YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Fewer servicemembers are retiring or leaving the military than at any time in the past five years, according to Defense Department data.

Retirements and separations have dropped about 29 percent since fiscal year 2005 and 15 percent since 2007, according to figures requested by Stars and Stripes from the Defense Manpower Data Center. [See stats at end of story.]

The numbers sound good to leaders concerned with retaining experienced servicemembers, but they also mean slower promotions and involuntary separations in some cases.

While the Army is growing, the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all recently have begun measures to prune underperforming personnel from their active-duty ranks.

Earlier this year, the Navy expanded the Perform to Serve program to include all sailors E-6 and below with 10 years or less of service. It also convened its first Senior Enlisted Continuation Board, which aimed at requiring underperforming chief petty officers with at least 20 years of service to retire.

However, of the 5,686 senior enlisted sailors reviewed, only 158 are being forced to retire, according to the Navy’s Personnel Command Web site.

That has bred skepticism among high-performing sailors looking to move up the ladder.

“I guarantee there are more than 158 that should be going home,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Harvey Hill, who recently left Yokosuka Naval Base for another assignment.

Hill has 15 years of experience, excellent evaluations and was named sailor of the year by Commander Naval Forces Japan.

That wasn’t good enough to earn a promotion.

Promotions to the E-7 chief petty officer level are at their lowest rate in a decade, Navy officials told Stars and Stripes in July.

Of the 19,000 petty officers first class who were eligible, just 19 percent were promoted this year.

In Hill’s case, his former rate was combined into the overmanned yeoman’s rate, changing one of his promotion standards while leaving fewer promotion opportunities, he said.

Hill says one obvious reason people are staying in the Navy in larger numbers is because of the lagging economy.

“I know guys who should do very well on the outside with their rate and experience, but because there are so few jobs out there, they’re not taking that risk,” Hill said.

The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 10.2 percent in October, a 5.4 percent jump since January 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The jobless rate is higher when it includes 5.6 million “discouraged workers” who want a job but haven’t found one in the past 12 months.

The Marines will be more selective about retaining active-duty officers up for promotion to captain than they have been in recent history, said Maj. Shawn Haney, spokeswoman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

“A couple hundred more will have the chance to serve as Marines at the lieutenant level, but they are going to see a slightly bigger cut at the captain level,” Haney said.

Beginning early next year, about 90 percent of first lieutenants can be expected to be promoted to captain. However, that number likely will continue to drop and could be somewhere between 70 percent and 80 percent in a couple of years, Haney said.

Active-duty officers who don’t make captain will either be eligible to join the Reserve or not be retained after they fulfill their service contract, Haney said.

Enlisted Marines will be subject to space caps in overmanned military occupational specialties, Haney said. Some will choose between changing jobs and separating.

“For first-term Marines, this is a different theme, because they came here during a growth period,” Haney said. “But this is really how it has always been historically.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force said this week it would trim 2,074 officers and 1,633 enlisted airmen through both retirement incentives and involuntary measures.

Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Saunders of the 35th Maintenance Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, isn’t sure whether he wants to continue working as a crew chief, which is an undermanned job.

If he transfers to another field, he’ll pay close attention to what jobs are overmanned and top-heavy with senior enlisted airmen, who could block his promotion path or make him obsolete during any future force cuts.

“When I came in, I planned on doing the whole career thing,” Saunders said. “I don’t necessarily plan on getting out right at 20 [years]; I want to stay in as long as I can.”

Meanwhile, the Army has no major plans to trim its ranks.

Earlier this year, the Army suspended its retiree recall program, scaled back recruiting and retention goals, and tightened up its waiver restrictions.

“However, the Secretary of Defense authorized the Army to grow by 22,000 [soldiers] over the short term, and so those [plans] we put in place earlier this year have been put under review and amended somewhat,” Army Pentagon spokesman George Wright said Wednesday.

Stars and Stripes reporter T.D. Flack contributed to this story.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now