Washington — When Maxwell Thurman was a young lieutenant in the United States Army back in the 1950s, he stayed with the same unit for five years. His group of officers and enlisted men developed close bonds as they trained and were shipped overseas together.
In the intervening years, however, soldiers have been moved about individually. Officers acknowledge that effectiveness has suffered, particularly in the combat arms - infantry, artillery, and armor - where mutual trust, understanding, and leadership are so important on the battlefield. This was most evident in Vietnam.
Today, with three stars on his shoulders, Lieutenant General Thurman is heading an army program to reestablish unit cohesiveness and esprit de corps. Patterned after the British and Canadian regimental system, the program will see increasing numbers of companies and eventually battalions formed and deployed here and abroad.
Initial indicators from the Army's pilot project, COHORT (cohesion, operational readiness, training), are positive. In test units where soldiers are together from initial training through overseas tours to discharge (or reenlistment) retention is up, discipline problems are down, there are fewer racial and ethnic cliques, and greater unit pride is evident, according to those who command COHORT companies.
When a soldier from Fort Carson, Colo., was married, for example, his entire platoon (and other members of his company as well) attended in uniform. On Thanksgiving, all members of the company had dinner in the mess hall in uniform, although this was not required. Soldiers normally are given a week to complete the bureaucratic process before shipping overseas. But the first sergeant for a COHORT company headed for Germany cleared his unit for transfer in three hours because the paper work could be completed all at once.
The Army's chief of staff, Gen. Edward C. Meyer, says the families of service men and women are considered in the new system. Returning to the same stateside post as often as possible ''provides for the development of community ties, improved opportunity for family investments, jobs, and social ties,'' General Meyer told a congressional panel during Army budget hearings.
''We believe this closer sense of affiliation with other families will reduce many of the anxieties associated with moving overseas,'' General Meyer said. But he noted one related potential problem: ''Regional recruiting could result in large numbers of casualties from one community during war and limited conflicts.''
To date, 40 companies of about 160 soldiers each have been formed as COHORT units, with 10 companies in basic training, 28 at posts in the US, and two deployed to Germany. About a dozen such units will be overseas by the end of 1983, and the program will expand to a total of 80 companies by 1985.
Under the new system, these companies will stay together for three years (the typical enlistment period). This includes an 18-month tour in Europe, Alaska, or Panama with families, or 12 months in Korea with family members remaining at the home base. For those making a career of the Army, it is expected that they will return to their regiments after breaks for special training or Pentagon tours.
In recent months, officers note, the Army force has improved in quality and stability. More than 85 percent of new recruits are high-school graduates, and the shortfall in experienced noncommissioned officers has dropped significantly. In addition, the average length of tour for senior commanders has grown from 18 months to 30 months.