U.S. Military Struggles to Keep Army Captains

Some of the Army's best captains are getting out of the war in Iraq. They are tired of long deployments and the strain on their families. But in hopes of getting captains to re-enlist for an additional three years, the military is offering a $35,000 bonus.

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The Army wants to make sure its captains are willing to put up with that kind of pain. Active duty captains play a big role in Iraq.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman just spent a month reporting in Iraq and is with us now.

Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you hear when you spoke with those younger officers?

BOWMAN: You know, I heard a lot of what John McChesney just reported. A lot of them talked - I talked with them in Iraq. They're tired of the long deployments. Many have two or three tours under their belts. It's hard on their family and hard on single officers who would like to have a personal life.

So many are either getting out or those who love the Army or at least trying to do something different, maybe get a job teaching ROTC at a college just to get away from Iraq. Unfortunately, those jobs are few or far between.

INSKEEP: Did you hear younger officers say, as some of those officers seem to say, I'm here, I'm doing my job, I'm doing everything I can, but I don't really believe in this strategy?

BOWMAN: I heard that quite a bit, too. And one of the captains hit the nail in the head. He said the Iraqi government really has done nothing, and I think that's what a lot of them feel.

The military can only go so far. It's reconciliation among the Iraqis that has to take place and you're not seeing that. And you're also not at seeing in a lot of parts of the country essential services that people need to live a normal life, and they need a competent armed forces over there too. And right now the Iraqi forces are really a mixed bag.

INSKEEP: Tom, let's talk about the role of captains in the military. They're not the newest officers: lieutenants or lower. They're obviously not the higher ranking officers: colonels or generals. Why do they matter so much?

BOWMAN: Well, captains, you can look at them at sort of a junior executive's of the Army. They're the future generals. And now many of them leading - are leading companies of more than a 100 soldiers. They're the tactical on-the-ground leaders, and they have a lot to - a great deal of battlefield experience. We probably have - this generation of captains probably has more experience than any since World War II. They're generally in the Army a little over five years and they're also at a critical point because they're deciding whether to stay and make the Army a career.

INSKEEP: Well, we met some captains in that last report who decided to leave. What is the Army doing to keep the rest of the captains in the Army?

BOWMAN: Well, they're dangling a $35,000 bonus to keep captains in for another three years. And thousands are taking it and quite a few others are on the fence. General George Casey, the Army's top officer, met with Congress a couple of weeks back. He said he's very, very concerned about it. But so far the people I talk with in the Army say a lot of the captains are taking the bonus. However, one colonel in Iraq told me his best captains are leaving and the middling ones are taking the bonus.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting.

Now, is the Army then considering other things to keep what they think of as the best captains in the Army?

BOWMAN: Well there's not much more they can do. I mean, there's some ideas being bandied about - let them go to graduate school or say take some time off without a service obligation - you know, spending some extra time in the Army. And they're also looking at Officer Candidate School. Now, it takes West Point four years to create a second lieutenant; Officer Candidate School will do that in about four months.

INSKEEP: Okay. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman recently returned from a month reporting in Iraq.

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