Small Wars Journal

Today's Junior Army Officers

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.


Ryan (not verified)

Tue, 02/02/2010 - 10:48am

Jamie: sorry, mistaken identity. Thanks for the kind words though.

Everybody: some interesting links for debate.

A short examination of "up or out" (called the Cravath System by civilian types) in the IT sector. Not completely applicable to us greensuiters but interesting nonetheless. Very much like his point in the second section: "instead of fighting to retain top talent, we need to make top talent."…

An enormous RAND study about the regulation which put "up or out" in place (DOPMA, 1980). I am trying to slog through this but it keeps putting me into a coma.

Some great thought provoking commentaries for a Sunday morning/afternoon. As one of those dreaded majors, and one who is idealistic at heart, I do want to pile on and say that it is not all bad, and it is my belief-as many have said-that it is all about leadership and reasons for being in the service.
A few thoughts/examples:
1)Two of my close friends and comrades, both infantrymen and outstanding company commanders in 2003, were top blocked along their careers, both in the 75th and in regular infantry units and were selected for that second command. Looking like they were destined for great things and bright futures in the Army and both got out. Their goal was to be a company commander, a company commander in combat, and having achieved that, they were off to bigger and better things. Are they anomalies, no, I agree that there are many who come in with a goal and having attained it, are off to make a new life.
2) I concur that the leadership in a lieutenants first unit sets the tone for a career. I will illustrate a positive example of my first unit. Now while I did not get a sponsor, heck it was Korea, we did have a great unit. In the last several months, I have run across no less than 15 of my fellow platoon leaders, all still in the Army and all now majors, serving in a variety of branches and positions, but all still serving and contributing. I do not know if this is an abnormally large number- I am sure that someone has done a study on how good commanders and poor ones impact long term retention of officers, but without knowing the results, I can only look unscientifically to my peers. Having asked around, none of my brethren know that many of the LTs from their first unit that are still on active duty. I lay the credit for this squarely on the leadership that our commander provided. He was a great positive influence on us young-and some not so young-lieutenants-and I know that he was a large part in my decision to stay in. (Thank you COL (ret.) Mike Formica)
3) I also agree with most of you, mentorship is key. Again, I have been lucky, I have had commanders not only give OPDs but give OPDs on the promotion process and how it works. I have had commanders, and other officers provide me career advice. I have also sought out senior officers-and NCOs-and asked for their advice on many matters from training and tactical decisions to career ones. I consider these mentors, though some of them may not even realize it. My advice to CPT H to CPT, to Ryan is to seek out mentors, and then seize the opportunity to be a mentor as well. You dont have to be a commander, supervisor or even higher ranking to provide advice, guidance, and mentorship to a Soldier, NCO or officer.
Jack Welch once said something along the lines that as a leader at GE he spent 50% of his time on developing personnel. This may be a somewhat unrealistic goal as a PL, commander or field grade if you think of it solely in terms of counseling or writing evaluation reports, but when you put it in perspective of those things combined with training Soldiers to be stronger, better, more confidant etc, I believe it is right on target and maybe even a little low for a profession that is in the people business.
I will say that my biggest regret is that as a BN S-3, while I did quarterly counseling with all of my officers and my SGM, I only put it on paper about 50% of the time. Guys, you know the right things to do, and as youve illustrated in the negative things that may have happened to you, you know that by doing things better you know that you can make a difference.
Keep up the good fight.

R. White (not verified)

Sun, 01/31/2010 - 1:50pm

Interesting discussion...a few thoughts:

- What most of the JOs who decry the years spent on staff assignments between company command and battalion command fail to recognize or state is the simple fact that the battalion/brigade commander that they would think of as "great", became such by virtue of serving in positions that served to round him/her out in the context of the greater picture. For those who speak of being a "career captain" I'd simply say that as your family grows and HH6 grows tired of wearing the same clothes you will seek promotion = more compensation/$$.

As a brand new rifle company commander in the 82nd ABN DIV back in the mid 90's I came across my Division commander at JRTC...he told me to enjoy it because after company command it was all downhill. I didn't understand then but I do now...I think of the 3 years as a company commander everyday (2 - 82nd/ 1 -Old Guard). That said I held jobs as a Major that not only prepared me for company command but also afforded me the opportunity to earn two Master's degrees courtesy of Uncle Sam. In addition to BQ jobs I served a Joint Billet in the NMCC (National military command center) from '02-04 which gave me insight into the big picture in a way that a career captain would never glean. Yes I did my share of powerpoint, but I also had a great education by being the fly on the wall of significant high level briefings/meetings. Performance in thsi position along with the total file led to battalion command. It was in battalion command that I felt the angst that some JOs decry post company command. Hard thing at time of war to be sent into the belly of TRADOC to command (especially when a historic look over the past 30 years shows that only one 05 Tradoc commanders - Hertling was able to jump back into the operational army post Tradoc battalion command...add in KK Chinn and they are the only two to attain the rank of GO after 05 Tradoc commands). Hard to watch many of th eguys you grew up in the army with go and fight while you're explaining to some GO why you want to kick out 7 loosers who had no business making it past the recruiter.

My point is that nothing runs pure...civilian world sounds sexy, but I have a plethora of friends...and most importantly for this discussion - former subordinates...who consistently cite what they miss about the uniform. I've helped 5 former LT/CPT subordinates in the last 3 years come back to active duty. Money wasn't the issue...they all took a pay cut to come back; it was simple job satisfaction and camraderie.

This discussion will go on for all time. I would simply encourage the JO considering departure from the service to conduct a very honest assessment (inclusive of the spouse if applicable) before jumping to the civilian world. The grass, in any profession, always seems greener.

LTC C (not verified)

Fri, 01/29/2010 - 1:14pm


I appreciate your candor and comments. I will tell you that your unit is not the norm and there are units out there that do mentor and conduct OPDs, etc. I tell junior officers all the time to be wary of judging the Army based on one unit or one chain of command. Having said that, I can tell you that I was often the first person to actually coach a CPT or MAJ who was serving as a Rater and explain to them how to capture the performance and potential accurately in an OER.

I assume you are a West Point graduate. I will tell you that USMA is notorious for setting inflated expectations in Cadets. Not to say that the standard of excellence is a joke, but a mature recognition that in any large organization (and the Army is very much a Profession and a Bureaucracy, always in tension) you will have some element and degree of mediocrity and even outright incompetence is necessary.

What branch are you? What Division/Major Command are were you with? Part of the problem is that certain branches are more prone to weak leadership.

Finally, so you don't think I am a blind apologist, I have been working/fighting these issues since I was a CPT over 15 years ago. It takes perseverance and a commitment to fixing your little part of the Army. The Army needs its best leaders in its toughest times.

Jamie (not verified)

Fri, 01/29/2010 - 11:05am

Ryan---Thanks for the candor and insight. And although I would be honored to be recognized as such, I am not your former company cdr. I have been out of the conventional Army for over ten years after growing up in the abn infantry as a LT. That said, I have been perhaps "shielded" from some of the problems that you and your peers identify, having only served in units where the leaders are hand-picked and the Soldiers truly want to be there.

I am not an apologist for the Army; I recognize that the organization, like any organization, has its flaws. But the Army never promised us a rose garden, did it? The occassional careerist, incompetent d-bag officer, conflicting and confusing guidance from higher, friction with the military bureaucracy---these have been with us since Washington crossed the Delaware, and they always will.

I'm not saying that you have to always embrace the suck, but it is necessary to wade through some crap to get to the good stuff---and I would argue that you have to do that wherever you go, be it in the military or the corporate world. And the good stuff is there----Olmsted Scholarships aside, the biggest plus is leading and/or working with some great guys and gals in pursuit of some pretty noble objectives (look at 2-82 ABN in Haiti).

Don't have a mentor? Find one---it's not hard. Locate that one commander, supervisor, etc that you truly respect and start a dialogue. And then be a mentor yourself. Work through, around, over the BS that you see---again, to get to the good stuff. It can be done.

All the best,


CPT (not verified)

Fri, 01/29/2010 - 4:30am

MAJ Oliver,

You probably came up in a different Army than I did. I am a CPT with a little over three years (I did 3 years in the National Guard as well), as opposed to yourself, whom I'm assuming is over 10-12. I would like to relate my story to you and the way I came up. Keep in mind I am now a CPT.

1. Upon PCS'ing to my unit as a 2LT I was told by every single junior officer, and I quote, "This unit sucks, no one gives a F about you, try to get out or get reassigned."

2. My commander was a trainwreck who never got relieved despite having his XO have to pick him up from an MP station for a DUI that was swept under the rug. He had to get his KD time out of the way.

3. My commander also bailed out on us four days prior to our first deployment by getting a P3 profile, then once enough time had passed by, he had it downgraded to a P2. (How do you do this? Just tell the doctor what you want, that's what the Soldiers do.) While on Rear-D, he went AWOL for two weeks. His equipment that had been shipped in Toughboxes in our connexes was preaddressed back to himself.

4. He was promptly promoted to MAJ.

5. I have never, ever had a mentor. Not one field grade officer has ever sat me down, explained how the Army or promotion systems work. Or taken time to explain career options or what I need to do to get ahead of the game. But it would be 15 years before I could pass people anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter.

6. I was promoted to CPT, on my ORB and everything, and kept it to myself waiting for my unit to say congratulations, or anything, until three weeks went by, from which I finally had to raise the red flag and plan a ceremony because no one knew, nor said congratulations.

7. My sponsor to the unit I met three weeks after getting to the unit.

8. I was selected for positions ahead of my peers, but was promoted 7 months after them to CPT because of my commission date.

9. I have never attended an OPD besides BOLC III. I have never had one. I don't really know how to fill out an OER Support Form because I don't know its importance or why it matters, no one ever really had me do one, my OER's are solid, but I find it humorous because one of our LT's just walked in and asked me.

I could go on and on, but I think the point has been made as it has been to me, "No one cares about you. You are a social security number in an excel spreadsheet managed by your G-1, anyone can do your job and you are shuffleable."

I've made extreme attempts to ensure that our new 2LT's are treated and welcomed. I had facebook friended them once they were on assignment for our unit, and in some cases while they were still in college. I have made a point to explain to them the way promotions work, the way the unit does business, and listened to their frustrations and I have generally done the best I can to be a "mentor". But at some point you have to ask, who is looking out for me? Most of the field grades I know are shuffled through their one year KD assignments and are either powerpoint jockeys and lackeys that are doing their best to not get yelled at by their bosses. They have it made and see no benefit to throwing a bone to any junior officer in the unit. This is referenced by most of my peers in the unit, except for the incompetent ones that get shuffled around to various positions because they are too dumb to hold a job and actually be a functioning, contributing member of the Army. Talking to my other classmates, they have relayed similiar experiences.

Trust me sir, Junior Officers today are on another planet compared to the one that you arrived on back in the day. Now that you are above the fray, I would exhort you to take care of the little guys. I believe the human aspect is the single thing that will ensure that bright, young future leaders will stay in. Caring about the people that make the organization, not the organization.

I really don't want to come off as complaining. I'm leaving the Army for a myriad of reasons, some deployment related, som not, but I will forever be grateful for the opportunities it has given me and will be very proud of my service.

Ryan (not verified)

Thu, 01/28/2010 - 3:18pm

Jamie, who just got done with an assignment position at HRC: Sir, if you are who I think you are, then I'm one of your old platoon leaders. Wish you could have stayed with us in 05.

In my experience (anecdotal, yes, but I trust what I've lived more than statistics) maybe 80% of the lieutenants I came up with got out--and were glad to. Not because they hated the deployments or because they thought the brass were idiots (everybody thinks their boss is a moron, to some degree). They got out for the reasons I've listed above--bad facilities, bad medical system, the AWFUL "up or out" philosophy, perception of top brass being merely politicians in uniform--and for a couple more reasons: a) nobody ever articulated our goal, our endstate, in SW Asia; b) having to act like we're in garrison in a combat zone; c) no chance of getting the job you want ("Screw what YOU want--we need people for the self-defeating, poorly-thought-out MiTT program"); d) refusal of our leaders to admit the true nature of our enemy--and calling it racist/bigoted when WE do ("there are extremists in EVERY religion, lieutenant--you're not being culturally sensitive!").

The more intellectual of my peers also resent the insistence by some top officers that we can't be good leaders without being devoted disciples of the new COIN manual. That may be a topic for another discussion, but if affects us down here at the bottom of the ladder too. Side note: there is also amusement with our bosses' obsession with CALL publications. But moving on...

Sir, I will grant you that there may be plenty of officers who stay in. But I got done with the captains' course not long ago myself, and out of a class of 120 there were maybe fifteen that I'd trust in combat. The rest are jumped-up staff officers who will play commander for a year and then go back to their desk and their Excel spreadsheets. The leaders are getting out.

If I'm right and you are in fact my old commander, you're smart enough that you've already figured out who I am. I hope you know I hold you in the highest of regards, Sir--you're the best officer I've ever worked for. The above is just my take and not meant in any disrespectful way.

Jamie (not verified)

Thu, 01/28/2010 - 9:34am

Junior officers leaving the Army at an alarming rate? Hmm---I would like to see the objective data that CPT Hsia is using to back this claim. Having just left an assignment officer position at HRC, I did not see any such evidence----quite the contrary.

As for Morgan's desires for "real world" opportunities to work with foreign paramilitaries and other non-standard missions, such a program exsists----it's called Special Forces. Simply submit your packet for SFAS and give it your best shot.

De Oppresso Liber,


Constitution CPT (not verified)

Wed, 01/27/2010 - 12:48am

I echo Ryan. Our senior leadership is afraid to name the very enemy we deploy for a year at the time away from our families to fight.

Those that have been out front and seen hatred in the enemies eyes know that radical Islam is what brought the towers down, what motivated MAJ Hassan, and is a very clear threat to our personal freedoms and way of life and government.

If our senior warfighters can't admit that, then our Army is a corporation with guns no matter how much we want it to be a body that

"supports and defends the Constitution of the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic."

I can look forward to spending years on staff making powerpoint slides only to deploy repeatedly in the course of a 20 year career...and for what? What do we risk our lives for if it is not to defend our Constitution?

Can our senior leaders speak our enemies name boldly, to at least give truth to our comrades we have lost in the conflicts since 9/11? The message is loud and clear to many, "we will protect our Soldiers as far as political correctness allows."

I wonder how many feel as CareerNCO does....that many junior leaders (O's and NCO's) get out in order to avoid the garrison BS that is a fact of life in garrison/ CONUS (and many FOBs) and would prefer being deployed and doing what they came into the Army to do: hunt and kill the enemy.

I personally don't mind being deployed as long as I am doing what I was trained to do: be an infantryman. Being away from the family does suck but actually executing your duties (versus simply training to do them) makes up for much of the suck.

I don't advocate keeping our forces deployed and in combat simply to make people feel better about themselves. But perhaps part of the answer regarding retaining good people would be to afford them opportunities to apply their training in a "real-world" manner.....short-duration TDY postings with NGOs executing HA, or with paramilitary police forces going after bad guys......?

Such opportunities would not only get willing leaders out into the operational world where they can put some of their training to use (even for a short period) but would also allow them to learn a little bit about how such organizations work, the conditions/ locales they work in, and get to know key people in those organizations. Such opportunities might be enough to entice people to stay in a bit longer.

Given the likelihood of our continued involvement in "small wars" and having to work along side NGOs as well as allied forces (not to mention functioning more like paramiltary police), we might be able to incorporate some of these lessons into our doctrine.

CareerNCO (not verified)

Tue, 01/26/2010 - 1:48pm


I have been in almost 20 years as an NCO, and have to take exception to something you said, small and polite disagreement if you will. You said, "The Army "lost" millions of competent officers after World War II, Korea, and Vietnam but it survived and fought well and competently, overcoming many other challenges besides."

The Army that deployed to Korea in the summer of 1950 did NOT fight well, in fact it is a case study in horrible leadership and what not to do, and it was only after a standing eight count in the Pusan Perimeter, that things improved.

But having done three tours in Iraq I can tell you some of the reasons I see NCOs getting out, and Capt. Hsia makes some great points. But here is something I have not seen mentions: many of the LTs and CPTs, as well as staff NCOs I know are getting out because they don't mind the deployments, but DO mind the garrison BS while in a combat zone. When wearing a reflective belt is more important than anything, when POSH classes are a "must do" but things like WTT is not, it is frustrating more than the senior officers ever know.

Add to that the frutration of becoming an Army of TTPs, when the TTPs are all that matter and all the OTHER leadership skills are pretty much cast aside, pople are discouraged.

Just my views, and I hope they are presented in the discussion format and not seen as just mindless bitching.

Ryan (not verified)

Tue, 01/26/2010 - 12:57pm

oldpapajoe: I don't think that the question is whether the causes are new or old; the question is how to fix the problems driving people out. I have a few suggestions to help. Not cure-alls, but significant improvements.

1. End "up or out," automatic promotion for ALL grades except maybe E1-E4, and let good commanders and 1SGs stay in the role indefinitely or until they screw up.

2. No more working in offices with asbestos, lead paint, or other hazardous materials. No more working in offices which have previously been condemned. This goes double for on-post housing, both barracks and married/dependent.

3. Fix the medical system. I am not a doctor or an administrator, so I don't have even the beginnings of an idea how to do this. But I know of plenty of private hospitals in my area that function efficiently and where ER patients don't have to wait for hours just for an initial diagnosis. Whatever we need to do, bribe, steal, kidnap good docs and administrators, I don't care--we have to start taking care of our soldiers this way. It may not seem narrow enough for this conversation, but as a junior officer perhaps 50% of my rage toward the Army is the way my soldiers and their families are treated by our medical system.

4. I echo some others above: make the promotion/HR/assignments processes absolutely transparent, and fix it where broken. Also echoing somebody up there, we need to dramatically reduce the proportion of branch managers to managed officers: one to only fifty or a hundred instead of thousands. My branch manager doesn't even know all the jobs for my grade. I and most of my peers have to call around and find our own jobs at the O3 and O4 level. How disgusting is that? But it never changes. Fire or put the fear of God in the branch chiefs, whatever needs to happen.

MAJ Oliver: Sir, if I read you right, you're saying that our dissatisfaction is a result of bad leadership on the part of our raters and senior raters. If that is in fact what you were getting at, then I agree. I may not be Sam Damon but I will sure as hell take care of my lieutenants and, when I have them, my captains.

For one and all, this may be a small thing, but a huge number of my peers in the last week have brought up the Ft. Hood report. What kind of incompetent boobs, the dialogue goes, are so concerned with political correctness (ahead of and over soldiers' safety) that they refuse to acknowledge what everyone knows--that the attack was motivated by radical (or jihadist) Islam. Little things like this report have an enormous impact on LTs and young CPTs. Those poor dead soldiers at Hood are being sacrificed on the altar of politics, and the message is loud and clear: the brass doesn't care about your soldiers, and is so stupid it can't even name the enemy we fight. Who would want to stick around for that?

DavetheBrave (not verified)

Tue, 01/26/2010 - 6:02am

I find it curious that after laying dormant for 20 months, this conversation has re-energized. But I'm glad -- its a good subject.

As an older officer, I can say that I have heard all of this before; those that remain in the Army for another decade or two doubtless will hear it again. Like John S. and oldpapajoe, I joined and then stayed to make a contribution and to serve the nation; I think that this is the motivational aspect that makes the most difference.

Within weeks of confirmation as CSA, GEN Pete Schoomaker defined the Army's core competencies as 1) Train and equip Soldiers and grow leaders, and 2) Providing relevant and ready land-power capability to the Combatant Commanders as part of the Joint Force. Everything else is either an adjunct or a supporting aspect.

Growing leaders is everyone's responsibility, though some take it more seriously than most, both on the giving and receiving ends of leadership and mentorship. The Army will survive; the "lack" or "loss" of "talent" will not derail our broader capability. The Army "lost" millions of competent officers after World War II, Korea, and Vietnam but it survived and fought well and competently, overcoming many other challenges besides.

I'm always sorry to see younger officers vote with their feet; some years from now many will wish they hadn't made the choices they did. However, there is a darwinian aspect to this; perhaps the ones who are leaving aren't the "talent" after all. Perhaps the real "talent" is present in those who stay and fight it out.


Mon, 01/25/2010 - 10:52pm

I have read with great interest in this thread and many others as to why officers and non-commissioned officers leave the military. This is a multi-faceted subject and a source of much dismay and frustration for many. It is my opinion that we have lost some of the basics of leadership. This may sound trite and I do not mean to insult or be disrespectful to anyone. However, upon reading the well-produced letter by CPT H and the follow-on comments, an underlying tone, at least from my point of view, resonates with a failure to embrace or emulate the basics of leadership values and competencies that should be a part of all leaders. Sometimes we have to get back to the basics of developing others--taking the time to explain the ratings and promotion systems, (whether they are flawed or not is not the debate or bias here). Creating positive environments--having the ability to schedule an office call with your senior rater, so they know whom they are rating, or communication--getting to know your branch manager through regular correspondence--so you are more than "a face for a space." Extending influence beyond the chain of command--asking the company/battalion/brigade commander to call about jobs on your behalf. These are a few examples and they are not pipe dreams, I have had them done for me, or I have done them for others (subordinates, peers, and students) throughout my career. They have helped, in most of the cases I have been involved in, with that persons decision to stay and could potentially help others make that decision. Maybe I am an enigma; I can honestly say that as an officer and as a former NCO, I have not had any issues with branch, HRC, or not having a sponsor at a new unit. These examples of mentorship basics may seem trivial; however, the basics made a lasting impression on me and assisted with many decisions to stay in after my initial enlistment, apply for advanced education, and pursue and continue a career as an officer in our Army. This is not my idea of the "Golden BB," I do not know what that is and I do not believe that big Army knows what that is yet. Potential solutions may lie somewhere in these discussions and proposals like those of COL Burton, "The Officer Critical Skills Retention Bonus," that is also on this venue. All I can say is I have, and others that I know have, made an impact by staying. I will continue influencing my small piece of the Army, and if more of us do, we can help retain the "talent."

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this "discussion" are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

MAJ Jeffrey E. Oliver
Command and General Staff College Satellite Campus
Ft Belvoir, VA

oldpapjoe (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 4:10pm


No disrespect noted in your response. I appreciate your candor.

I would like to share with you that I had friends/classmates who got out in the late 1970s for the very reasons you mention: bad housing, crime off post, "dumb soldiers", raters who wrote secret code, unethical self-serving bosses, etc. Added to these reasons are the facts that units then were reduced to 30% of TO&E in ALO 2 units, and these units had soldiers sent from the US Army's so-called "retraining brigade" at Fort Riley. These were Disciplinary Barrack at Leavenworth soldiers who were retrained at Riley and then sent to understrength units. These "rehabed" soldiers were all non-violent jail birds. Virtually none stayed in the unit for more than a few months. Most disserted or were convicted of other crimes, ranging from murder, rape, drugs. Such was the decade after Vietnam. The biggest difference between that army and your perception of today's army is that the army (the mid 70s to middle 80s) is that army did not have to fight deploy year in and year out deployments to fight a war. [BTW I can tell you that today's Army is infinately better than the US Army of 1972-1986 in all respects.]. History will bear out that many junior officers of all periods in our history have found their "superiors" [I prefer the word "senior"]wanting and conditions and matarial reward insufficient. So, if it is not the war, what is it exactly that is driving these junior officers out of the service than what drove them out in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s? I am serious. I really want to know what you think the unique reasons for the exodus or is it the for basically the same reasons that has affected the Army since at least 1919?

Ryan (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 12:37pm


I would venture a guess that most of the "minority" opinions were more prevalent than your interviewees let on. Reminds me of my LTC boss insisting that the "dumbing down" of our MOS-producing school and the reduction of standards to be admitted to our field was not actually hurting us--and as proof he used a series of surveys he conducted with NCOs on the issue. What NCO in their right mind is going to tell an O5 the truth, already knowing what he wants to hear? In my experience, most senior NCOs and mid-grade officers who get out are at best jaded and at worst enraged and bitter with the service and the patronage system; I doubt you got many straight answers.

I think these "minority" opinions are also growing less and less so, as the war wears on. Someone once said (to paraphrase) "once the war is over, the Warriors are driven out by the Soldiers." Well, with this war the Soldiers are not waiting to drive us out. While Warriors are focusing on the actual fight, the Soldiers (in this case, read politicians in uniform) are using the distraction to increase their little fiefdoms. We, the senior NCOs and mid-grade officers, are tired of it. I am tired of having an ambiguous code phrase on my OER mean more than whether my mission was accomplished. I am tired to the politics. And "I think I could make the Army better, if I had the chance" is very attractive thinking, but look at it this way: the type of person who will be promoted high enough to change the system are inextricably beholden to it.

Lastly, the "material rewards" may have at one time been sufficient, but they wouldn't motivate a third-world refugee at this point. I've never had on-post housing that was free of asbestos and lead paint. The work/office buildings are even worse. The schools on or near post are like war zones. The commercial and residential areas around most large posts are ghettos, riddled with drugs and prostitution. And the medical care...don't want to go on a tangent, but suffice it to say there is no greater argument against government run health care than our medical system.

I mean you no disrespect by any of this. I wish we had a more comprehensive and accessible system for seeing the various reasons why people leave. I will never believe, though, that good Os and senior NCOs "just leave." Some of them, sure, but for most--something drives them away.

olepapajoe (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 9:24am

As has been mentioned, the Army loses officers in peace and in war. The numbers might spike in war, but not by much. I have always thought it more worthwhile to ask those to stay in why they are remaining while others are leaving rather than merely focusing on those who are leaving.

The majority of officers I interviewed who were leaving the service (granted this was in the years before OIF and OEF) all had very personal reasons for leaving. Some--the minority-- would blame others ("to many incompetant senior officers", "too many lazy", "the good guys don't get promoted", "my wife doesn't like it"). These folks were in the minority and I suspected they had some reason for leaving that they did not want to reveal. For the majority who left, the reason for their leaving was pretty simple. They said no longer wanted to serve and they said so. They no longer wanted to make the sacrifices required to serve as a good officer. They were pretty honest about it--no excuses. They had lost the motivation to stay on. When asked why, they said that it was a combination of things. They all said that they realized the service required sacrifices and they no longer wanted to take on those sacrifices. A few just wanted to see what the civilian world had to offer--the grass is greener syndrome. The officers who remained did so for the expected reasons: they liked the comradeship, they liked the challenge of leading and being resonsible; they thought their service important and different. Some liked the fact that they believed they could remain in uniform and get promoted without too much difficulty. Some wanted to become senior leaders ("I think I could make the Army better, if I had the chance"). As I talk with fellow retirees about why we spent a lifetime in uniform, we seem to agree that we remained because we liked the people we served with, we thought the service honorable and necessary and important, we liked the fact that we did what others thought too difficult; the material rewards were sufficient (housing, schools for kids, etc).


Sat, 01/23/2010 - 12:04pm

This doesnt just affect the Officer Corps but also the NCO Corps. I've seen both good Officers and NCO's alike put 10 or more years into the military and just up and leave. The military made a fundamental mistake when they started to transform the military from a "Profession of Arms" to one that looks and runs like a corporation. Ive heard many senior Officers and NCOs state that there is no difference between how a corporation runs and how the military should run. When you build career maps instructing soldiers how to get ahead to make the next grade you begin to head down a slippery slope. Now you produce soldiers who are "checking the block", to get ahead without spending enough time becoming proficient in their current position. I dont think the "institution" can or will change, it has become entrenched. It is also a direct representation of our culture today. Todays military is no longer a Profession of Arms that are experts at their trade craft but a corporation that produces soldiers more concerned about their career paths and the "Golden BB" that will move them up the next rung on the ladder. I dont mean this to be insulting in any way. The military is full of good people with good intentions but the institution itself is failing.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 01/21/2010 - 1:58pm

Arrgghhh. Got me yet again, Bill... :(

That 12:56 PM Anonymous is me.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 01/21/2010 - 1:56pm

As a participant in the service for 27 years, a DAC for 18 more and a fully retired watcher for another 15, I've seen some changes -- some good, some less so -- but the Personnel system is <u>more</u> flawed than ever.

In fairness, Congress is at fault for much of that in micromanaging 'subjectivity and fairness' as defined by Staffers who have axes to grind but the Army bears most of the responsibility for the failures. Much of that due to poorly designed strategies intended to protect the institution and / or 'enhance' personnel management far more so than it is to support the force or fight wars...

That's a preface to the point that <b>LT Nixon</b>, <b>Schmedlap</b> and <b>Ryan</b> have it right and reflect the thinking of most good officers I have seen leave the service over that 60+ years. Most who stay adopted the attitudes of <b>John S.</b> so I cannot say he is wrong. I agree that many who leave endure as civilians the same purgatory that staff service entails as for those who stay -- but they are far better compensated in all aspects and far less hassled 'off duty.'

I have seen varying interpretations of that 'adapt to the system' attitude and at their best, they give up very little integrity and capability.

However, as is true in all things, there are levels along the scale and too many are 'adapted' to the point of mediocrity by a system which unintentionally but strongly encourages that level while the worst amount to almost sickening sycophancy covering flat incompetence. The bottom 50% are on an increasing scale a danger to the Army and to their subordinates. I've seen really poor commanders and leaders cause too many people to be needlessly captured, killed and wounded...

The tragedy is that many who leave are a significant and relatively easily preventable loss who 'must' be -- are -- replaced by those lesser mortals.

That means the personnel system may be doing what it's designed to do BUT that the design intent is almost certainly very wrong...

Ryan (not verified)

Thu, 01/21/2010 - 11:52am

Schmedlap made the point I was going to make: we are forced to spend the overwhelming majority of our careers going to meetings and making PowerPoint slides. There is no benefit to the Army--meetings hurt productivity, and PowerPoint is a tool to make stupid, lazy bosses feel smart and decisive.

I'm a company commander right now. I love this job and would stay in the Army for a million years if I could keep it. But in a little less than 12 months now, I have to leave it, and why? To make room for somebody else? Because "that's the way it is?" What happened to the days (yes, I know that nobody alive now experienced them) when you could stay a captain for your whole career if you were good at it? Plenty of armies throughout history have allowed commanders (or centurions, or whatever they called them) to remain in their positions for decades.

This system we have now, where we shove good, experienced commanders out of the way to make room for others who are an unknown's ridiculous. If you keep meeting the bosses' expectations, you should be able to stay forever.

Spending the next fifteen years of my life on a staff is not for me--I (to echo another of Schmedlap's points) definitely did NOT join for the money. I joined to lead soldiers, to defend my country, but most importantly, to blow sh*t up. Though money was not an issue, if I'm dissatisfied with being a staff rat anyway, I am certainly going to be more inclined to go defend my country as a mercenary (sorry, "contractor" is the buzzword now, right?) for a LOT more money.

John S.: I appreciate realism. I really do. But there should be no politics involved in this business. Absolutely none. Some will always remain, but simply saying "well, that's the system, you can either work it or suffer under it" will not help make this a more meritocratic Army. Kick the adulterers, the thieves, the football bats, the backbiters, kick them the hell out. I'd rather have a tiny, honest Army than one full of politicians in uniform.

Annonymous (not verified)

Wed, 01/20/2010 - 5:27am

Excellent article.

In terms of Defense Contracting, I have seen pay stubs for VTC operators which, after taxes equals $280,000 annually.

This is an E-4 25B Job.

Our IPBO rep, managed by KBR makes somewhere in the 70K range and was a 4 year 92Y at the turn of the century and had barely made SPC; He has problems speaking.

I can give examples all day. But the civilian world doesn't ask you to put your life on the line and hold a job so *Insert Field Grade Officer Here* can get his KD time knocked out and transition to another KD position for his promotion to LTC.


Wed, 12/02/2009 - 9:36am

Quite a cri de coeur.
1. It is indeed regrettable no one ever explained to him that PERSCOM/HRC is full of flesh peddlers whose mission in life is to match faces to spaces.
2. If he feels there is greater job satisfaction for him elsewhere, he is correct in getting out. I was going to do my 5 and get out, fell in love with the Army, stayed in and never regretted it.
3. If he feels promotion of "lesser qualified officers" is a recent phenomena, I envy his idealism.
4. If he feels promotion in the civilian world is strictly or even mostly by merit--as opposed to a large measure of luck and/or favoritism, I envy his idealism once again.
5. If he feels there is still a "Golden Age" of defense contracting going on, where anyone with a 214 will find a cornucopia of gold, I have bad news.
I congratulate him for his service and wish him all the luck in the world.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Thu, 04/03/2008 - 9:26am

The author points out common grievances, though I can't say that any were major factors for me or for most people whom I know. For me - and for the vast majority of other recently ETS'd Captains whom I know - the decision was pretty simple. We joined to be platoon leaders. Our perception (which I believe to be accurate) is that the time between Platoon Leader and Battalion Commander is largely spent contriving PowerPoint slides and sitting at a desk. This seems like a tremendous waste of time with no apparent benefit to the Army. So, the decision was a no-brainer.

For those who are motivated to be Battalion Commanders, even if it means enduring non-green tab positions for 10 out of the next 15 years, retention will be high.

Another important consideration as we look at the current surge in attrition is to recognize that this cohort is different. Most of our current crop of junior officers were most likely motivated to join in large part in response to 9/11. They had no intention of becoming General or even Field Grade officers. They wanted to get into the fight and do their part and then go back to their lives. High attrition after their ADSO should have been expected.

Lastly, I never cease to be amazed at how often it is suggested that military officers are weighing their earning power in the military versus corporate America. Who joins the Army for the money? I joined the Army to jump out of planes and shoot bad guys in the face. This seems like a fairly common motivation among my peers.

John S. (not verified)

Wed, 04/02/2008 - 6:27pm

A) A wise old guy told me there are 2 kinds of people: those running away from something and those running towards a goal. You can 'serve your time' as a junior officer and get out. Or you can serve in order to reach longer range goals. Making full bird, general, etc. Earning retirement income. Getting up high enough so that you can then parlay that in to defense contract work, becoming a military civilian, etc.

B) Civilian vs. Military promotions: Those of us who have seen things on both sides of the fence smile at that comparison. We could spend hours contrasting, but my bottom line: In the civilian world you have near absolute control over your destiny. So many opportunities being that there are numerous companies, with various styles / rules, etc. Or you can start your own dang company!

But please don't peg the 'civilian' world's promotion systems as transparent and a monolith. The Army's system may be somewhat shadowy, but you know in your gut how it works even if no one explains it to you in total. If you get good evals, take the tough assignments, etc., you'll keep progressing to a certain level. Theeeen, the politics kick in. e.g. COL H.R. McMaster. Think of it this way: YOU could be promoted beyond COL McMaster with less of a resume. How did the others beat out COL McMaster..?

Even in a political environment you can 'work' the system. Ever tried to be a general's aide? Does your brigade commander know who you are? She'll sit on a board some day, or know someone who does. The politics in the civilian world are there too. No escaping that, really. But in the civilian world you can quit, navigate your own river - in the Army you have to deal with that one 'black curtain'.

I thank those that have served and continue to SACRIFICE in our armed forces.

Jason Pape

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 2:18am

Captain Hsias piece is an excellent explanation of the Armys current crisis in junior officer retention. I applaud him for making it objective, historically informed, and optimistic. Most importantly, I salute him for making it about more than his self. He could have complained about being on his second tour to Iraq, but rose above that. Too many of the stories about junior officer attrition today seem to be less about the issues and solutions, but more an explanation of ones own departure from a noble albeit tired profession. While I believe this is often an indication of just how difficult the decision is for most - so difficult that they feel compelled to justify it - it really doesnt contribute much to our collective appreciation of the problem or our quest for solutions. A few examples of how not to do it...……

Luckily, there are others who got it right...…

There has always been officer attrition, and it often appeared that we were losing "our best and brightest" while only those without better alternatives stayed in. Even before September 11th, before Bosnia and Kosovo - when junior officers often reached the end of their service obligations without a single operational deployment - young captains still left the Army with the same complaints of workload, difficulty starting a family, and frustration with the promotion scheme. Imagine their complaints compared against those voiced today! My point is that (forgive the cliché) everything is relative, but also - perception is reality. Captain Hsias article is an excellent summary of the real issues we need to consider and discuss with our junior leaders as we try to manage their expectations and positively influence their perceptions of this noble career.

I think most of us understand why so many officers are getting out. Personally, Id like to hear more about why the rest are staying in. If we can tap into that (first boss made the difference, commitment to serving Soldiers who will continue to deploy whether you stay or go, a greater sense of importance or significance than ever before as a junior leader given todays operational environment) - we might be able to manage this problem a lot better than simply throwing money at it.

Thanks again Tim for your article.


Interesting read. The reason I'm getting out has to do with the perceived incompetence of some senior officers (not all, but some). That and working hard in the military is punished by having to pick up the workload for someone who is willfully lazy...yet you still get paid the same and wear the same rank. I've heard that this is also a problem in the civilian world, but I'm willing to find out for myself. Not sure how it is in the Army, but in the Navy, single officers generally have less of a chance of going where they want to on their shore tours. Maybe that's why I'm in Iraq. Again, thanks, very insightful.