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Army Reserve battling an exodus

War is seen as drain on ranks

WASHINGTON -- The US Army Reserve fell short of its reenlistment goals this fiscal year, underscoring Pentagon fears that the protracted conflict in Iraq could cause a crippling exodus from the armed services.

The Army Reserve has missed its retention goal by 6.7 percent, the second shortfall since fiscal 1997. It was largely the result of a larger than expected exodus of career reservists, a loss of valuable skills because such staff members are responsible for training junior officers and operating complex weapons systems.

"The Army has invested an enormous amount of money in training these people, and they're very hard to replace," said John Pike of globalsecurity.org, an independent research group in Washington.

With extended deployments and increasingly deadly attacks by Iraqi guerrillas, Defense Department officials are scrambling to combat a broader downturn in retention and recruitment that they fear is on the horizon.

The US Army, the primary service deployed in Iraq, is offering reenlistment bonuses of $5,000 for soldiers serving there. The Army National Guard is extending an official thank-you to members by arranging services to honor returning soldiers. The Massachusetts National Guard is offering rewards ranging from plaques to NASCAR tickets to members who lure recruits. And throughout the branches, recruitment advertising is up and programs are being launched to make the military seem more family-friendly.

The Army also is resorting to a policy called "stop loss" that allows the Pentagon to indefinitely keep soldiers from leaving the service once their time has expired. The policy, used during war, is designed to prevent staffing shortfalls in key sectors.

As the military ponders unpalatable measures -- further Reserve or Guard call-ups, back-to-back tours of duty -- to fill the global obligations, any personnel shortfalls could prove disastrous. "It's a slippery slope in the sense that there's kind of a snowball effect," said Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that focuses on defense issues. "It's very difficult to work your way out of, very difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again once you break the force."

While Pentagon officials have insisted that recruiting and retention figures are mostly at or above expected levels, thanks in part to a soft economy that offers little competition, signs of trouble are emerging. Recruiting for the Massachusetts National Guard, a backup to the professional Army and Air Force, was down 30 percent this year. Nationwide, the Army National Guard has fallen 13 percent short of its recruiting goal, although that deficit was offset by fewer than expected troops leaving the service.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is the drop in retention for the Army Reserve, first disclosed by Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker on Wednesday in testimony before Congress. The drop was due to the Reserve falling 9.3 percent short of its retention goal among career soldiers.

"They've got a fair amount of experience with these things and generally manage to fine-tune them so that they pretty much have in place all of the various incentives and bonuses . . . that they'll pretty much come in on their number. So if they were off by 6 percent, that's significant," Pike said.

It was the second time in the past seven years that the Reserve has fallen below its intended reenlistment figure, according to Steve Stromvall, an Army Reserve spokesman. In the 12 months that concluded at the end of September 2001, the Reserves was 1 percent short of its number. That the shortfall was entirely among career soldiers is important because they areconsidered the Army's backbone. "They're critically important," said Cindy Williams, a specialist on military personnel issues with MIT's Security Studies Program. "That's where the leadership is going to come from in the next decade."

They are people like Staff Sergeant Scott Durst, a 15-year veteran of the Army Reserve who extended his enlistment after a tour in Bosnia but will not sign on for another tour after Iraq, though it will means he loses the opportunity for retirement benefits. "Not even a chance, no," said his wife Nancy Durst, a high school art teacher. "He didn't sign up to be a Reserve to be doing active-duty orders every year."

She added that her husband, a member of the 94th Military Police Company, has spent too much time away from their home in southern Maine and their two teenage daughters.

"I fear there will be a negative impact on retention of these Guard and Reserve personnel," said Senator Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine who sits on the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "There's an old saying in the Army that they enlist the soldier but reenlist the family, and the new one-year `boots on the ground' policy for service in Iraq has really upset a lot of the families with whom I've talked."

According to internal Pentagon surveys conducted last spring and summer, the overall percentage of troops intending to reenlist remained steady from last year, at 58 percent. But among those serving in Iraq, only 54 percent who were surveyed agreed, while 46 percent said they did not want to reenlist.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense specialist at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, called the figures "at the threshold of tolerable. In and of themselves they're not catastrophic, but the problem is they could get worse because as people increasingly confirm the reality of returning to Iraq another time these numbers can be expected to drop further. If you wait too long to address the trends, then it's too late."

In 2003, the Army's retention goal was 67 percent.

Like the recruiting shortfall in the Guard, the unexpected drop in the Reserve's 2003 retention was offset by stronger than expected recruiting.

The Army, which oversees the bulk of troops in Iraq, is not the only branch of the armed services facing hardships in recruitment and retention because of the Iraq war.

Air Force Major Joe Allegretti, chief of the Defense Department's Joint Recruiting Advertising Program, cited a poll of youths conducted from April through June in which half said the war in Iraq made them less likely to join the military, and only one-third said it made them more likely to join.

Sergeant Major James Vales, senior Army counselor in charge of overseeing active-duty retention policy, said his shop of 740 career counselors has been answering concerns from members of Congress and Army leaders about trying to prevent a talent drain.

"We have some things in the works to kind of offset any problems that we may see in retention," Vales said, citing options ranging from family-friendly policies like support groups and child care to his most important tool: cash. "Most of [the effort] is increasing our retention bonus dollars. . . . The biggest thing soldiers respond to is monetary incentives."

Reserve and Guard leaders are working to improve relations with stateside families by setting up support networks, including "marriage enhancement seminars" run through the Army Reserve's chaplaincy and designed to address such issues as long separations during deployments.

Guard leaders also have sent teams into Iraq to work on the problem. Several soldiers spread between Iraq and Kuwait try to act as trouble-shooters for unhappy Guard members, checking back twice weekly with Guard headquarters in the United States, said Colonel Frank Grass, the Guard's chief of operations.

And thanks to "stop loss," members of the Guard and Reserve cannot leave the military until 90 days after they have been deactivated.

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com.

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