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Army renews incentive program to improve retention or captains

ARLINGTON, Va. — Hoping to stanch the flow of young officers leaving active-duty ranks, the Army has renewed its offer of bonuses up to $35,000 to retain its captains.

The 2008-09 incentive program became effective April 7. Captains have until Nov. 30 to apply, according to a new message issued by the Army’s Human Resources Command.

The bonuses remain the same as last year, though the drain on young officers continues.

The cap on the dollars is purely pragmatic, according to Dan Goure, an Army expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Virginia: “There’s a limit on what the Army can spend.”

With the current wars and their related costs, there just isn’t enough money for higher bonuses, Goure told Stripes in a Thursday telephone interview.

“What we have is five pounds of need and a three-pound sack of money,” he said.

The cash, in the form of a critical skills retention bonus, is in return for a three-year commitment, with the amount dependent on the officer’s branch:

  • $25,000 bonus: air defense, engineer, finance, quartermaster, and signal corps, and captains in the Army Nurse Corps and Medical Service Corps in certain 70-series areas of concentration (AOCs).
  • $30,000: adjutant general, armor, chemical, military police and ordnance.
  • $35,000: aviation, field artillery, infantry, military intelligence, and transportation, and Medical Service Corps captains in AOC 67J (health services).

The lump-sum bonus would be paid within 90 days of contract approval date, “barring any Army fiscal constraints,” the message said.

The money is subject to a 25 percent federal tax and will be deducted along with applicable state taxes. Officers who are deployed do not get the bonus tax-free, the message said.

For many officers, patriotism, not money, is the reason they decide to stay or go, Goure said: “The reality of the volunteer Army is people don’t serve to get rich.”

But there are certainly some young officers who will find the bonus a scale-tipping factor, if they are trying to decide whether to make the Army a career, he said.

The question, Goure said, “may not be whether [the bonus] is enough, but if it is in the right form?”

Army officials have looked at the possibility of offering the same amount, he said, but packaging it into small-business loans, or even mortgage assistance — which might be particularly tempting in today’s tight loan market, especially for a newly married captain who wants to move with his spouse out of base housing and invest in their first home.

“Mortgage assistance might be precisely the right thing to offer now, when it wasn’t two years ago,” Goure said. “It demonstrates that incentives are very time-sensitive.”

But unlike private corporations, the Army doesn’t have the flexibility to quickly adapt like this without a lengthy approval process, often one involving Congress, Goure noted.

“The Army is responding as rapidly and efficiently as they can [to the officer drain], given the constraints,” Goure said.

Besides cash, captains also can choose to go to graduate school, with the Army paying for the Master’s degree, or for language training at the Defense Language Institute.

The non-cash options incur service obligations of three days for every day spent in school.

To be eligible for the new program, captains must be regular active duty officers and have pinned on (or expect to pin) their 0-3 rank between April 1 and November 2008.

They must also belong to one of the following 15 basic branches: air defense, adjutant general, armor, aviation, chemical, engineer, field artillery, finance, infantry, military intelligence, military police, ordnance, quartermaster, signal, and transportation.

There are some additional fine-print eligibility requirements: for example, captains who accepted an incentive under the 2007/08 program may not apply for the 2008/09 program, the message said.

Army Nurse Corps and Army Medical Corps captains also have their own set of eligibility criteria.

Last year, of the more than 18,000 captains who were eligible to participate, 12,000 took part in the retention program, or 67 percent, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody House told the House Armed Services Committee on April 7.

Army officials had said they were hoping for an 85 percent participation rate.

“This year's incentive program is really just an extension of last year's bonus program, but expanded to include other year groups who were not include on the first incentive program, so amounts have not been changed,” according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Arata.

Of 12,000 officers that participated in last year’s incentive program, 94 percent, or 11,268, chose the cash bonus, Arata said.

The second option that appealed to eligible captains was to change their basic branch, which 328 selected, followed by 188 who chose the option to go to a post of their choice. Neither option is available in 2008.

Only 184 took the graduate school option, and 21 chose language training; the other 10 decided to attend Ranger School, another option that is off the table in 2008.

"Army senior leadership felt that captains have an adequate opportunity to apply for a branch transfer, request a particular post of choice and request attendance at Ranger School under existing regulations and policies and therefore removed these options from this year’s incentives program,” Arata told Stripes in an e-mailed reply Thursday to questions.

For more details, look for MilPer Message 08-093 here.


Multiple combat tours an issue for many captains

ARLINGTON, Va. — Repeated and prolonged deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have sparked what some observers fear is becoming a mass exodus of captains from the Army.

Captains, who are generally in their 20s or early 30s, usually have three to 10 years of Army experience and earn basic pay of $4,000 to $5,000 a month.

The 0-3 rank is make-or-break time in an Army officer’s career: a captain’s leadership and management skills are solidly tested for the first time when he is given command of a company (the size varies; about 120 soldiers, for an infantry company).

At the end of that command, most young officers will choose whether they want to leave the Army forever, or make it their career until retirement.

The problem is worse because the captains shortage did not begin with Iraq: the Army has been struggling with the situation since the early 1990s, according to Charles Henning, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service.

The Army brought in too few officers during the post Cold-War period, according to a 2007 report that Henning wrote for Congress. The situation was worsened because in a downsized Army, many captains left because they were frustrated by the lack of command opportunities.

The Army is predicting a shortage of 3,700 captains in fiscal 2008, a shortage of more than 3,000 annually through 2013, Henning’s report said.

On April 7 — the same day the new incentives to keep captains in the Army took effect — Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody told a House Armed Services Committee that the incentives are having an effect, but the real issue is repeated combat tours.

“At the end of the day, it all has to do with not enough dwell time between deployments,” Cody told lawmakers.

Dan Goure, a defense analyst and vice president of the Lexington Institute, said that the repeated tours “are definitely the most complicating factor” when it comes to keeping young officers on duty.

“There’s a growing fear” that deployment stresses will undermine efforts to counteract them, Goure said. “We’ve got officers on their third, maybe their fourth tours, and that may be OK for senior officers, but not for the juniors.”

P.W. Singer, senior fellow Brookings Institute and author of the upcoming book, “Wired for War,” is an expert in the Millennials generation and its impact on the U.S. military.

“This new generation does operate and think differently, much like the Boomers did with Generation X, and Gen Y is different than that. And [the Army has] got to face up to that.

“To Gen Ys (sometimes they’re called Millennials), when they ask ‘Why?’ the explanation, ‘This is the way it’s been done,’ is insufficient. It just doesn’t cut it.

“To put it bluntly, they’re less tolerant of BS.

“They also, at least corporate America has found that they look at issues of job duration, their attitude toward long-term careers is different. [Instead of remaining at one career for life,] they fully expect to enter a career and leave it and jump over to a different one.”

The Army has another problem, Cody noted: the plan to increase the size of the active-duty force by 65,000 soldiers — including more than 6,000 captains and majors — by 2010.

— Lisa Burgess

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