Attrition: Measuring Combat Experience Risk


August 20, 2007: While the U.S. Army has to hustle to get new recruits, it's having no problem getting veterans to re-enlist. The closer you get to the fighting, the higher the re-enlistment rate. For example, with U.S. troops in Iraq, re-enlistments met the annual goals six weeks early, on August 15th. It's always been that way, although there are incentives. The re-enlistment bonuses become tax-free if you re-enlist while in a combat zone. So the troops often arrange to re-enlist, if they were going to anyway, while in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While the troops themselves are confident that their efforts are paying off, surveys of the troops and their families indicate that there might be some serious retention trouble ahead. Many married soldiers have spent half the last four years overseas, in a combat zone. For those actually in combat, there are the unknown effects of prolonged exposure to combat. U.S. troops are much better equipped, trained and led in this war, leading to record low casualty rates. In past war, few troops would have survived so long in combat without being killed or badly injured (and sent home). This time around, guys, and some women (especially MPs), are spending record amounts of time in combat. The army fears that, like radiation exposure, there's a limit, in terms of days in combat,beyond which it's not safe to go. The trouble is, no one is sure how to measure what the maximum dose is. There's a lot of effort going into finding out what it is.

But that will raise another issue. How do you apply the "maximum dose of combat days" to existing troops. We're talking about veterans here. Most of the people who join up, only stay for one enlistment (usually four years). But those who stay, face many more combat tours, and the possibility of being forced to change jobs once they have reached their combat limit.

This sort of thing is nothing new. President Jimmy Carter left the navy partly because he had maxed out on radiation exposure (an occupational hazard for nuclear submarine officers). His was not a unique experience. The same things happens in the infantry, where it's long been common for the injuries that sideline an athlete, to do the same for a soldier. Infantry troops require a high degree of physical fitness, and it's common to get career ending injuries. Such troops usually transfer to another branch of the army, where the physical demands are lower. There is always a need for experienced NCOs, especially infantry NCOs. But now there will be an increasing number of infantry officers and NCOs transferred because they had exceeded the safe exposure to combat limits. These men will be even more valuable in their new jobs, because all that combat experience brings a much needed skill to any unit.

The major obstacle will be selling this "exceeded the safe exposure to combat" concept to the troops. We're talking about a mental injury here, not a physical one. It's a lot easier to accept a bum knee or back problems, than the possibility you might have a mental meltdown if you are exposed to a lot more combat. It's all new.


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