Young officers leaving Army at a rapid clip
By Bryan Bender
WASHINGTON - Members of the U.S. Military Academy's Classes of 2000 and 2001 are choosing to leave active duty at the highest rate in at least three decades, a sign to many military specialists that repeated tours in Iraq are prematurely driving out some of the Army's top young officers.
Of the 903 officers commissioned upon graduation in 2001, nearly 46 percent left the service last year - 35 percent after their five years of required service and 11 percent over the next six months, according to statistics compiled by West Point. And more than 54 percent of the 935 who graduated in 2000 had left active duty by January, the statistics show.
The retention rates after mandatory duty are the lowest since at least 1977, with the exception of members of three classes in the late 1980s who were encouraged to leave as the military cut back after the Cold War.
In most years during the last three decades, the period for which West Point released statistics, between 10 percent and 30 percent of graduates opted out after five years.
The rising exodus is blamed on a number of factors, including the economic lure of the private sector. But interviews with former West Point superintendents, graduates and retired officers pointed to another reason: the wear and tear on officers and their families from multiple deployments.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.), a member of West Point's Class of 1971, attributed much of the drop in retention to "the operational tempo," referring to the high pace of overseas deployments since 2001.
West Point spokesman Francis J. DeMaro said he could not explain why more young officers were leaving the Army, and declined to comment further.
The military academy has started offering graduates new incentives to keep them from leaving at their first opportunity. For example, West Point now guarantees graduates the home bases of their choice, as well as a chance to go to graduate school, if they commit to serving three years beyond their five-year commitment.
Reed likened the departure of West Point graduates to the situation during the waning days of the Vietnam era, when "at the five-year mark you were losing a lot of officers because of the wear and tear."
West Point graduates in that era carried a heavy load. Many members of the Class of 1966, for example, served as platoon commanders in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. By the early 1970s, "a full third of the class was out or dead," said retired Col. Daniel M. Smith, a member of the Class of 1966.
But the Iraq war, with its repeated tours of duty and often-shifting military objectives, appears to have dissuaded more graduates from continuing their military careers - even as the Army has stressed that West Point training has become more important in an era of high-tech warfare.
And rising the numbers do not reflect those who may have been forced to stay longer than five years under the wartime authority known as "stop loss," in which the president can order troops with critical skills to remain on active duty.
The numbers also do not show how many of those who have left may have joined the reserves or National Guard, DeMaro said. A total of four graduates from 2000 and 2001 have died on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, another member of West Point's Class of 1966, said the significance of the departure of West Point graduates could not be overstated.
"There is a lot of development that goes into" molding these unique military leaders, he said in an interview. "There is no way to get them back."