Today's Junior Army Officers
By Captain Tim Hsia, U.S. Army
Debating retention of junior officers is a perilous matter but there are just too many vital issues currently concerning the future of the officer corps that it is necessary to inject some realism within the debate. Junior officers are leaving the army at an alarming rate and not simply because of continuous deployments and the state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lieutenants and Captains, although focused at the tactical level, still ponder what exactly senior officers and politicians have in mind in regards to the plan and endstate for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and how it will affect the Army as an institution. These important questions are debated by junior officers on a daily basis. Nonetheless, these questions at a personal level are subordinate to an even more vital question which junior officers contemplate, and that is whether to leave the military for the corporate sector.
Possible solutions to the current retention of junior officers lie perhaps not in wild conjectures but in looking to the past. James Kitfield's "Prodigal Soldiers" documents the problems, dilemmas, and hopes of junior officers during the Vietnam era. Those junior officers who served in Vietnam fully understood the sacrifices they would have to make before commissioning. This is similar to today's junior officers who volunteered after the events of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Officers who continued to serve in the Army after Vietnam did so because of their strong belief in preserving and safeguarding the Army as an institution. These officers continued to stay in the Army and Armed Forces despite the poor state in which the Army suffered thru during, and after the Vietnam era. As Kitfield writes, it was this generation of officers who successfully led the country thru the Cold War and Persian Gulf I. These officers were also fully aware of the proper role between their political masters and the military because they were firsthand witnesses of the dereliction of duty chronicled by Col H.R. McMaster. The result was the Powell doctrine which took into account the relationship between the American people and the military.
Junior officers today are not merely leaving because of the continuous deployments but also because they simply find themselves more marketable. Officers who attended service academies and ROTC programs find themselves highly sought out and lucrative to the corporate world. Upon completion of their service agreement they are in possession of a top notch education, leadership honed from stressful combat situations, and a strong moral values base. Additionally, junior officers who have served several deployments are painfully aware of the income disparity between them and military contractors. Contractors serve less time overseas while receiving a much larger paycheck. Service to the nation is important but why should junior officers be paid less than contractors who work at a more leisure pace while receiving larger incomes?
Unlike their civilian counterparts, junior officers as a whole understand that promotion within the military is usually based on time in service rather than performance. Promotion rates to captains within the Army at the three year point are near 100% and are essentially guaranteed. This trend continues to the rank of major and only declines slightly when approaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. Within this promotion process there is little differentiation occurring amongst officers in regards to ability, motivation, and performance. Thus, any incentive to outperform one's peers is diminished due to the slow matriculation and lack of evidence that high performance will be rewarded with greater rank and responsibility. The current promotion system is fraught with peril as one bad boss, critical evaluation, or poor assignment can sidetrack a career.
The lack of Army officers has forced the Army to avoid demoting, denying promotion, or forcing unqualified officers to leave the service. Talented officers are dissuaded from staying in when they see less competent officers continue on career paths similar to theirs. The military is currently unable to screen and scale officers based on talent because of the lack of officers. If the Army increases the pay and incentives for officers then they can begin using Officer Evaluation Reports to promote based off competency rather than simply time in service. The current state of affairs requires the Army to promote junior officers regardless of ability to midlevel majors and lieutenant colonels in order to field the future force as conceptualized by the President and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The present dilemma faced by the Army is that if it continues to promote all officers in the same group regardless of competence level then there will continue to be a brain drain among officers disillusioned by the current promotion system and overall lack of incentives. There are no quick fixes to this problem as documented by the Government Accountability Office report in January 2007 and it will be a long time before the Army pays officers to leave the service as it did prior to and immediately after the run up to Gulf War I. Nonetheless, what is shocking is that the Army has yet to draft a comprehensive plan for expanding its officer corps and retaining those officers who are still undetermined in regards to their future career plans.
The promotion system needs to be better explained to junior Army officers. In a culture where open competitiveness is portrayed as careerist, the majority of junior officers are dissuaded from asking questions as to how the promotion system works due to the fear of appearing overly ambitious. Junior army officers are never explained what happens behind the closed doors of promotion committees. Instead what they see is the end result and simply told to continue applying oneself diligently on a daily basis. Junior officers are not satisfied with simply being told to let the mysterious process decide what types of officers get promoted. This is the especially the case in examples such as Colonel McMaster, who has been successful in both the conventional and counterinsurgent fight, and who has been passed over for promotion. How can this curtained promotion committee seem to have a semblance of fairness if even a successful officer like Col. McMaster fails to pass their inspection? Even when junior officers ask questions as to how the promotion system works, they are often met with conflicting answers or bemused expressions. But when they compare notes with their counterparts in the corporate world, they find that in the private sector it is by and large obvious and clearly stated as to what prerequisites are needed for promotion. In comparison, the Army's promotion system seems like a gamble where careers are decided on whim behind a black curtain. There needs to be more transparency in the way promotion committees evaluate and judge officers in order to ensure junior officers do not feel that a career in the military is not a gamble with luck and circumstance.
Junior officer careers are haphazardly and poorly managed. Each officer is technically assigned a branch manager. But each branch manager is in charge of hundreds if not thousands of lieutenants and captains. The larger the branch, i.e. combat arms, the more officers a branch manager is in charge of tracking. In stark contrast, the Air Force and Navy are much better at managing their junior officers. Their branch manager equivalents are officers who have actually met face to face with the officers they manage. Air Force and Navy junior officer managers typically keep in regular correspondence with their junior officers concerning possible openings and future opportunities within their services. Additionally, Air Force and Navy "branch managers" manage ten to a hundred officers as opposed to the thousands which an Army branch manager could be expected to oversee. In stark contrast to their Air Force or Navy counterparts, when an Army junior officer receives an email from their branch manager it usually concerns the availability of positions open for another deployment such as joining a Military Transition Team (MTT). Army lieutenants and captains are further frustrated by a system where branch managers only have the ability to deny a career move but inversely do not have the power to instigate a career move due to the fact that job changes are decided at the unit level by the brigade or battalion commander. Thus, junior officers requesting a different assignment face a mazelike obstacle that requires numerous gates to pass. The first gate which needs to be navigated is at the unit level whereby the junior officer must persuade, cajole, and plead to their commander to accept their desire for a different job. Then, junior officers must e-mail their impersonal yet all powerful branch manager on whether or not they have their permission to undertake the change. Thus, it is not at all surprising when senior officers cite the well known truism to junior officers that "you manage your career" and "if you don't look out for yourself, then no one will." One would think that in a profession which values people first, the Army's human resource department would be much more adept at creating an environment which allows junior officers to not completely shoulder the burden of managing their budding careers.
During the officer basic course many instructors cite that upon entering one's unit they will most likely be assigned a sponsor or mentor. Sponsors and mentors are bywords of an informal institution of a bygone era unstrained by multiple deployments. Due to the lack of real sponsors or mentors at the unit level, the Army has become a bureaucratic and faceless organization to the junior officers. Not assigning a mentor is a failure at the unit level but this occurrence is not specific to solely one unit as it is rare across the board for a junior officer to be assigned a mentor in all of the Army. The end result of not having effective branch mangers or a sponsor is a junior officer clique at the unit level that privately meets to share their frustrations with one another rather than communicating their grievances in private to a mentor who serves as a consultant and conduit for possible change. Because junior army officers are oftentimes uniformed of future possibilities in their branch or service, they end up deciding that the best fate is perhaps entering the private sector rather than continue to deal with a seemingly unresponsive Army human resource department.
The combat skills retention bonus currently offered to junior officers is a well intentioned but ill conceived plan which does not address the overall retention problems. The retention bonus simply rewards those officers which were originally planning on staying in rather than appealing to those who sit on the fence. The retention bonus is not selective or scaled to those officers who have outperformed their peers. For high achieving officers there is little financial incentive to outperform their peers given the Army's stress on time in service as opposed to performance. Service to nation is an integral reason for becoming a commissioned officer and staying one. However, incentives and a sense of fair play also effect the decision making of junior officers when they decide to don the corporate gray after years of wearing combat uniforms in Iraq or Afghanistan.
It would be amiss to state the deployments are not a major factor in the departure of junior officers within the ranks. Junior officers who are married seek to have a stable family life like their civilian counterparts. Married junior officers oftentimes feel that no amount of money can substitute for the time separated from their wives and children. Moreover, constant deployments and permanent change of stations add to the strain of maintaining a family in the military. Single junior officers also feel aggrieved that their hopes of ever marrying and starting a family are thwarted due to the lack of opportunities to develop, nurture, and sustain possible relationships. These problems are not solely limited to junior officers as constant deployments affect soldiers of all ranks. However, these problems are acutely highlighted for junior officers as they are at the point in life where they are starting and nurturing a family.
The retention of junior officers is currently portrayed as a crisis of revolutionary proportion rather than as a cyclical evolution of the historical norm. While it is true that junior officers are leaving the military at an alarming rate, there are still some capable officers staying in for the long haul. This was the case in Vietnam as documented by James Kitfield and it is also the case today. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are transitory, and will come and go just as the Taliban and Saddam were once our allies. The takeaway historical lesson which the American people should come away with is that the military officer corps will always stay true to its mission of serving its civilian masters and the American people. Despite the current flaws in the Army's management of junior officers, in the long run the officer corps will continue to do what is has always done: prepare, fight, and complete the objectives set forth by its political leaders.
U.S. Army Captain Tim Hsia is currently serving in Iraq with the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment.