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Frustration in the Army officer corps -- the untold story

COMMENTARY | July 03, 2008

Army officers are tremendously stressed out, for a lot of obvious reasons. But they don't like complaining to reporters. A retired Army colonel looks at the pressures created by fighting two wars at the same time – and suggests a few ways members of the media can get beleaguered officers to open up.

By Don Capps

There is great frustration within the ranks of the Army’s officer corps. While some reporters working for publications specializing in the coverage of the military have touched on this, it’s a topic generally ignored or avoided in the mainstream press – probably due to the difficulties of reporting it.

The sources of this frustration are seemingly obvious. At least they are to those wearing the Army combat uniform every day.

Fighting two wars without a large enough Army has resulted in repeated deployments, with “dwell time” between deployments sometimes being less than a year. With soldiers being deployed roughly every other year, third deployments are becoming commonplace among soldiers in brigade combat teams and combat support units. That includes members of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. Promises to extend the dwell time to eighteen or more months won’t kick in until 2011 or beyond, which could be two deployments from now for some people.

This rapid pace – or as the Army likes to call it, Operating Tempo or OPTEMO – of deployment, preparation, re-deployment, and then do it all over again is taking its toll on both soldiers and their families. One lesson that the Army learned from its experiences during World War II was that the longer the time men spent in combat, the greater the problems with morale and health. After the experience of Viet-Nam, the Army started deploying units and then replacing them with other units, rather than leaving units in place and filling them with replacements over time.

While this could work for a Desert Storm situation or operations such as those in the Sinai, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- “peacekeeping” operations which many in the current administration have been highly critical of -- the treadmills of Iraq and Afghanistan are revealing some of the unintended consequences of this system. There aren’t a lot of ways to escape the cycle.

The toll on equipment is also enormous. Equipment is wearing out at unprecedented rates, an estimated nine times as fast as with normal use. Much of this equipment cannot be replaced at the same pace that it wears out. This means that equipment is often not available or only in limited quantities for soldiers to use during training. As a result, soldiers sometimes end up using equipment they’re not familiar with. The up-armored HMMWV (“Hummer” or “HumVee”) series and the newer mine-resistant MRAP vehicles are good examples of this.

And as operations have continued, soldiers sometimes find themselves being hastily trained to perform missions other than the ones they have been trained for since entering the Army.

Bit by bit by bit, the constant cycle of deployments, the stresses and strains on families, lives and careers seemingly on hold, equipment issues, doubts about the leadership being really aware of what is really going on, piled on top of the actual experience of sustained combat operations begins to finally add up.

All wars are nasty, ugly vicious affairs. But what makes Iraq especially nasty is that the weapon of choice of the “enemy” – whose identity seems change and morph over time – is the IED. While few will openly admit it, being dismembered or being turned into a vegetable by an IED is always in back of one’s mind while on patrol or conducting a convoy operation. While soldiers can often blot it out and rationalize it, families seem to have more problems in doing so.

Another concern: As the Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard have all struggled in recent years to meet their recruiting missions, with standards in various areas being lowered to accommodate those not previously eligible. The number of Army recruits who are high school graduates has declined in the past several years. Overall, scores on the aptitude test used by the Army have also declined. Soldiers who might have otherwise not been accepted for various reasons – criminal or other waivers needed to enlist – are now becoming a noticeable factor in the Army. As a result, the sense that these soldiers need more training and supervision before and during operations is becoming an accepted part of the “thinking” among company grade officers and their sergeants.

And on top of all that, the pressure of trying to “transform” the Army while in the midst of an extended period of combat operations has left many officers and soldiers in a state of near constant turmoil. Despite the ongoing operations, the Army leadership decided to implement its transformation strategy to shift the focus of the operational forces of the Army from the division, long the mainstay of the Army, to the brigade level. This created a new design for the brigades, along with movement of brigades from one place to another as the Army realigned the location of its forces along with changing their structure.

In some cases, the brigades have had to cope with deployments to Iraq, reorganizing to the new structure, and movement to a new home station all at the same time. This has placed even more stress on the troops and given their leaders even more headaches to deal with. However well-intentioned and necessary the transformation to a brigade-centric structure was, its timing and implementation during a period when the Army was already heavily engaged in ongoing operations has complicated the lives of the soldiers it was designed to help.

The Challenge to Journalists

It is difficult for most reporters to get soldiers, especially officers, to “spill the beans” about their frustrations. There are many reasons for this, the primary one being that the media is viewed with great suspicion and often outright hostility. Part of this is the legacy of Viet-Nam, the notion that the press played a role in the American defeat still being alive and well within the officer corps. Another part is that the Army has taken the idea of controlling the message to heart. The Army keeps a tight rein on reporters whenever they come in contact with soldiers. This includes briefings about what to say and what not say, and a public affairs officer riding herd to ensure that the message gets delivered.

Reporters – like other civilians – are also considered something of a different species. Soldiers increasingly view the Army as a tribal organization: A confederation of smaller tribes -- including infantry, aviation, armor, logistics, etc., --  bound by a common purpose.

There is also the amazing capacity of soldiers for rationalization. Modern soldiers can rationalize even the worst of circumstances and the most difficult of missions. That has a lot to do with the idea of cohesion and the concept that everyone who is not a soldier is an outsider and, therefore, cannot understand what is going on.

When the draft ended and the Army became a all-volunteer service for the first time since the end of World War II, there were those who warned against the coming “divorce” of the Army from the rest of society. To an extent, this has happened within the Army’s officer corps and its senior non-commissioned officers – the sergeants. As the size of the Army and the number of bases were reduced, so too was the presence of the Army within many communities. By the beginning of the second decade of the all-volunteer Army, the Army had returned to something resembling what it had been years before: a world unto itself. Officers and non-commissioned officers pursued their careers largely within the framework of the Army

And then there’s the fact that many in the general press are, to be polite, clueless about the Army and the military in general. A reporter who doesn’t know how a squad, platoon, company, battalion or brigade are organized and deployed, or who isn’t conversant in ARFORGEN (Army Force Generation Model) or the differences between FORSCOM, TRADOC or IMCOM – Forces Command, the Training and Doctrine Command, and the Installation Management Command –cannot expect to get very far in prying much of anything out of an officer.

It’s only by a huge investment of time and effort that reporters without a military background can break down the barriers that exist. It can be done, but it is not easy. Paying attention to issues affecting families and spouses, keeping an eye on what is happening on installations (the Operating Tempo or OPTEMPO), reading between the lines of the Army press releases, can lead to being able to ask good questions when the occasion presents itself.

But reporters trying to get the real story are going up against a ferocious PR apparatus. The Army and the Department of Defense take great pains to ensure that the message is always that the troops are upbeat, the mission is going well, and the enemy is on the run. The Army’s public relations and press officers are no different in their approach to serving their “client” than their counterparts in the corporate world.

What is being “marketed” to the press and the public is often at odds with the reality that the captains and majors see on the ground. For instance, while the “surge” is being hailed as a success by all the spokesmen, many of those with multiple deployments under their belts and time on the ground are more guarded in their assessments of the situation. This differs little, in many ways, from the views many of these officers had in previous deployments when the rosy press releases from the Pentagon rarely matched what they were seeing every day as they conducted operations.

Go to Where the Soldiers Are

It’s a lot easier to talk to officers when they’re stateside than it is when they’re in combat, but the media presence at Army installations tends to be limited because few of these installations are located near major cities. It’s in Fayetteville, Colorado Springs, Killen, Hinesville, and Tacoma --  not Washington D.C. - - that the stresses, strains, and frustrations are most visible.

Despite the lip service that Army brass gives to the importance of families, Army life is brutal to the spouses and children of soldiers. There are captains and majors choosing to depart the Army because they see no end to the deployments – some are getting ready for their fourth – and they simply want to move on with their lives. Contrary to what many think, not all officers join with a view to making the Army a career. I have had captains and majors say to me that they love the Army, but that they also love their families. In more and more cases, family commitments and the desire to do other things win out.

It is not one factor that is causing the frustrations of these Army captains and majors, but the confluence of many factors, many small and several very large. Ask a dozen captains why they are leaving and expect two or three answers. But they nearly all seem to hinge on the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

non military personal
Posted by mrs. Christensen
07/16/2008, 09:43 PM

I read your article, I generally do not do this, however as a result from reading this one, I would have to say that it kept my attention and that sais lots. My husband was in the Navy for 13 years. He left many years ago. I know that he did not want to, with the deployments as they are now. I am said to say that I am glad that he is out, one the flip-side I know that he would do it anyway because he loves his country more then himself.

stress on soldiers
Posted by 18 years of change
08/03/2010, 11:36 PM

I agree whole heartily on your observations but these sound like idealists possibly and any rank in the military have the ones that just want to get paid and not consider the subtleties. When one is an officer I believe to consciously Ignore these is dangerous for their troops both tactally and professionally. This is the command commonly called career killers

"One of the guys that won't talk"
Posted by Bummin' in Baghdad...
08/12/2011, 01:33 PM

Well said sir, well said.

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