Young Officers Leaving Army at a High Rate
By THOM SHANKER
Published: April 10, 2006
WASHINGTON, April 9 — Young Army officers, including growing numbers of
captains who leave as soon as their initial commitment is fulfilled, are
bailing out of active-duty service at rates that have alarmed senior
officers. Last year, more than a third of the West Point class of 2000 left
active duty at the earliest possible moment, after completing their
It was the second year in a row of worsening retention numbers, apparently
marking the end of a burst of patriotic fervor during which junior officers
chose continued military service at unusually high rates.
Mirroring the problem among West Pointers, graduates of reserve officer
training programs at universities are also increasingly leaving the service
at the end of the four-year stint in uniform that follows their
To entice more to stay, the Army is offering new incentives this year,
including a promise of graduate school on Army time and at government
expense to newly commissioned officers who agree to stay in uniform for
three extra years. Other enticements include the choice of an Army job or a
pick of a desirable location for a home post.
The incentives resulted in additional three-year commitments from about
one-third of all new officers entering active duty in 2006, a number so
large that it surprised even the senior officers in charge of the program.
But the service's difficulty in retaining current captains has generals
worriedly discussing among themselves whether the Army will have the widest
choice possible for its next generation of leaders.
The program was begun this year to counter pressures on junior officers to
leave active duty, including the draw of high-paying jobs in the private
sector; the desires of a spouse for a calmer civilian quality of life at a
time when the officers can be expected to be starting their families; and,
for the past two years, the concerns over repeated tours in Iraq or
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Army has had a far more difficult
time in its recruiting than the other services because the ground forces are
carrying the heaviest burden of deployments — and injuries and deaths — in
One member of the West Point class of 2000 who left active duty last year is
Stephen Kuo, who took a job with a medical equipment company in Florida. Mr.
Kuo said his decision was based on "quality of life." He is now recruiting
classmates for his company.
"With the rotation of one year overseas, then another year or so back at
home, then another overseas rotation — it does take a toll on you," said Mr.
Kuo, who served a year in combat in northern Iraq. "Plus, I was not enjoying
the staff jobs — desk jobs — I was looking at for the next 8 to 10 years.
Furthermore, the private sector had many lucrative offers."
But the chance at a free master's degree persuaded Brandon J. Archuleta, a
West Point senior, to sign up for an extra three years in uniform.
"Education is extremely important to me, and I know I want a master's degree
at the very least," Cadet Archuleta said. "The Army has a wonderful
relationship with some of the top-tier graduate schools, especially in the
Ivy League. I want to attend a school of that caliber."
In 2001, but before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 9.3 percent of the
Army's young officers left active duty at their first opportunity. By 2002,
the number of those junior officers leaving at their first opportunity
dropped to 7.1 percent, and in 2003, only 6.3 percent opted out. But the
number grew to 8.3 percent in 2004 and 8.6 percent in 2005.
The statistics are even more striking among West Point graduates, who
receive an Ivy League-quality education at taxpayer expense — and, in the
view of many senior officers and West Point alumni, owe the nation and the
Army a debt of loyalty beyond the initial five years of active duty.
The retention rate at the five-year mark for the West Point class of 1999
was 71.9 percent in 2004, down from 78.1 percent for the previous year's
class. And for the class of 2000, the retention rate fell to 65.8 percent,
meaning that last year the Army lost more than a third — 34. 2 percent — of
that group of officers as they reached the end of their initial five-year
That is the highest rate of loss over the past 16 years among West Point
officers reaching the five-year mark. For young officers receiving their
commissions in 2006, the Army will guarantee slots in the most sought-after
branches of the service — aviation, armor or intelligence, for example — in
exchange for an extra three years in uniform.
Similarly, if a young officer wants an initial posting to a desired location
or an opportunity to earn a master's degree, the Army will guarantee either
choice in exchange for three more years of active duty.
The West Point graduating class of 2006 responded at levels even higher than
anticipated by senior officers at the military academy, with 352 of the 875
seniors — 40.2 percent — signing on to the program as they approached the
date in late May when they would be commissioned as second lieutenants.
"It is an amazing response," said Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr., the West
Point superintendent. "It has exceeded how I thought the class would
Across the entire Army this spring, 3,420 newly commissioned junior officers
are expected to enter active duty, according to the Army's personnel office.
Of those, 1,124 — about one-third — have agreed to serve an extra three
years in uniform under the new program.
According to Army statistics, 718 signed up to choose their career track,
289 contracted for the graduate school opportunity — 257 of them from West
Point — and 117 wanted to pick the location where they, and their families,
would be based.
The graduate school program was carefully structured to keep officers in
uniform even beyond the extra three-year commitment.
After completing a master's degree program, an officer also has to repay the
Army with three months of service for every month back in the classroom.
This could push some officers beyond an automatic 8 years of service, toward
12 years — at which point, goes the thinking of the senior officers who
devised the program, they may decide to stay in for a full 20.
"Today's officers make a career decision to come or go at the three- or
four-year mark, while a decade ago they made it closer to the seven- or
eight-year mark," said Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army's senior
"One of the salient issues in this information age is that if they are going
to be competitive when they leave the Army — whether at the 4-year mark, the
10-year mark or after 20 — they have to maintain critical skills," General
Hagenbeck said. "They want to have graduate schooling."
The cost of the program will depend on how many young officers enter
graduate school in a given year, but Army personnel managers say that
whatever the individual annual tuition fees, they are far less than the cost
of training and preparing a new officer. The Army will cap individual
tuition at $13,000 per year, although the service has already negotiated
with a number of schools to waive the difference in fees.
At the five-year mark in their career, Army captains usually are in command
of a company, a junior leadership position putting them at the center of the
day-to-day fight. The Army needs even more company-level officers today, as
it expands the number of its deployable brigade combat teams.