Army's Officer Incentives Raise Quality Concerns

Many captains are leaving active service in the Army. Many are fed up with longer and repeated deployments to Iraq. So the Army is dangling big incentives: bonuses of up to $35,000, promises of graduate school, choice assignments. So far, that menu is producing results. But there are concerns that the best captains are getting out and that the Army will have trouble replacing them.

Jonte Harrell is the kind of captain the Army wants to keep — a West Point graduate, two tours in Iraq — but he brushed aside a $20,000 Army bonus this spring to stay in the ranks. Now he's a student at Columbia University in New York.

If it were not for business school, he'd be getting ready for Iraq, he said.

Harrell loved the Army. Iraq made him leave, along with more than 50 percent of his West Point class. That's above historical averages.

"Many of my friends have already left," Harrell said. "The Army is losing its officers in heavy numbers."

Keeping the Good People

The Army's top officer, Gen. George Casey, told the Senate Armed Services Committee several weeks ago that he hears those concerns constantly.

"As I've talked to the young captains and majors, a big factor is the extent of deployments that we're putting them on," Casey said. "We are concerned about it. We have to keep the good people with us."

It falls to Col. Paul Aswell at the Pentagon to keep people like Harrell. Aswell is in charge of officer retention for the Army. So far, he says things are looking up: 18,000 captains were eligible for the incentives to keep them in up to three years, and 10,000 captains have accepted so far.

"It's not a miracle that they're getting out, the ones that do leave. It's a miracle that they stay. ... We ask a lot of our young officers. They're away from their families a lot. They're away from home. They're doing the most dangerous things in our society that anyone in our society is asked to do."

Extending Incentives

The original deadline to sign up for the incentives has passed, but now Aswell says the Army will keep the registration open for a few more weeks to try to attract even more.

"We don't know what the end result is going to be," he said. "But It has been groundbreaking for the Army to have this many officers participate in something like this, this quickly — in 90 days."

The Army is looking to expand the bonuses next summer to captains who were just promoted to that rank, Aswell said. The newly minted captains are another pool of 5,000 junior officers.

"It tells me the Army's worried about their bench," said retired Army Major Gen. Robert Scales, who ran the Army War College.

"They're in uncharted territory," with a war going on six years, Scales said. "The concern is the loss of captains will spike next year, and so it's best to lock them in early rather than risk waiting, when the prospects of extending them might not be quite so good."

Expanding the Ranks

The Army's struggle to keep captains comes at a time when even more of them are needed. The Army is expanding in size by tens of thousands of soldiers over the next several years. That means it will need about 3,000 more captains.

To reach that number, the Army is bringing more reservists on active duty, getting Navy and Air Force officers to switch to the Army, and increasing the number of slots in Officer Candidate School, known as OCS, by 800 this year alone. OCS can create a second lieutenant from the enlisted ranks in four months; West Point takes four years.

Such a widespread effort to quickly produce lieutenants could threaten the quality of the officer corps.

"What the Army is concerned about is finding the next Petraeus, if you will," Scales said. "OCS officers tend to be older; they tend to be less well educated. The concern is that the Army is mortgaging its future. The best and the brightest may be leaving in disproportionate numbers, and of course what that does is it drains the talent pool."

Will Bardenwerper is a 31-year-old captain who left the Army and now is applying to graduate schools. He says the best way to keep officers is to reduce the amount of time in Iraq. The Army wants to return to its traditional rotation cycle: two years at home; one overseas.

But senior officers concede that with two wars ongoing, it will take at least several more years to get back to those normal rotations.

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