. Something to keep in mind that it's not simply the best officers but enlisted men and women who leave the rank and file, so we're left with often incompetent officers who are woefully unprepared to lead as well as a concurrent loss of brilliant non-coms who are fed up serving fools fit for no more than kitchen duties responsible for combat duties.

Mr. KANE: This sounds like it came from my dad. This is how he used to talk about officers, so he was pretty frustrated when he saw me become one. But there are still great people that serve. But they are frustrated that they know their Army, their Air Force, their Navy is not operating at peak efficiency, in fact, maybe half of that. And you do see a lot of incompetents advance. But there are good people who stay in and I think General Petraeus is a great example of that.

CONAN: Let's talk with Katie(ph), Katie with us from Des Moines.

KATIE (Caller): Hi. I'm calling from the respective of a wife of an officer. My husband just pinned on major at the beginning of this month, so about two weeks ago. And we're in the middle of our fourth move since we got married. And he is the son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel who retired at 20 years. And he's on his 14th move, so we will - he's getting out at 20 years and one day because it's just too hard on the families. We have two young children who - the oldest one will be 11 when he gets out at 20 years and that's - it's hard to do for a family.

CONAN: Tim Kane, how much were family considerations...

Mr. KANE: It's a big deal. It's not as big as fighting bureaucracy, but it was a top consideration. And you know what, there's an answer for that. Why do you have to make everybody become a general officer and everybody has to be well-rounded and go to seven different bases? You don't. If you got a guy doing a good job as a captain, he's happy as a captain and he's stuck in Hawaii, you know, and he wants to stay there, let him stay.

But, you know, that's actually true. There are guys that love being in Korea and yet, you talk to the military and they say, oh, it's so hard to fill these spots. It wouldn't be if you gave a little bit more flexibility to your personnel.

CONAN: Katie, good luck to you.

KATIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Tim Kane, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. KANE: It's always a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Tim Kane, a retired Air Force intelligence officer. You can read his recent article, "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving" through a link in our website at npr.org.

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