Army error means hundreds of pilots owe 3 more years of service, some threaten lawsuit
Stars and Stripes May 9, 2023
An Army human resources error that will force hundreds of aviation officers to stay in the service three more years is drawing backlash, including a lawsuit threat, from some pilots who thought they were nearing the end of their time in the military.
Army Human Resources Command said in a statement that it had made errors in aviation officers’ personnel files and it was working to ensure pilots understand precisely how much more time that they must serve on active duty. The issue was caused by incorrect dates that command personnel added to some pilots’ personnel files, which indicated they could leave the Army three years earlier than their contractual agreements state, service officials said.
“We acknowledge that there were errors in information placed in the Assignment Interactive Module Portal from representatives of the Human Resources Command,” said Lt. Col. Allie Scott, a spokeswoman for the command. “We know that service includes both soldiers and their families. We also understand the importance of early communication to inform career and life choices. HRC will continue to review and apply statutory, contractual, and regulatory obligations to determine the length of an individual’s service obligation.”
The problem came to light after some aviation officers who commissioned in about 2015 were denied their requests for release from active duty late last year, even though their personnel files indicated they were eligible, said Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the Army’s personnel chief. Human Resources Command personnel reviewed aviation officers’ files and found some 600 pilots likely believed they owed three fewer years of active-duty service than they might have thought because of the unique service obligations for aviators, he said.
While all officers sign contracts upon commissioning that state they owe a certain number of years of active-duty time, pilots also owe additional time after they complete flight school. All Army pilots who entered the military before 2020 must serve six years after graduating flight training, but some officers also owe an additional three years, service officials said. Those who have entered the service since 2021 owe 10 years of service after they complete flight training, according to the Army.
Those impacted by the mistake are officers who commissioned into the aviation field via the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., or through ROTC and selected aviation as their branch of choice via the Branch of Choice Active Duty Service Obligation, or BRADSO. That BRADSO contract includes the additional three years of service obligation for aviation officers, Scott said.
Many pilots believed those three years of additional service ran concurrently with their six-year flight school obligation, said an Army aviator who commissioned in 2017 and has been informed he owes three more years of service. Army officials, including Stitt, argued the BRADSO contracts “clearly state” the additional three-year obligation, which means those officers owe the Army nine years after flight school.
“It was news to me,” said the aviator, a captain who flies Black Hawk helicopters and commissioned via ROTC. The pilot, who still owes more than six years to the Army, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe his situation without official Army approval.
The pilot said he knew of several other aviators with BRADSO contracts who were released from the service after meeting their six-year, flight-school obligations, and he had been discussing his options with his family.
The Army said some 190 pilots probably were approved to leave active-duty service before fulfilling their BRADSO requirements. The Army does not plan to call those former pilots back to active duty, Scott said.
The pilot said he now feels like he has misled his spouse about their options because he is required to serve longer than he believed. It has harmed his trust in the service and its leadership, he said.
“You feel like the Army has kind of stabbed you in the back,” the pilot said. “A lot of people caught up in this have a lot tougher situations — they’ve found their civilian-side work or bought a house where they want to settle or whatever. For me, it’s just kind of crushing an option I thought was there.”
He said he probably would not attempt to leave the service before his extra three years are up. But he said the misunderstanding would make coming to work — and most likely deploying overseas — more difficult.
“It seems like they’re trying to kill morale,” the pilot said.
The error has come to light as the Army is struggling with its recruiting amid a difficult recruiting environment for the entire military. While retention numbers have remained high, the military has long struggled to keep pilots in its ranks and away from high-paying commercial aviation jobs. That was part of the reason — along with the high costs to train pilots — that the service in 2020 moved to a 10-year service obligation after flight school, officials said.
Some of the officers caught up in the error have threatened legal action. In an anonymous letter “sent on behalf of over 170 active-duty Army aviators" to Maj. Gen. Tom Drew, commander of Human Resources Command, a group calling itself “The Future of Army Aviation" wrote they were considering hiring a "prominent" attorney to resolve the matter in court.
“It is a shared view that unethically retaining officers against their will does not increase readiness or bolster retention and recruiting efforts, rather it harms the institution [the Army] and our nation,” these pilots wrote.
Scott said the Army was aware of the letter.
“The Army continues to work with stakeholders and affected soldiers on this issue,” she said.
Scott also said the Army was continuing to review the issue and expects to complete a full audit of the service obligation issue by July.
While the impacted pilots contractually owe nine years of service beyond flight school, Stitt said the service would take an individualized approach to evaluating those who do request separation from the Army before their commitments are officially complete.
“I'll treat all of these on a case-by-case basis … with compassion and empathy,” the general said. “It's not like, ‘Well, you said three years. So, it's three years,’ like it's a prison sentence. I want to do the right thing for these soldiers and families and the right thing for the Army. That’s my methodology as I go forward.”