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As war wanes, how will US military retain its best warriors?

Today’s troops have acquired invaluable experience in battle. But when the fighting ends, the US military must find ways to keep the force engaged or risk losing all that expertise. 

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / May 2, 2012

Members of the 2nd Stryker Brigade saluted during a deployment and flag casing ceremony March 30 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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Washington

Amid mapping out daily battles against insurgents from his headquarters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kim has found himself considering a completely different campaign of the not-too-distant future: how to keep the brigade he commands together when it returns home.

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Ten years of war have taken their toll in lives lost and soldiers taxed by repeated deployments. But they have also made US Army troops and officers more schooled in the complexities of warfare than perhaps any fighting generation in American history. Indeed, the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have made soldiers not only leaders in battle but also de facto diplomats.

For that reason, today's soldiers represent an irreplaceable resource for the Pentagon. The emerging question, then, is how to keep the profession of arms interesting to soldiers who may feel they have lived in real life the training exercises that characterize life at home.

First, of course, soldiers will rest. But after that, US military officials hope, they will begin new peacetime routines designed to keep them enthusiastic and in the force – from relearning how to operate tanks to using their knowledge to shape new cadets.

"I'm always amazed at the talent we have in our Army, especially our junior leaders across the board. The challenge for us now is to continue to engage them in such a way that they're committed to staying in the Army," says Kim, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division. "I know that the Army as a whole is very mindful of that – everyone gets it. It is not something we cannot look at and wish away."

Often, challenging soldiers – who have had unprecedented authority on the battlefield for a decade – will involve giving them more say in how they prepare for future conflicts. Previously, back at home bases, "suffice it to say, you have had significantly less authority than you do outside the FOB [forward operating base]" during a time of war, says Gen. Robert Cone, head of US Training and Doctrine Command.

Now, senior military leaders are going to have to recognize that young veteran officers expect some measure of deference to their experience.

"In the past we've been very centralized and issued orders because that was the threat we faced – you needed to be very lock step," says Col. Robert "Pat" White, deputy commander of the Combined Arms Center-Training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

"These young soldiers expect you to tell them the 'why' of just about everything," he adds. "It's no longer 'just execute' – it's 'give me the why, give me the intent, and allow me to collect information within the left and right limits of the order that's just been given.' "

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