Is US Army bent to the breaking point?

If retention rates of US military personnel begin to weaken, it could take years to reverse the trend.

By , Staff writer

When some 4,500 soldiers heard over the weekend that they'd be deploying to Iraq earlier than expected, many saw it as yet another inconvenience that military personnel must endure. But to some in Washington, the announcement is a glaring sign that the Army really is straining and that its well of rested, trained, and equipped soldiers is running dry.

The Pentagon's announcement Monday that it is sending two units back to Iraq early means it will renege on its objective to give soldiers at least 12 months at home between deployments. While the Defense Department has extended the deployment of troops in combat, this is only the second time it has had to deprive soldiers from a major unit of a year-long rest.

The fact that the Pentagon felt compelled to make the call-up seems to validate what many retired generals and former Pentagon officials have warned: that repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are wearing out military personnel and equipment to a worrisome point.

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"We're running out of Army units for the mission," says Robert Scales, a retired Army two-star general.

The Army is about to be "broken," he says. What would be the "canary in the mine" is if junior officers and mid-grade enlisted soldiers become so frustrated with the repeated deployments that they simply get out. Pentagon officials maintain that the retention rates of military personnel remain strong, but if they begin to weaken, it could take years to reverse the trend.

If a seasoned Army sergeant decides to get out because he is tired of all the deployments, it can be very difficult to replace him, says one former Pentagon official.

"It's very hard. A 15-year sergeant takes 15 years to grow," says Bernard Rostker, a former Pentagon personnel chief under President Clinton and an author of a book about the all-volunteer military force. "Personnel systems can be very unforgiving."

Mr. Scales, a former commander of the Army War College, has warned that there aren't enough Army brigades to sustain the mission in Iraq. To give soldiers the kind of training and rest they need, the nation would need as many as 99 Army and Marine Corps brigades, but it has only half that many.

"All you have to do is the math," he says.

The deployment announced Monday helps to sustain the buildup of about 30,000 combat and support forces in Iraq through the end of the summer. It does not represent any additional increase in forces than what had already been announced.

The deployment means that about 1,000 soldiers from the division headquarters of the Texas-based 4th Infantry Division will leave for Iraq in August, 81 days prior to what would be their 12-month "dwell time" at home. Another 3,500 soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., will also leave early, by about 45 days.

The only other major unit to be sent early to combat is the Georgia-based 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, according to Col. Daniel Baggio, an Army spokesman. That unit deployed earlier this year.

Under the operational scenarios used currently for most active-duty forces, a unit should deploy for a period of time – one year for soldiers and seven months for marines – and return home for dwell time for at least that amount of time.

Sustaining this level of effort in Iraq without requiring more extensions or early departures would be a challenge, said Air Force Gen. Lance Smith, the commander of US Joint Forces Command, the unit that provides forces to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It would be very difficult," he told defense reporters last week. "We can sustain that for a while."

It remains to be seen just why a Defense Department that is trying to do the right thing by its troops – Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced initiatives to help get the services back on track earlier this year – is having to send units that have not been allowed to have the full, 12-month rest at home. There are many factors that go into deciding which units will go to combat, said chief Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman on Monday.

"This is a reflection that this is a military that is in conflict, and we obviously are using a significant portion of the force," he said. "It is a reflection of the realities that exist right now."

It's all a sign of trouble, says Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army four-star general who recently returned from another fact-finding trip to Iraq. The Defense Department's readiness ratings, which are classified, are starting to decline, he says, and ground combat equipment "is shot" in both the active and reserve components, he asserts.

Recruiting challenges are mounting, as the Army is having to recruit individuals they wouldn't allow otherwise. The US is at the "knee of the curve," Mr. McCaffrey says. "There is no argument of whether the US Army is rapidly unraveling."

But if retention is one of the best measures of the overall health of the military, then maybe the military is not breaking as much as some say it is: Retention rates, so far, remain high, says Mr. Rostker. Rostker, who has his doubts about whether the surge of forces will work in Iraq, nevertheless believes most troops support President Bush. He also believes that a premature withdrawal of forces from Iraq would hurt morale much more than repeated deployments.

"Logic tells you that there is a point of no return, but what has been amazing is that we haven't found that point yet," he says. "God forbid we find it."

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