Another Perspective

They Were Soldiers Once

Junior officers who served deserve better from the Obama administration.

By 9.26.13

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In an address to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, decrying the “magnitude and the speed” of budgetary reductions and the further diminishing of Army end strength, General Raymond T. Odierno, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, warned members of Congress that “there was grave uncertainty in the international security environment.” Just a day later, the al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group al-Shabab attacked shoppers in an upscale mall in Kenya’s capital, targeting non-Muslims. Sixty-two were killed and 175 were injured — including five American citizens.

While President Obama claims that al Qaeda has been “decimated,” General Odierno is aware that there are affiliates in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, and Iraq, all posing serious threats to our security. The general recognizes that the Army must be prepared to fight these groups. And on Wednesday, in his speech to House members, he cautioned that although we have always drawn down military forces at the close of war, this time “we are drawing down our Army before the war is over.”

Odierno knows the dangerous ramifications of the budget-driven separation of large numbers of high-quality combat veterans — the junior officers who bore the majority of the burden of multiple deployments. In 2014, the Army will begin to convene boards to separate up to one-third of the captains from year groups 2007, 2008, and 2009 — many of them were my classmates at West Point. The classes of 2007 to 2009 have lost 11 graduates to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were the best and the brightest. This announcement of a “blind board” review process to remove loyal officers who stayed on active duty past their initial contract dishonors the sense of duty, sacrifice, and dedication to country that these leaders shoulder.  

Unlike the conventional warfare of the World War II era, the recent Middle East campaigns were fought and led at the junior officer level in the small communities and tribes of Iraq and Afghanistan. These soldiers understand better than anyone the challenges of counter-insurgency operations. They met these challenges by spending time in the culture — learning strategies “on the job.” Many of them shared their “best practices” and taught these tactics to superiors. As these aforementioned year groups progress into higher leadership positions in the officer ranks, their skill sets and experiences are vital to continued mission readiness.

Last year, Tim Kane, an Air Force Academy graduate, published Bleeding Talent, a book that reports on the country’s need to retain officers. Conducting a survey of 250 West Point graduates from six classes ranging from 1989 to 2004, Kane assessed the current practices of personnel management. Seventy-eight percent of the active duty officers polled stated that the current exit rate of the military’s best young officers is harming national security. Expediting this rate through the proposed separation of officers puts the nation at risk.

Kane has proposed a solution for talent loss by which officers who are separated from service would be eligible to apply to rejoin at a lateral or higher rank. In the past, officers turned civilians have been prohibited from doing so because of the current rigidity of our Army. The most successful of the private-sector consulting firms actually encourage this type of practice for their employees — knowing that the experiences, knowledge, and relationships gained externally will aid the organization through this “boomerang” effect.

For now though, those who will be returned to civilian life are the same soldiers who have already sacrificed so much of their lives — including the well-being of their families and often much more. Having served their country, they are now confronted with the ingratitude of an administration that regards them as expendable — and a citizenry still at risk.

Images: UPI.

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About the Author

Jonathan Hendershott is a 2007 graduate of West Point and a former Army Captain. He served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division in 2009, and went on to serve as a Company Commander at Fort Hood. He now resides in New York City.