During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army lost large numbers of captains who resigned their commissions after long and repeated combat deployments. The same worrying trend is being seen again in Iraq.
In response, the Army is preparing hefty bonuses to entice captains to stay on active duty. Captains — essentially the junior executives of the Army — often command companies of about 120 soldiers. They account for the single-largest group of officers in the Army.
Capt. Carl Chaker, a 27-year-old West Point graduate, has done two tours in Iraq. When he and many of his fellow captains talk about their futures, they see only more time in Iraq.
"A large percentage of them have decided to get out," Chaker said. "It's mostly the repeated deployments. They say at the end of six years, half of their careers ... (have been spent) in Iraq. They're behind creating a life at home."
To keep those wavering officers, the Army has come up with an unprecedented plan: $20,000 bonuses to get captains to remain on active duty for a few more years. They are also dangling offers of graduate school and allowing captains to choose where they are stationed.
Even so, Chaker said he will get out. He's preparing for law school and finishing up his final weeks in the Army.
Referring to himself and his fellow officers, Chaker said "money isn't really what they're concerned about right now."
Retired Lt. Gen. Ted Stroup, who was head of Army personnel during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, said the bonuses are a good tool to help keep junior officers, which he says are departing at a rate of 25 percent.
"They believe they've got to do something about it," he said.
Captains make about $60,000 a year. Chaker said a $20,000 bonus such as the Army is offering can quickly be made up with higher-paying civilian jobs.
Col. Paul Aswell, who tracks officer retention for the Army, says that only about 13 percent of captains are leaving. Still, that's an increase from 11 percent in the mid-1990s.
Stroup's figures are based on when officers come up on their end of obligation, while Aswell is looking at the total number of captains leaving the army.
Regardless, both officers admit the numbers are worrying.
Aswell said Army captains are getting out in greater numbers at a time when more are needed. He said with the Army increasing by tens of thousands of troops, it will need 6,000 more captains and majors in the coming years.
"I have to keep these young officers in, if I'm going to build 6,000 more," he said.
What is clear is that combat-tested officers such as Chaker are hard to replace.
"Today's captains are your future leaders in the Army. Most of them have battlefield experience," said Larry Korb, a Pentagon personnel official in the Reagan administration.
"You need them to fight future wars," Korb said.
Marc Herdegan is another captain who left the Army in 2005, following two combat tours in Iraq. He's now finishing up at Harvard Business School.
"I think most people are not financially motivated when it comes to service in the military," he said.
It's all about making a contribution to the country, Herdegan said.
Herdegan is also a West Point graduate, but said he wasn't sure about making the Army a career until he faced those long deployments.
"The deployments changed a difficult decision to an easier one," he said.
"If you're on the fence, the back-to-back deployments, this changes peoples' minds."