Fixing the System

Article excerpt

This article is based on remarks made by Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, U.S. Army retired, at a conference entitled "The U.S. Citizen-Soldier at War: A Retrospective Look and the Road Ahead," sponsored by the Virginia Military Institute and the Cantigny First Division Foundation, and held at the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, Ill., October 12-13, 2007. Cantigny is part of the McCormick Tribune Foundation of Chicago. A full conference report is forthcoming and can be ordered at www.first divisionmuseum.org. A follow-up conference in 2008 or early 2009 is being planned.

One of the brightest gems among the crown jewels of this nation is the U.S. Army. Maintaining it as the world's premier fighting force is an absolute, a fundamental requirement not only for the United States but also for the future of the free world. We aren't always right, but over a couple of hundred years we've been quite successful at accomplishing missions. We don't always win, but that is usually because politically we settled for less.

In the past four years, the Army has been abused, overcommitted, strained and stressed, yet it is still performing magnificently in the field. It has retained its high-quality manpower with previously unheard-of retention rates and has appealed to a sufficient number of new enlistees to satisfy its endstrength requirements, even as that number has increased. Units in combat are still well equipped and, with the usual help from American industry, it has made notable progress in designing equipment to meet new battlefield demands-body armor, armored Humvees, electronic sensors and jammers, the MRAP [mine resistant ambush protected] vehicle-none of which were in the inventory before 9/11.

But the Army has also suffered a deterioration that, in time, cannot help but erode its excellence in the field. The veteran soldiers in grades from E4 to 04 who are serving their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan still reflect their job satisfaction-it's what they joined to do-but their family satisfaction is far from assured. Wives (spouses) have revolted, are revolting or soon will revolt against a system that requires soldiers to be gone from home more than 50 percent of the time.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that my view of this situation is not shared by everyone, including some at this conference. For example, some complain that the satisfactory manpower status is only because of lower standards, multimillions in bonus money and the stop-loss policy. My counterargument says the quality of the force has not changed measurably or markedly, that current enlistment and reenlistment standards are in keeping with established limits and that manpower is a commodity for which we have to compete. Moneybonus money or otherwise-is what makes the Army competitive in the manpower market. In my view, we still are not paying enough. We have a play-off team on the field that must not lose, and we ought to be paying playoff wages. The bonuses for enlistment and reenlistment leave a gap, that is, payment for those doing the heavy lifting in the combat arena, which would make the reward worth the risk. The attrition of experienced soldiers is too high. For example, the West Point graduating class of 2001 lost more than 50 percent of its members when their minimum service obligations were met. I would like to tell every soldier that when he boards a ship or plane for the combat zone his pay will double, triple if he is in the combat force carrying the fight to the enemy, until his return-and I believe that kind of reward would reduce the bonus money needed for recruiting and retention.

The recent congressional hearings concerning the Blackwater company I found quite relevant. The Blackwater spokesman revealed that he received more than a million dollars for his year in Iraq, a princely sum when compared to the salary of Gen. Petraeus. But the most significant factor to me is that Blackwater and all the other contract organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan do not have manpower shortages because they are paying a reward that their employees recognize as worth the risk. …