Combat fatigue? In some ways Iraq duty helps Army

Soldiers are more experienced than ever, and deployments accelerate military reorganization.

Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, who commanded the Third Infantry Division as it spearheaded the assault on Baghdad, now has the daunting job of making sure his old unit and the Army as a whole are ready to roll again.

With the US military under greater strain today than it has been for decades, turning around units back from the front is an urgent challenge. Tens of thousands of tanks and other vehicles are encrusted with desert sand and dust, and weary troops are eager for home. Yet the demands of fighting, while exacting a toll, also benefit armed-force preparedness in ways that are often overlooked, senior Army officers and military analysts say.

War-zone deployments hone combat and leadership skills, improve unit cohesion and often boost retention rates, at least initially. At the same time, they test the military's equipment and organization, acting as a catalyst for change.

"The majority of the Army will have a combat patch for the first time since Vietnam," says General Blount, now in charge of Army readiness, at his Pentagon office. "We were already the best army in the world. Now we're the most experienced."

Over the next four months, he notes, eight of 10 active duty Army divisions - with 220,000 troops will be rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade, for example, heads to Iraq this month with combat veterans from Afghanistan reportedly making up 75 percent of its 2,000 paratroopers and most of its key commanders.

Real-world missions are nurturing leaders and building postwar peacekeeping skills that are difficult to train for, military officials and experts say. "It's hard to get an unruly mob to train with," says one US official who specializes in ground forces.

Moreover, although the deployments are placing unprecedented demands on the all-volunteer military, recruitment and retention are generally holding up, official statistics show. In the 2003 fiscal year, all four services met their recruiting and retention goals, with the exception of a retention shortfall in the Army reserves.

Indeed, contrary to popular belief, deployments have historically had a positive effect on retention, at least initially.

Some units in Iraq and Afghanistan report high retention rates. For example, mobilized Naval Reservists have a higher rate of retention than those not called up, naval reserve chief Vice Admiral John Totushek told a May 2003 hearing. At the same hearing, the Army National Guard Bureau chief, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, said he saw no evidence of a long-term recruiting or retention problem, adding, "so far ... it's been quite the opposite."

Studies in the 1990s also showed that "units deployed on initial contingency operations exhibit higher rates of retention," although prolonged deployments could have an adverse impact, according to Pentagon retention officials. Still, no one can say for sure how far the all-volunteer force can be pushed, and military officials are watching manpower figures carefully. "The longer we operate it at the tempos we have, the greater the challenge will be," the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, warned in November.

Indeed, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks there has been a dramatic increase in US military personnel tempo, which tracks the number of nights individual service members spend away from home. As of November, 51,000 service members had spent more than 400 days away from home over the past two years. Over the same period, more than 310,000 others had spent from 220 to 400 days away, according to Defense Department statistics.

To guarantee fully manned, cohesive units, the Army has imposed "stop loss" orders that have kept thousands of troops on duty after their contracts expire. Currently, the orders block voluntary separations, moves, and retirements for active-duty soldiers who are in war zones, or heading there. This boosted the Army's active-duty manpower, or "end strength," to 500,000 in October, or about 20,000 above the level authorized by Congress.

To head off a possible slump in retention, the Army is using tools such as reenlistment bonuses. Starting Jan. 1, the Army offered bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 to soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait who reenlist for at least three years. A flurry of enlistments in response is already making up for a lag in active-duty retention for the first quarter of the 2004 fiscal year, Colonel Manske says. The bonuses also encourage soldiers to stay with the same unit.

In part through such policies, today's large-scale deployments are accelerating the Army's reorganization in several ways:

Unit manning. Bonuses and stop-loss policies designed to keep units together at war are moving the Army toward a new personnel system. In contrast to today's practice of individual assignments, the new system aims to create units that will stay together for about three years.

More expeditionary, modular brigades. Once back from the combat zone, units such as the 3rd Infantry Division will systematically reorganize to create more brigades with new, more standardized capabilities. For example, the Third will go from three brigades to four, each with a mix of armor and infantry as well as enhanced intelligence, military police, civil affairs, and air capabilities.

Even as divisions reorganize, Blount says, the units will be able to meet any sudden contingency. Already this week, about 4,000 troops from the division's 3rd brigade are at in California for a training exercise reportedly designed to simulate combat on the Korean peninsula.

"We're an expeditionary Army, and we'll be deploying a lot," Blount says.

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