Despite hardships of war, many soldiers reenlist
SANTA ROSA, CALIF.
In Iraq, there were the days that ran together in a never-ending stream of patrols, mission after mission that left him cursing the superiors who sent him out into the teeth of the insurgency. There were the nights when mortars crashed nearby, close enough to smell the sulfur. And there was the question that went unanswered every time a friend was ripped by shrapnel or cut down in an ambush: Why are we fighting this war?Skip to next paragraph
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Yet when the time came for Sgt. Jason Waits to decide what he would do when his tour in the Army National Guard ended, he barely paused. Before he even left Iraq, Sergeant Waits reenlisted. And if he is sent back, he "won't have a problem."
It is a glance at one of the most unexpected developments of the war in Iraq. Even as the conflict drags on, undermining recruiting efforts and testing the patience of the nation, American soldiers are so far continuing to reenlist at levels that surprise the Pentagon and pundits alike. To the head of the National Guard, this is the legacy of America's "next greatest generation": a band of soldiers more sophisticated than any before in history, which has been asked to adapt to a new style of warfare and often serve multiple tours - all as a volunteer force.
At a time when Army soldiers are under international scrutiny for roadside shootings and prison abuse, comparisons to the generation that landed on the shores of Normandy might seem curious, but they are more than mere rhetoric, analysts say. The American soldier's commitment to the cause in Iraq and Afghanistan has been historic and decisive, allowing the United States at least a measure of success in an engagement for which it was not prepared.
"The design of the all- volunteer force [after Vietnam] was to make this kind of [open-ended] commitment difficult," says Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But there have been some extraordinary levels of motivation going on, in terms of serving the country in a time of crisis."
The motivation is different from what it was 60 years ago, to be sure. The clear menace of the Axis powers has been replaced by the specter of terrorism, as indefinable as it is dangerous. Today's soldiers are more likely to patrol an Iraqi neighborhood in an armored Humvee than to take a far-off hill at a huge loss of life. As a result, the shift in threat has meant a shift in national response - while nearly 1 in 10 Americans served in World War II, only about 1 in 500 is fighting the war on terror.
"To compare our generation to the World War II demographic would be grossly misleading," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
But the task of this generation of soldiers, he says, is "every bit as demanding, and they're doing it as volunteers."
What is perhaps most significant is that they continue to volunteer. In a normal year, the Army National Guard expects 18 percent of its soldiers to leave because of retirement, injury, and death, or because they do not reenlist. This year, the attrition rate is only 18.9 percent. Meanwhile, reenlistment rates for the Army and Marines are either exceeding goals or are within a few percentage points of them. Some data even show that reenlistment rates are higher for units deployed overseas than for those that have remained at home.
In some ways, this is the first prolonged test of the all- volunteer military, so experts didn't know what to expect. But clearly, the response has exceeded expectations. "It's a little bit surprising, frankly," says Mr. Donnelly.
Particularly for the National Guard - not only because members of the Guard have to balance their military service with civilian lives, but also because the Guard was the first force called into action after Sept. 11, 2001, and has been continuously deployed since.