Breaking Our Volunteer Military

President Obama’s decision to surge 30,000 more volunteers to Afghanistan may be necessary, but it overextends our exhausted military. The president and Congress must address the overused, fraying volunteer force and then field one sufficiently large and organized for future conflicts.

That effort should start with the Pentagon’s soon to be released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which assesses future security requirements and recommends the appropriate mix of structures, weapons systems and forces.  The 2010 QDR, which is congressionally mandated, should echo the view expressed in 1973 by Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense, who said “People, not hardware, must be our highest priority.”

Our ground services — Army and Marine Corps — are the point of the spear in Iraq and Afghanistan. They pay a heavy toll through frequent combat tours and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. That toll threatens to break the all-volunteer force at a time when it is most critically needed.   

Alternatively, we could abandon our all-volunteer military and return to a conscription-based force.  But few military and congressional leaders support a draft because it wouldn’t provide the right experience and education; it would cost more to train and draftees serve on average less time than volunteers.  Besides, only about one-quarter of age-eligible citizens qualify for military service, which makes any draft problematic.

Consider the challenges that are breaking our all-volunteer Army.  

It is overextended because it’s too small.  It has about 243,000 soldiers in 80 countries.  Most (140,000) of these soldiers are in Iraq and Afghanistan and many are on their fourth or fifth year-long combat tour in eight years with only a one-year break between deployments.

It’s instructive to consider the approach to manning the Army used in the Vietnam War from 1964-1975.  In the late 1960s, the Army had 1.46 million personnel on active duty with nearly 360,000 personnel at its peak in Vietnam.  By comparison, our current active force is 710,000 (which includes 162,000 mobilized reservists), less than a half the size of our Vietnam-era Army.

The Army’s deployment problem won’t go away.  Recently, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Army won’t meet the Pentagon’s goal of two years at home for every year deployed. The current dwell time is one year deployed for every 1.3 years at home and that’s unsustainable especially with the forthcoming Afghanistan surge.  

The strain posed by the high operational tempo makes the Army’s strong retention rates hard to understand.  Historically, retention rates decline when the Army keeps soldiers away from home for more than one year out of three.  But recent retention figures defy that history which can be credited to either the Army’s leadership or in part to the nation’s 10 percent unemployment rate.    

But retention rates are only part of the larger picture.  On closer examination the all-volunteer Army’s retention bubble is incredibly vulnerable due to frequent deployments.  

“We see the wear and tear on our soldiers,” said Rev. Tommy Vallejo, a pastor in Clarksville, Tenn., outside Fort Campbell, the home to the 101st Airborne Division.  “It’s a huge strain,” said First Sgt. William Langham, who has numerous combat tours. He said the deployments are particularly hard on the young soldiers.

A 2008 Rand Corporation study found that one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury, major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. This figure does not include those with undiagnosed problems manifested as drug and alcohol abuse and family strife. These issues impact soldier retention and, for a few, the problems are too much.

Suicide rates are the highest ever.  By the end of November 2009, there were 147 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers, which top the record number of 140 that occurred in 2008.  So far this year, 349 personnel across the entire military committed suicide which is more than have been killed in Afghanistan (259) and Iraq (76) combined.

Army COL. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist, says many suicides are linked to relationships, which suffer or fail from prolonged and repeated combat deployment separations.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, testified “The reality is we’re dealing with a tired and stressed force, and the effect…has been … an increased incident of suicide.” He conceded, “The level of stress is directly related to demand.  And … demand is high and not expected to diminish significantly for the foreseeable future.”

Separation stress is fraying Army families. That’s important for retention because there’s a true adage that says the military enlists individuals but retains families. More than half of all soldiers are married, and many families are in trouble because of frequent and long-separations.

Military “families are truly exhausted,” says Patricia Barron, with the National Military Families Association.  “They are starting to feel the stresses of separation more acutely.”  

More divorces are blamed on deployment separations.  The military’s divorce rate edged up again in the past year, to 3.6 percent for fiscal year 2009, compared with 3.4 percent a year earlier.  But these numbers, which represent all the services, don’t address troubled marriages.

Perhaps a better picture of the scope of problem comes from our soldiers in Iraq.  Earlier this year, the Army found that 22 percent of young soldiers stationed in Iraq planned to get a divorce or separation, compared to 12.4 percent in 2003.

Military children are fraying due to deployment separations. A new study by the Rand Corporation found that children in military families are reporting signs of emotional wear and tear from long and repeated deployments.  The study also found that the longer a parent had been deployed, the more likely their children were to have difficulties in school and at home.

These deployment-related problems will only get worse as combat deployments continue and new challenges pile on.

The 2010 QDR will likely address emerging threats that will further tax our fraying force.  Probably the most daunting threat comes from China.  Beijing is becoming more aggressive with its modern expeditionary military that is a near-peer competitor armed with a sophisticated ground force and a blue water navy that includes a U.S.-size submarine force and soon an aircraft carrier.    

These challenges demonstrate why the president and Congress must do three things to preserve our volunteer Army for an uncertain future.

First, grow the force to give soldiers a longer break between combat deployments and soldiers not focused on the current wars need to train for more sophisticated enemies like China.  

Second, reconfigure the Army’s reserve components.  In 1972, then Army chief of staff Gen. Creighton Abrams resolved to prevent a repetition of Vietnam whereby the active Army fought while the reserves were not called up.  He configured the reserves with half of the combat units and key specialties like civil affairs. Today, 162,000 reservists serve along side active forces, but their service has stretched into the eighth year undermining the purpose of the part-time force and its ability to deal with domestic problems like natural disasters and drug interdiction.

Finally, take care of the soldiers and their families by providing them a decent quality of life that includes providing adequate pay, benefits and more time at home.  

The 36-year-old all-volunteer Army’s ability to continue the current deployment pace is in serious doubt and the demands only get worse when we consider emerging threats.  That’s why the president and Congress must embrace Melvin Laird’s admonition, “People, not hardware, must be our highest priority.”