Attrition: The Graduates


August 8, 2009: The U.S. Army is greatly stepping up recruiting of college graduates, in an effort to replenish its depleted ranks of junior officers. For the last decade, the army has had a hard time hanging on to junior officers. While the army has successfully obtained many good junior officers by convincing promising enlisted troops to attend Officers Candidate School (OCS), this has not been enough.

Most of those attending OCS already had several years of army experience, including time in combat. The three month OCS course is followed by three or more months of branch (infantry, transportation, signal, or whatever) training. At that point you had a new lieutenant who already knew how the army worked, and now knows how to be an officer. These new lieutenants even had an edge on West Point or ROTC (college level Reserve Officer Training Corps) officers, because of their enlisted experience. Such officers were called "mustangs" and were accorded an extra measure of respect by enlisted troops.

But the mustangs had one big problem; they were often not college graduates. This became a problem after about five years, when a lieutenant was eligible for promotion to captain. One of the requirements for that was a college degree. For many mustangs, who didn't want to get a college degree just to advance in army rank, quitting and returning to civilian life was an easy decision to make.

Thus the new army initiative to recruit college grads to be officers. These men and women have to successfully go through eight weeks of basic training first. Meanwhile, the army has a new GI Bill that offers better college benefits, and may encourage more mustangs to get a college degree, and return to the army.

Four years ago, the army was alarmed at the fact that it was losing its lieutenants and captains at the rate of 8.7 percent a year. All indications were that this rate would increase. The main reason was the prospect of constant overseas assignments, without their families, for the duration of the war on terror. This caused problems with the officers families. Then there was the pull of better job prospects in a robust economy. The prospect of losing over ten percent of your junior officers a year was compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of these were those with the most combat experience.

A third factor in the exodus was the dislike of the army�s �force protection� fixation. The army put a lot of emphasis on keeping casualties down. But a lot of the combat commanders interpreted this as doing as little as possible. This, despite the fact that those commanders who get outside their camps a lot, thereby reduce enemy activity and American casualties. But these aggressive tactics come with some risk, and many battalion and brigade commanders (lieutenant colonels and colonels) are more risk averse than the captains and lieutenants (company and platoon commanders). Once you hit lieutenant colonel, you are making the army a career, and are less inclined to take chances. But captains and lieutenants can afford to take chances, and are put off when their bosses are not.

But the frequent overseas service, and better opportunities in civilian life, were the major causes of junior officers leaving, and there�s not much the army can do about that. The young officers will leave, and have to be replaced. This is why the army is so energetically getting ROTC back into many colleges that dropped it during the Vietnam era. But with the current recession, many new college graduates have poor job prospects, and a four year gig with the U.S. Army seems attractive, or at least that's the image the army hopes to project.





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