No longer needed? Troops survive combat, then lose their jobs
By GREGG ZOROYA | USA TODAY | Published: March 5, 2014
For thousands of career-military troops who endured combat and family separations during a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the end of hostilities brings a new directive from the government: your services are no longer needed.
Even as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday that future budget reductions cut "so deep, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough," pink slips were already on their way to soldiers.
In its first effort to thin the ranks under budget pressure, the Army is letting 3,000 G.I.s go in order to thin ranks to 490,000 by the end of next year.
Ten Army officers — colonels and lieutenant colonels — learned while serving in Afghanistan in January that they would be forced to retire later this year.
And those are just the first firings. Tens of thousands more must be cut in the years ahead, and the services readily admit those separations won't all be voluntary.
"Everybody who's getting looked at right now ... has to really start thinking about, 'Well, what if?' " says Army Maj. Timothy Hyde, married and the father of two, who is among several hundred officers being reviewed for possible job loss.
"I'll be disappointed if I get selected for early separation," says Hyde, a public affairs officer who served in Iraq. "But I have my faith and my family to fall back on."
Activists who support troops and their families worry that a lingering war strain on an all-volunteer force — evidenced by record behavioral and physical health issues, marital struggles and even suicide — is now compounded by worry over job security.
"We're seeing the legacy of stress as part of the military way of life," says Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. "People won't have time to find a break, because they will remain too worried about their future."
While the U.S. military downsized after previous wars, Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with a relatively small, all-volunteer force required to deploy again and again during more than a decade of conflict, says retired vice admiral Norbert Ryan, president and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America.
"We're doing this (job reduction) on the very backs of the men and women and their families that have carried the other 99% of us for the last 12 years," Ryan says. "A lot of these people have borne the brunt of this war."
Small tracking surveys of military members by First Command Financial Services, a financial assistance company, show that slightly more than one in three middle-class military families now worry about job security, up from one in four last summer.
"We're seeing significantly larger apprehensions about the changes that are coming," says Scott Spiker, First Command CEO. "Pretty amazing for a career force that spent 10 years fighting two wars."
Twenty-eight percent fear they are less likely to be promoted and 17% anguish over possibly losing their jobs.
Soldiers are being forced out at a time when the jobless rate for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans, while declining to 7.9% in January, remains stubbornly higher than the nation's overall rate and unemployment among all veterans.
"We have a lot of great heroes," says Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army personnel manager tasked with carrying out reductions. "We have an incredibly high-quality Army today. And some of those great soldiers who have served honorably will be asked to leave."
About 500 Army non-commissioned officers ranging from staff sergeants to command sergeants major are slated to lose their jobs this year; another 484 are receiving notices this month that they are being fired in 2015. All have been or will be given at least a year's notice to prepare, Seamands says.
The Army has involuntarily separated soldiers during at least two previous drawdowns — after the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.
Some soldiers may lose their jobs in the middle of an enlistment, while most senior enlisted officers no longer must re-enlist but serve as long as they satisfactorily advance through the ranks, says Lt. Col. Justin Platt, a spokesman for the Army personnel department.
The Air Force is projecting a reduction of several thousand troops — the numbers as yet uncertain — through 2019, down from 327,600 today. The Marine Corps is shrinking by 5,000 each of the next three years, declining from about 190,000 today to 175,000 in 2017. And the Army could be forced to cut an additional 70,000 soldiers by 2019 if the most severe budget cuts Congress has enacted are carried out, shrinking to 420,000 active-duty soldiers.
Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman, says the service reduced its ranks during the war years to 323,000 this year and does not anticipate further cuts for now.
While all services hope to meet their goals through attrition, hiring fewer people and encouraging early retirement, the Army has found that about 10% of any reduction winds up being soldiers who must simply be let go.
One in recent weeks was Army Col. Bryan Hilferty, who was told in January that he must retire this summer.
"Everybody wants to be loved," says Hilferty, 53, who served two deployments in Afghanistan and one in the Gulf War. "For the Army to say, 'Thank you for your service, but we no longer need you,' is not as nice as the Army saying, 'Thank you for your service, but keep working.' "
With experience as public affairs director for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Hilferty has already begun applying for similar work at colleges near his home.
Married and the father three, he says he is better off than many, with his 28 years of military service and a pension that will amount to nearly $80,000 a year.
Among 3,000 Army officers or enlisted personnel being forced out this year and next, compensation can generally take three forms, depending on how long the soldier has served, Platt says. Those can be a full retirement benefit, a reduced pension for early retirement or severance pay, he says.
With 16 years of service, Hyde says he would be eligible for a small pension. But he remains hopeful the Army will let him stay on.
"Despite all the sacrifices," he says, "it's been a good life for us as a family."