Reserves hit hard with resignations

Hal Bernton The Seattle Times (KRT) SEATTLE-The Army Reserve is facing an extreme shortage of company officers, a situation aggravated by a surge in resignation requests. The shortage-primarily of captains-has seriously reduced the capabilities of

Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times (KRT)

SEATTLE-The Army Reserve is facing an extreme shortage of company officers, a situation aggravated by a surge in resignation requests.

The shortage-primarily of captains-has seriously reduced the capabilities of the Reserve, and continued losses will further reduce the readiness of “an already depleted military force,” according to an Army briefing document submitted last month to Congress.

Army Reserve resignation requests have jumped from just 15 in 2001 to more than 370 during a 12-month period ending in September. To preserve its leadership ranks, the Reserve increasingly has rejected resignation requests, forcing some officers to stay on even after they have fulfilled their initial eight-year service requirement.

The resignation requests are another sign of a military under strain during the protracted war in Iraq, where more than 40 percent of the U.S. forces are drawn from the ranks of Reserve and National Guard.

These Reserve and Guard soldiers attend weekend drills and two-week annual training. When called to active duty, they may leave behind families and civilian jobs for prolonged oversea deployments, and some take a big hit in their family income while facing the prospect of injury or death.

To help maintain troop strength, the Pentagon now routinely invokes a “stop-loss” program that prevents thousands of enlisted soldiers and officers from leaving the military until their unit is through their combat tour.

Only after the unit returns to the United States can soldiers who have completed their volunteer contract then leave the service. This policy has been subject to several lawsuits, including a challenge filed earlier this week by eight soldiers.

The Army Reserve policy extends well beyond the combat-zone, stop-loss program. If an officer’s specialty is in short supply, the Reserve may opt to reject a resignation even if the soldier is not on active duty in Iraq or scheduled for any such deployment. So far this year, the Army has rejected more than 40 percent of the resignation requests of lieutenants and captains.

“Exercise of this discretion is potentially controversial because it invites claims of involuntary servitude and arbitrary action,” stated the briefing document submitted Nov. 16 to Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.

In one case reviewed by The Seattle Times, a Reserve Army captain was unable to resign after he completed 11 years as a commissioned officer that included a 2003-2004 tour of duty in Iraq. While in Iraq, the officer said the thought of resigning once he got home helped to get him through a difficult year.

“Sadly, that was not to be,” said the captain, who requested anonymity. “This matter has become increasingly black and white to me: We are either a volunteer army, or we are not. I fail to see how I can be considered a volunteer at this point after I have been denied an opportunity to move on with my life.”

The captain said he moved into the Reserve after graduating from West Point and initially serving in the active-duty Army. Other Reserve officers are drawn from graduates of training programs offered to college students and other training offered enlisted soldiers.

These officers lead units that maintain supply lines, tend to the wounded and offer other support services for the troops in Iraq.

But now the Reserve does not have enough officers moving through its chain of command. Currently, the Reserve has staffed only 70 percent of the 18,719 officer positions for lieutenants and captains.

Captains, who may command companies of up to 160 soldiers, are in the shortest supply. The Army Reserve has openings for 14,629 captains, who typically serve seven years as junior officers prior to appointment. As of September, the Reserve had only 8,583 captains-about 59 percent of the target, according to an Army document obtained by The Seattle Times.

In a full-staffed Reserve, these captains and other officers would train stateside with the same units that they join in Iraq. This follows the Army philosophy that units that train together perform best in the field. But in the current short-staffed Reserve, Iraq-bound units often may be filled out by last-minute reassignments from other states.

“This is an imbalance that candidly occurred because we had folks who were … asleep at the switch,” Lt. Gen. James Helmly told the House Armed Service committee at a Nov. 17 hearing. “We’ve recognized that … it will be about five to seven years before we can correct the imbalance.”

Army officials said some of the trouble can be traced back to the ’90s as the Army downsized to meet the reduced threat of the Cold War era, and encouraged many officers to resign with financial incentives.

Now the surplus has turned to a shortage that intensifies as more officers seek to leave the Reserve after completing an eight-year commitment-but long before the 20-year mark that offers retirement benefits. In the years ahead, the resignation requests are likely to increase.

“I personally know a lot of guys who are looking forward to just finishing up and being done,” said 1st Lt. Lewis Miller, with the Army Reserve, 671st Engineers Company out of Portland, which returned from Iraq earlier this year.

“A lot of them tend to be better educated and have strong civilian jobs, and they took some massive (pay) hits when they went on active duty.”

Helmly, at the Nov. 17 congressional hearing, said the Army Reserve plans to relieve the shortage through increasing enrollments in college and enlisted-officer training programs.

In the meantime, Army Reserve is crafting a new policy to curb resignations. Under the policy, which has yet to be finalized, company-grade officers who have not yet been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan would generally not be allowed to resign unless they could demonstrate “extreme personal reasons,” such as hardships posed by the death or disability of a spouse.

But the Army would now look favorably on the resignation requests of officers who have served one tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, such as the captain interviewed by The Seattle Times.

Within the Reserve, as well as the Army National Guard, enlisted soldiers also struggle with the challenges of leaving behind civilian lives for long stints of active duty. And that is making it more difficult to keep the slots filled in units.

To bolster recruiting efforts, the Reserve is adding 400 recruiters who will be hustling for new soldiers.

The National Guard also is on the hunt for more recruits, adding an additional 1,400 recruiters. The Guard is suffering from a sharp downturn in active-duty soldiers who move into the Guard as they return to civilian life, according to Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a Guard bureau spokesman.

So the Guard is now increasingly targeting civilians with no prior military service, including high-school seniors who also are already being wooed by the Marines and active-duty Army.

(c) 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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