Despite months of action and hundreds of casualties, the combat divisions that fought in Iraq have met their recruiting goals, re-enlisting more of their troops than they normally do. The 101st Airborne division, which took part in the march on Baghdad, and then pacified northern Iraq, exceeded it's re-enlistment goals by seven percent. The 4th Infantry division, which occupied part of the Sunni Triangle and captured Saddam Hussein, exceeded it's goals by 20 percent. The 82nd Airborne Division, which has had brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a few percent short of its goals, but expects to make that up by the end of the year. Overall, the army has achieved 99 percent of its re-enlistment goals (which are based on past experience), and attracted 100 percent of the new recruits it needs. Standards for new recruits have been raised, meaning that more people were trying to get in than the army could handle (Congress puts a cap on the number of troops each service can have on the payroll.)
But some parts of the army are having a hard time staying up to strength. The 4,500 helicopter pilots and 6,000 Special Forces troops are both being lured away to better paying civilian jobs. This has always been a problem with helicopter pilots, but the war on terror has made the multi-lingual, well traveled and highly trained Special Forces troops very attractive to security firms.
Decades ago, the army learned out how to deal with the helicopter pilot poaching. Most army helicopter pilots are Warrant Officers, meaning that they can spend their entire careers flying, unlike commissioned officers, who are expected to move around to get more varied career experience. This makes it easier to keep Warrant Officer pilots in uniform, at least the ones who want to fly a lot. When the poaching is particularly heavy, the army will offer large bonuses to keep the pilots, who cost over a million dollars to train. Special Forces troops are actually more expensive to train than pilots, and take longer to train as well. It takes about five years before a Special Forces soldier is considered "seasoned" and ready for anything. Losing a Special Forces operator is a more serious matter than losing a pilot, and the army is considering just about anything in order to stop the losses. Promoting all new Special Forces troops to Warrant Officer rank, special bonuses and other benefits are all under consideration.
The other services are having similar experiences. The air force has so many wanting to get in, or stay in, that re-enlistment bonuses are being cut. Last year, the air force gave out bonuses (averaging $10,000 each) to 14,183 airmen in critical skills to get them to re-enlist. This year, that will be cut a third.
The navy and marines are also hitting their recruiting and re-enlistment goals.
While the media has seized on the idea that the large number of troops being sent into combat zones, for long periods of time, would have an adverse impact on re-enlistments, few reporters apparently asked the troops point blank what their re-enlistment attitudes were. Instead, many reporters sought out troops, or family members, known to be unhappy and asked leading questions in order to obtain stories that fit with preconceived ideas, not what was actually going on.
The reality is that war is what the military does, and one of the more frustrating aspects of military service is that you can spend a decade, or more, training for action, and never see any. Troops who haven't been shot at wonder, sometimes to others, sometimes just to themselves, "could I handle it?" The troops are also aware that, if they do get into combat, they stand a much better chance of surviving it than did their fathers in Vietnam or their grandfathers in World War II. The study of military history by the troops is encouraged, and one thing they have noted is the plummeting casualty rate in American combat units over the last three decades. This does wonders for morale. Moreover, in a story that gets little attention in the media, the American military has spent over half a century developing ways to deal with combat stress, and all those little changes make a big difference when it comes to getting combat experienced troops to come home and, in effect, say, "that wasn't too bad, I think I'll stay in and risk doing it again."
And then there's the patriotism element. This is another little reported story. But the troops believe the country is at war. They see the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in cases like Madrid on March 11, at work in other parts of the world. That makes a difference. The troops feel that they are making a difference, so they stay in.