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Officers Plot Exit Strategy

Many young lieutenants and captains, key leaders in combat, are deciding against Army careers in light of the open-ended war on terrorism.

May 22, 2005|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

KILLEEN, Texas — Army Capts. Dave Fulton and Geoff Heiple spent 12 months dodging roadside bombs and rounding up insurgents along Baghdad's "highway of death" -- the six miles of pavement linking downtown Baghdad to the capital city's airport. Two weeks after returning stateside to Ft. Hood, they ventured to a spartan conference room at the local Howard Johnson to find out about changing careers.

Lured by a headhunting firm that places young military officers in private-sector jobs, the pair, both 26, expected anonymity in the crowded room.

Instead, as Fulton and Heiple sipped Budweisers pulled from Styrofoam coolers next to the door, they spotted nearly a dozen familiar faces from their cavalry battalion, which had just ended a yearlong combat tour in Iraq.

The shocks of recognition came as they exchanged quick, awkward glances with others from their unit, each man clearly surprised to see someone else considering a life outside the military.

"This is a real eye-opener," said Fulton, a West Point graduate who saw a handful of cadets from his class. "It seems like everyone in the room is either from my squad or from my class."

More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks spawned an era of unprecedented strain on the all-volunteer military, it is scenes like this that keep the Army's senior generals awake at night. With thousands of soldiers currently on their second combat deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and some preparing for their third this fall, evidence is mounting that an exodus of young Army officers may be looming on the horizon.

It is especially troubling for Pentagon officials that the Army's pool of young captains, which forms the backbone of infantry and armored units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be the hardest hit.

Last year, Army lieutenants and captains left the service at an annual rate of 8.7% -- the highest since 2001. Pentagon officials say they expect the attrition rate to improve slightly this year. Yet interviews with several dozen military officers revealed an undercurrent of discontent within the Army's young officer corps that the Pentagon's statistics do not yet capture.

Young captains in the Army are looking ahead to repeated combat tours, years away from their families and a global war that their commanders tell them could last for decades. Like other college grads in their mid-20s, they are making decisions about what to do with their lives.

And many officers, who until recently had planned to pursue careers in the military, are deciding that it's a future they can't sign up for.

The officers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan just wrapped up a year of grueling counterinsurgency operations -- a type of combat the U.S. largely avoided after its struggle in Vietnam and that many in the Pentagon believe is the new face of war. They were in Iraq during last spring's uprisings in Fallouja and Najaf, June's transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government and block-to-block fighting during the retaking of Fallouja in November.

These officers have, in most cases, more counterinsurgency experience than any of their superiors. And they are the people the Army most fears losing.

The officers interviewed for this article are proud of what they accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are generally optimistic that the two nations can eventually emerge as functioning, if unstable, democracies.

Those just returning from Iraq ended their combat tours on a positive note with successful parliamentary elections in January, which had been the singular focus of their deployment.

Yet their pride is tempered by uncertainty about what lies ahead in an unconventional war in which victory may never be declared.

"The undefined goals of the war on terror are making it really hard for the Army to keep people right now," Fulton said.

By the time they make captain, young officers are usually approaching the end of their four- or five-year commitment. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said the attrition rate for junior officers was not yet alarming, and the Army had several initiatives in place to help retain those deciding whether to make a career out of the military.

The Pentagon hopes that by next year, a significant troop reduction in Iraq will allow the Army to slow the pace of troop deployments, giving soldiers two years at home for every year in battle.

Yet Pentagon officials admit it is uncertain that this can happen by 2006.

"I still don't know if we can make it," said a senior Army officer at the Pentagon. "You tell me what Iraq is going to look like next year."

Meanwhile, the Army is dispatching combat units to Iraq and Afghanistan after soldiers have had just one year at home, a pace that is taking a toll around the country.

Timothy Muchmore, a civilian Army official at the Pentagon and a retired tank officer, said he was worried about an exodus of young officers. He summed up the problem this way:

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