WASHINGTON — Bradford and Robynne Ashby were the kinds of enlisted soldiers an Army at war wants to keep -- highly trained and combat-tested with two tours in Iraq behind them.
Still, nothing their superiors offered could persuade the two sergeants to make the Army a career. Not even a stint in Hawaii. And last month, the Ashbys found themselves in a different kind of convoy -- her Chevy S-10 pickup behind his Dodge Ram, rolling from the outskirts of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina to southern Louisiana to start a new chapter of their civilian life.
They had been skilled helicopter technicians with the 82nd Airborne Division and, not yet 30, just the sort of noncommissioned officers needed to train the 65,000 new soldiers President Bush has ordered to expand the short-handed force over the next six years.
But the Ashbys are among the midcareer leaders the Army is having the most trouble holding on to -- those torn between finishing a fight and raising a family. In this case, the Army lost twice: Bradford Ashby left in October, his wife the year before, because they didn't want to watch the children they plan to have grow up on video.
"When you're single and in the Army, it's not really a big deal," Robynne Ashby said, stopping off in Alabama on the two-day drive, their dog, Spade, in the passenger's seat. "It's nice; you go to foreign countries. We met people in Bosnia, saw Budapest.
"But these guys had kids being born while they were gone, toddlers growing up. It's hard on the family. You totally understand why they don't stay."
'Holes in the force'
More than five years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have put the all-volunteer Army under tremendous strain. Time at home is supposed to be longer than time at war -- two years to one. Instead, deployments are longer than respites -- 15 months versus a year. And there is little or no R&R in combat.
By giving soldiers incentives to stay, the Army has met and even exceeded retention goals. Housing and family services have been improved. Signing bonuses have soared.
But in the middle ranks -- soldiers such as the Ashbys, who have served between six and eight years and are at a point of deciding whether to make the military a career -- the challenge is greater. Their retention rate is below the mark. That means the Army is struggling to keep the leaders it believes it needs to press two wars and train its expanding force.
In terms of sheer numbers, the losses are not large: The Army seeks to keep about half of the midlevel soldiers who are eligible to reenlist, and it is making 93% of that goal.
Still, the Army is losing more front-line sergeants and other noncommissioned officers than it can afford to. Considered the backbone of the Army, NCOs are a crucial component of the Pentagon's plan to add nine brigade combat teams to the deployment rotation, relieving the strain on soldiers now facing their third and fourth tours at war.
Military experts are concerned that the years of combat waged by a scaled-down Army are contributing to an erosion of wisdom and experience.
"It's the pace, the tempo. If [they] have deployed two or three times, how many more are coming? It's one of those things we watch very, very closely," said Army Sgt. Maj. Kenneth O. Preston, the service's highest-ranking enlisted officer.
Noncommissioned officers are vital in wartime because of the unique role they play in the command structure. They manage up and down -- both the troops they supervise and the officers they serve.
A good NCO prepares a unit for combat but also knows the personal problems of the soldiers in his command: how their kids are doing in school, whether their marriages are in trouble. And he has the standing to pull aside a second lieutenant fresh out of school to say, "Sir, let me straighten you out on that one."
In today's war of small military units fighting an elusive insurgency, the NCOs are the steadying force, the sergeants who lead their squads down the streets of Baghdad and Fallouja.
"When they aren't reenlisting, you are going to have holes in the force, and that becomes a readiness issue," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Randall L. Rigby, a former deputy commandant in charge of training. "They are facing 10 to 15 more years of repetitive overseas tours, and that's just hard on people. I'm concerned they won't be able to sustain the Army that way."
Rigby and other military experts recall the aftermath of Vietnam, when the NCO corps was drastically reduced by combat deaths and permanent injury.
"That significantly contributed to the downfall or the hollowness of the Army in the post-Vietnam era. If you don't have a strong NCO corps, you don't have a strong Army," said Timothy Muchmore, a former soldier who is now the civilian deputy director of the Army's Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive examination of national defense strategy, plans and programs.