The Military's Officer Crunch

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

The US Army emblem hangs on a wall at West Point.

hide captionThe US Army emblem hangs on a wall at West Point.

Source: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy magazine came out with its "US Military Index," one part of which focuses on the challenges of filling the ranks, particularly among young Army officers:

Last year, the Army had a shortage of 3,000 captains and majors, a deficit that is expected to double by 2010. Fifty-eight percent of the West Point class of 2002 left active duty when their obligation to serve expired in 2007. Reversing these and other troubling signs will be critical to improving the health of the U.S. Military.

It's a problem that appears to be accelerating because of long deployments, strains on families, and frustration over how the war in Iraq is being waged. In an article in December's Washington Monthly magazine, Andrew Tilghman explained:

In 2003, around 8 percent of junior officers with between four and nine years of experience left for other careers. Last year, the attrition rate leapt to 13 percent. "A five percent change could potentially be a serious problem," said James Hosek, an expert in military retention at the RAND Corporation. Over the long term, this rate of attrition would halve the number of officers who reach their tenth year in uniform and intend to take senior leadership roles.

But the concern isn't simply over meeting recruiting goals. "The Army also appears to be losing its most gifted young officers," Tilghman wrote. "In 2005, internal Army memos started to warn of the 'disproportionate loss of high-potential, high-performance junior leaders.'"

We'll have Andrew Tilghman on the show today, and talk with him about what he heard from the former officers he talked with, and why they left the military. We'll also talk with Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, about the challenges the military faces. If you're a current or former military officer, what's your story? Are you thinking of leaving? Did you leave? Why or why not?

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I forgot to mention that I am a woman.

Sent by kay | 2:33 PM | 2-21-2008

My son is just now embarking on his Army officer career, following successful college career, playing varsity football and graduating summa cum laude. He is well-read, well-traveled, intelligent, creative, and tough. He is just the independent thinker that the Army needs to operate in this brave new world. He will not stay in the officer corps if he is used as cannon fodder or a tool for political whims. He is one of many; it would be too bad to lose him.

Sent by Charlotte | 3:17 PM | 2-21-2008

I taught high school for almost 30 years. Ten years ago it was not easy to get into the Army. The boys I taught knew that, at that time, they needed a high school diploma not a GRE. They also ran cross country, lifted weights, etc to prepare for boot camp. Now, the Army has lowered their enrollment standards. High School diplomas are not necessary, criminal records are often overlooked, in Oregon recruiters have recruited special ed students, border line retarded and autistic young men and women. This has to be frustrating for these captains, offering one more reason for leaving.

Sent by Bob Almquist | 3:25 PM | 2-21-2008

The program about military retention is missing the point. There would not be the stress on officers described if the Mission didn't exceed our capabilities. Expanding the army to temp the next President to solve problems militarily first is just going to increase the problems described in an all volunteer force. This is from someone who has recently retired form the DOD after 36 years--education services

Sent by Jim Morgan | 3:28 PM | 2-21-2008

I'm not very interested in hearing army guys talking about how much fun they have in the army and how they want to have a better life. If they want a better life have them get out. We don't need a massive well paid standing army that is sent to fight political wars against the people of the world. We don't want them in iraq even if they are having fun.

Sent by James Stewart | 3:34 PM | 2-21-2008

I was a Regular Army officer in the 70s and served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. While there, I lost confidence in the Army leadership. They simply had no clue as to what they were trying to accomplish, and men were dying daily as we stumbled around without a viable strategy and without effective tactics. I suspect it's a better Army today, but just like Vietnam, the Middle East is not a proper war and we have no business there. The Army (and Marines) cannot be used as nation suppressing forces and as nation builders. The Army is designed to combat other armies, not insurgencies. We will never prevail in Iraq or Afghanistan against peoples who are willing to kill and die for nothing.

Sent by J. Scott | 3:39 PM | 2-21-2008

I was a junior officer for four years, and saw several of my superiors (well, most, actually) -- married with children. I have a hard time sympathizing with their anguish over not being around for their children: this is not a lifestyle that is very conducive to being a parent. Instead, I sympathize with the spouses and children of career-ladder military members, who end up being subservient to a military career and the deployments it often entails. As a result, I saw a lot of resentful children of military officers in my short years of service.

Sent by RYAN | 3:40 PM | 2-21-2008

Career development barriers faced by spouses were mentioned as a factor in officers leaving the army. As the spouse of an active duty Warrant Officer, I would like to add that disappointment with family benefits can also be a factor in an officer's decision to leave active duty service. For instance, while health care for family members is a large incentive to stay, disappointment in the quality of that care can encourage an officer's departure. The quality of other benefits such as post housing, legal assistance, post schools for dependent children, and so on can make a tremendous difference in an officer's overall satisfaction level. Again, it is not simply a matter of availability, but also of quality and the attitude of the personnel charged with providing those services.

Sent by Sarah | 3:50 PM | 2-21-2008

Bona fides: 17 year Army officer

Part of the reason we have such a small force today is that there was also an exodus after we won the Cold War. Additionally, during the 90s, many officers, disgusted with the contempt that they felt from the Clinton administration, chose to leave the service. I myself considered doing the same but decided to stay on.

While some do choose to leave today because of the high OPTEMPO, most that I speak with feel that the missions we are on now are more legitimate than the "meals on wheels" approach of using the military as an instrument of foreign policy that we saw during that time.

We all know what we're getting into when we join. I respect any and all who serve, and while I don't begrudge a departure from service, I would encourage those considering leaving to think long and carefully about doing so. Despite the hardships, the rewards are far more than the paycheck that you would get as a civilian. Honor, integrity, a true sense of purpose, and the comradeship of the profession of arms can not be found anywhere in as large a measure as in military service to our great country.

Sent by Dave | 3:53 PM | 2-21-2008

I am a former Marine Corps Officer who left the USMC in 2004, simply because it held no real future other than extended deployments to the Middle East,and the reasons behind going there were very questionable. While in Iraq I saw civilian contractors , namely Haliburton and Bechtel personnel, making more money and have less demanding work conditions that myself and my Marines were enduring. In 2004 the American public were more concerned about who won American Idol than our Iraq war ( that WE decided to start), so why be the one to risk your life for nothing?

Sent by B R Sim | 3:59 PM | 2-21-2008

This shortage is indicative of the damage that President Bush's misguided policy on Iraq. As a military vet, I thoroughly understand how a soldiers need to serve can be exploited. Soldiers are not born they are created, and part of their make up is the need to sacrifice. Soldiers are willing to sacrifice for a worthy cause, but the war in Iraq is not such a cause. Evident by the mass exodus among the officers, and the unwillingness to re-enlist by enlisteds. President Bush has brought shame on the US military and betrayed the soldiers who serve under him. He has wasted their sacrifice so he and his oil buddies can make billions. Haliburton, Blackwater and other contractors are making millions while US soldiers are dying for $1700 a month. It's a hugely demoralizing situation and if I were an officer I'd bail out too.

Sent by Dan Hardman | 10:50 PM | 2-21-2008

After listening to the broadcast earlier I felt that the issue at hand needs to be addressed across the board. As a 15 year NCO in the USAF I see this same problem across the enlisted force as well. Many younger enlisted troops have college degrees or are actively pursuing them. Just like their officer counterparts they too have families they leave behind when deployed. Many of these folks are leaving the military for the same reasons as the officers. No disrespect to officers, but it seems their importance is played up in history and in the media. There are many great leaders in the enlisted force and they play a major role in "getting the job done". The new ideology of "doing more with less" (referring to the force reductions) is now beginning to show its ugly head. Stressing troops and their families in order to save a buck will hurt us in the long run......

Sent by Greg | 2:53 AM | 2-22-2008

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