By Major Chris Heatherly, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
England. June 5, 1944: Allied troops were poised to invade Europe and defeat Nazi Germany. General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces, wrote a simple, one-page letter clearly articulating the importance of their mission and his confidence of their victory in battle. Eisenhower directed his staff to provide a copy of this letter to every Allied servicemember taking part in D-Day.
Fast-forward some sixty years to Operation Iraqi Freedom in Baghdad, Iraq, during the spring of 2004. The 1st Cavalry Division had just relieved the 1st Armored Division and the latter was in the midst of the long journey home through Kuwait to Germany. The tactical situation changed rapidly, requiring 1st Armored Division to cease redeployment operations and return to combat. The division's commanding general, then Major General Martin Dempsey (now chairman of the Joint Chiefs), issued a similar letter to his soldiers. Perhaps recalling Eisenhower's example during WWII, General Dempsey once again clearly and concisely explained why his division would remain in Iraq an additional 90 days beyond its planned departure. Additionally, General Dempsey called a group meeting of his subordinate commanders to personally explain the logic behind the division's recall and his plan to eventually redeploy home. I was present at that meeting, and still have my copy of General Dempsey's letter. There was no doubt in my mind as to the importance of our unit's extension or his commitment to our eventual redeployment.
Today, senior U.S. military leaders face another difficult battle, albeit one of budgets, ledgers, and accountants instead of improvised explosive devices, artillery shells, and bullets. Each uniformed service will reduce its personnel end strength, although exact numbers remain uncertain. The Air Force's anticipated loss is around 9,000 airmen, while the Navy and Marines stand to lose 1,700 and 15,000 more, respectively. General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, stated the Army will lose at least 80,000 soldiers over the next four years with the possibility of additional manpower reductions of 100,000 or greater. General Odierno did not mince words on the possibility of a drawdown, saying: "Let there be no mistake, aggregate reductions WILL TAKE PLACE. The money is gone; our mission now is to determine how best to allocate these cuts while maintaining readiness. We expect Army leaders, military and civilian, to seize this opportunity to re-shape our Army. This effort will take PRIORITY OVER ALL other Headquarters, Department of the Army activities."
To achieve these reductions, the Army publically announced new rounds of Selective Early Retirement Boards (SERB), Qualitative Management Programs (QMP), and Qualitative Service Programs (QSP) for officers and NCOs alike. For example, a SERB in August reviewed nearly 1,200 Army colonels and lieutenant colonels for early retirement. General Odierno ordered every colonel affected by this SERB be personally counseled by a lieutenant general. My concern, however, is the Army will not demonstrate the same hands-on approach when informing junior officers and NCOs their service is no longer required. As an institution, the Army must look beyond the immediate need to reduce personnel now and consider the long-term consequences of a poorly considered or executed drawdown plan. Simply stated, Army leaders must clearly explain to each departing soldier why they are being forced out regardless of rank, rationale, or reason.
Any decision on personnel reductions must consider the following facts. A significant portion of our soldiers are already distrustful of "Big Army." A 2012 Center for Army Leadership survey found that nearly 50 percent of the active and reserve soldiers polled believe "the Army no longer demonstrates that it is committed to me as much as it expects me to be committed." Of even greater worry is how this number has increased by 6 percent since the previous survey in 2010. Given the forthcoming reductions, this number will likely surpass the 50 percent mark by 2014. Separately, soldiers mustered from the Army may have fewer than 20 years of service, and thus no retirement benefits such as a pension, commissary access, or healthcare. Similarly, they will not enjoy the "golden parachutes" afforded to senior officers who may easily step into lucrative, high-paying jobs with private industry think tanks, lobbying organizations, or corporate America. Of additional concern is the state of the American economy, which is not as strong as it was during the last major drawdown following Desert Storm/Desert Shield. As of this writing, American unemployment stands at nearly 8 percent, with veteran unemployment rates slightly less. While the military is not responsible for the state of the economy, departing soldiers still face its associated difficulties. Military leaders must also account for the lack of military experience among U.S. citizens today with less than 1 percent of America in uniform and approximately 10 percent holding veteran status. The average American citizen is not informed on the details and particulars of the military in general, and the drawdown in particular. While Americans hold great respect for the military, they lack direct and frequent interaction with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. The contact gap between soldier and society means one disgruntled veteran can have a disproportionate impact on future recruits. Recruiting America's youth to enlist in the military is a difficult task in the best of circumstances, a situation made worse if the Pentagon fumbles the pending drawdown.
I urge the General Odierno and other senior Army leaders to follow the examples of Generals Dempsey and Eisenhower to clearly explain how this reduction will work and the criteria employed by boards selecting soldiers for drawing down. Further, I recommend the Army chief of staff order senior commanders to conduct direct in-person, face-to-face exit counseling for every soldier mustered from the service.
Such counseling must be taken seriously and not simply "pencil whipped" as so much rater counseling is often done. Leaders may assist soldiers to develop realistic exit strategies to ensure veterans secure follow-on employment and access to post-service benefits. Leaders should address the potential for continued public service with the National Guard, Army Reserves, or non-uniformed programs such as Troops to Teachers. The military faces fiscal realities beyond our control requiring difficult choices directly impacting soldiers and their families. That reality does not absolve Army leaders from the obligation to look each soldier in the eye, respectfully thank them for their service, and dutifully ensure they are prepared to transition from the military. This endeavor must go beyond Army speak ALARACTs, mass email messages, and PowerPoint presentations that do not leave the Capital Beltway.
Every soldier leaving the Army will reenter civilian society -- either as a positive example of the benefits of military service ... or an angry veteran more than willing to explain, in detail, how Uncle Sam gave them the shaft. Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, Mission Command, clearly states the Army's Mission Command philosophy is guided by the principle to "build cohesive teams through mutual trust." The looming drawdown is a sterling opportunity for Army leaders to demonstrate that trust with our currently serving soldiers to ensure a capable future force.
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master's degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.