Veteran Soldiers, Guardsmen Cut Careers Short

With experienced military officers and sergeants opting to end their careers early, Pentagon officials are now considering new bonuses and incentives to persuade them to stay. The Pentagon says the active-duty Army and the National Guard are exceeding their overall recruiting goals.

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Despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon says both the active-duty Army and the National Guard are exceeding their recruiting goals. Soldiers are also reenlisting at high rates. But that news is masking another trend.

As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the armed services are having trouble holding on to sergeants and officers.

TOM BOWMAN: Three weeks ago, soldiers from the 39th Infantry Brigade or the Arkansas National Guard got the word. They will be heading back to Iraq for a second tour of duty. That got Brad Neil(ph) thinking about his future. Neil is a sergeant. He's been with the Arkansas Guard for six years. And this summer, his enlistment ends.

Sergeant BRAD NEIL (Arkansas National Guard): For me, it's a decision of whether or not, you know, when it comes time for me to re-up, which is in July, I believe, there's a lot of things that you got to consider. You got to consider how much time that you have towards retirement. You weigh that against, you know, the possibility of deployments or how much more time you might have to spend away from your family. I don't know. At this point, I don't know.

BOWMAN: Neil did one yearlong tour in Iraq with the 39th Brigade and returned home in early 2005. Now, he's not even assigned to the brigade that will be heading over again, but he's still worried about being pulled into another rotation. As with many soldiers, there's the tug of family responsibility.

Sgt. NEIL: It's hard to leave love ones behind for sure. I actually spent 30 days in Fallujah during the last siege of the city in 2005. And, you know, it's not the death, that's something that we deal with everyday. It's just the estrangement of being away from your family, from being away from your loved ones.

BOWMAN: That includes his five-year-old son, Christian(ph). Neil missed three years of the boy's life being away on training or deployments, and his daughter, Natalie(ph) was born just after he got back from Iraq.

Farther to the north, soldiers from the Indiana National Guard are also caught between duty and family. Indiana's 76th Brigade will also head back to Iraq for a second time.

Lieutenant Colonel IVAN DENTON (Recruiting and Retention Commander, Indiana Guard): We're most concerned about our midlevel officers. Clearly, we're most concerned about them.

BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Denton is a recruiting and retention commander for the Indiana Guard. One major - maybe two - will be putting in retirement papers before the brigade deploys to Iraq. Denton says there are rumblings that several captains will do the same. Will the second Iraq tour force others to leave?

Lt. Col. DENTON: At the current point - because the 76th Brigade just received their order - we're not really sure.

BOWMAN: Guard officials say the overall career of a National Guard soldier used to be about 28 years. Now, they are starting to see soldiers leave a few years earlier. Exit interviews point to the long deployment, and time away from family as the reasons.

As a result, the average Guard soldier is now younger. But there is concern about the experienced ones who were leaving - not only sergeants and captains, even midlevel officers like majors and lieutenant colonels. That will leave a void in leadership.

Sergeant 1st Class MICHAEL DUPREE(ph) (1st Army Division, Germany): It is tough. I mean, you know, the deployments now are taking their toll.

BOWMAN: Sergeant 1st Class Michael Dupree is an active-duty soldier with the 1st Army Division in Germany. His job is to get soldiers to reenlist. The continued deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan make his job harder.

Sgt. 1st Class DUPREE: Five years ago, I should say talking to a soldier, maybe you talk to him once or twice and he made a decision right then. Now, we find ourselves, maybe talking to him three, four times and then they make the same decision that they would have made five years ago.

BOWMAN: Army sergeants with 10 years experience is starting to leave in higher numbers. It's only a five percent increase. One officer calls it a blip, but Sergeant Dupree says these are the leaders the Army wants.

Sgt. 1st Class DUPREE: Most these guys have been two, three deployments. These are our combat veterans. And mostly the guys are becoming leaders, and these are the ones that we need to lead the future of our Army.

BOWMAN: Leonard Wong is a retired Army colonel and a professor at the Army War College. He says the Pentagon must keep a close eye on the retention of these particular soldiers.

Professor LEONARD WONG (Military Strategy, Army War College): At this point, it's not cause for a massive alarm, but it is cause for concern.

BOWMAN: That concern is a common one among Pentagon officials and defense analysts. Wong and others say the top brass must always be looking for new ways to help soldiers and their families, incentives that will keep soldiers on duty.

Colonel Denton with the Indiana Guard is among those who were studying that -pay and bonuses, better health benefits, professional schooling, more time at home.

Lt. Col. DENTON: Is there something we can do? Is there something we should do?

BOWMAN: Top Army officers say that the strains of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are the greatest test so far for the all-volunteer force, now some 33 years old.

Lieutenant General JAMES LOVELACE (Head of Army Operations): Oh, their concerns (Unintelligible).

BOWMAN: Lieutenant General James Lovelace is the head of Army operations.

Lt. Gen. LOVELACE: We are very, very aware - we need to be, appropriately - of this thing that we have here, this very wonderful thing, this all-volunteer force who represent the best of this country has to offer. As we're walking towards finding out where the edge of this is, that's what we're doing. We're trying to find the edge.

BOWMAN: That's what Sergeant Neal and his fellow soldiers are doing as well.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Native American women suffer an extraordinarily high rate of sexual assault, according to a new report from Amnesty International. That story and a success for the California Condor in Mexico. Just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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