August 20, 2007:
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.