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. 

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

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.

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.' "

One way the Army is using this expertise is by weaving the experience of young war veterans into training for new soldiers. Col. Paul Webber, who is in charge of recruiting at the US Army's Cadet Command at Fort Knox, Ky., has routinely sought out younger veterans to give cadets advice.

During these sessions, he encouraged his cadets to avoid specifics of the current wars in their questions.

"I saw my role as to pull them away from Iraq or Afghanistan, or 'Were you scared during your first firefight?' " says Webber, and to talk instead about lessons that might apply to future conflicts. This includes how the US military could better integrate nongovernmental organizations and private security contractors into operations, or more effectively work with NATO partners.

Webber was often struck, he says, by the sophisticated level of discussion. "People talk about 'the greatest generation.' I don't want to take away from my grand-father's generation, but clearly you must include in this the young men and women who have volunteered to serve their country for the past decade," he says.

Maj. Lucas Yoho knows the challenges ahead firsthand. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan, twice to Iraq, and once to the Horn of Africa. Many troops "came into the Army because it was very exciting to go to war. And now that they're not doing it, we need to make sure training is relevant, and exciting, and what they want to do," he says.

That training will often involve shifting from counterinsurgency warfare to other, more conventional skill areas that have atrophied.

"Depending on which unit he was in, a tanker may not have qualified on his tank in the last seven years," says Col. Miciotto Johnson, director of virtual training at Fort Leavenworth.

But new training can also focus on skills that might be more relevant in US military campaigns to come. These will almost certainly include the training of foreign militaries to enable them to fight their own battles, Yoho says.

"I think that's what we're going to be seeing a lot of – building up partner nations so they can secure themselves – because deterrence is cheaper than actually having to fight a conflict," he says.

What the American military has learned during the war in Afghanistan, Yoho adds, is that "we're very good at training ourselves; we need to get better at training others."

For US soldiers who feel as if they have considerable experience in this realm, the key will be some degree of humility, says Maj. James Brannam, a student at the Army's Command and General Staff College. "It'll take a little effort on the soldiers' part not to say, 'Hey, I've already done this six ways from Sunday.' "

After all, the life of a soldier will always involve home-station training that some find boring or complain is irrelevant. But it can build camaraderie, notes Brannam.

Many soldiers "have been in the Army 10 years, but they already have 20 years of mileage on them," he says. Now they have a chance to rest, and at the same time, "You have a great opportunity to build a very high level of esprit de corps in regular units.

"Maybe it gives them a chance to fall in love with being a soldier again," he adds.

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