Why are Captains Leaving the Army?
A Question of Leadership

January 29, 2000

Comment: #344

Discussion Thread:   #s 126, 136, 137, 206, 281, 282, 303, 321, 336, 337


Consolidated Army Briefing "Captain Attrition at Ft. Benning" in Adobe Acrobat Format (256K)

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Attached to this message is a consolidated briefing  analyzing why Captains are leaving the Army in such large numbers. The first three slides provide detailed summary statistics, and the remaining 19 slides are the detailed survey results for situation at Ft Benning. The briefing is in Adobe Acrobat format which can be read by the free Adobe reader located at the URL identified above.

The hemorrhage of captains is putting the future of the Army at risk.

Together with the NCOs, captains are responsible for making soldiers out of lieutenants and gluing the Army together at the company level and below. This is where the fighting gets up close and personal. Small unit leadership is particularly important in the close quarters combat that so frequently accompanies 4th Generation War. These young men and women also form the cadre of our future leaders in fact, they are the future.

So, why are the captains punching out of the big green spending machine? What does this mean for the Army?

Sometimes, it pays to ask junior officers directly why they are pissed off. The courtiers in Versailles on Potomac don't like to do this, because they often find the answer in the mirror. Nevertheless, it is important for the junior voices to be heard.

The following two emails describe the reaction of two junior officers to the message contained in the attached briefing and the problem posed by the general hemorrhage of company grade officers. This message concludes with the comments of a retired Lt Col who read the briefing and both emails.

----[Email #1: from Capt XXX]------

Fellow Troopers,

I found this study right on the money and it confirms some research I have been doing independently amongst my fellow Captains.

I recently completed CAS3 [company level training] at FT Leavenworth. In my 12 man staff group, we had a quite eclectic mix of officers, some very junior, no time in grade captains, and others like myself who have been out of command for a while. Two of the 12 planned on exiting the Army as soon as their commitment was up. Both were West Point graduates, class of 1995.

As a West Point graduate, this naturally dismayed me, so I spent quite a bit of time talking to them to get to the heart of the matter. Most often cited was poor battalion and brigade level leadership, an uncertain azimuth for the future of the Army and branch (one guy was Air Defense Artillery the other was Aviation), and inability to resolve the conflict of profession versus family. Both guys were extremely capable, had good common sense, and were not prima donnas.

As I looked at the slides, a few things struck me.

First, most are USMA graduates who are planning on leaving. We are either doing a piss poor job at the academy of immersing our future officers in the values of the Army, or perhaps we are doing too good a job, and when our bright eyed, idealistic young officers emerge from USMA, they are quickly bitten by the bug of cynicism when the field Army fails to measure up to the high performance norms common at USMA.

Second, we are still developing a top notch officer at the academy in terms of performance as evidenced by the comments that the best are leaving, etc. The key is how to keep these guys in and keep their idealism burning bright. The twist on this is that the senior leadership tends to still be dominated by USMA graduates.

So one may discern that senior USMA grads are setting poor leadership examples thereby causing the young USMA graduates to leave the service in frustration OR to mimic the actions of the senior officers.

Just some thoughts,

Best Wishes,


-----[end email from Cpt XXX]-----

-----[Begin email #2 from Lt YYY]-----


I am a First Lieutenant currently serving in Bosnia.

Retention of Officers. I believe that this problem will have far more catastrophic effects on the Army than the far more publicized recruiting problem, even if recruiting quotas are met. It is generally recognized that the Army (and combat arms branches in particular) are short of Captains. As a result, PERSCOM will convene the Captain's board in March for 1LTs with a date of rank of Oct 98 through Mar 99. I only missed falling into this group by two months, and I haven't even been in the Army for three years!

Here we have the solution to the problem exacerbating the problem itself. Pushing inexperienced officers to higher ranks to fill the bloated (as you described it correctly) number of officer slots in Brigade and higher staffs will only increase the retention problem.

Speaking for myself and most of my peers, I can say that we didn't request to be branched Infantry because we like staff work. The average platoon leader time in my unit is about ten months in a mechanized infantry unit that must resort to using Armor officers as platoon leaders. I have not been a First Lieutenant for a year and have already served on Brigade and Divsion Staff. This will only hasten the exit of men who joined the Army to be leaders and warriors.

Early promotion of officers will not help the problem you addressed of unimaginative officers who won't rock the boat. As a case in point, during an NTC [National Training Center] rotation in Feb 99 as a platoon leader, I suggested switching tactics to avoid the heavy losses we had been taking in our battalion. In a battle in the central corridor I proposed that we move as rapidly as possible to a forward phase line and deploy to make contact. After contact I reasoned we could in effect fight a mobile defense by bounding backwards, always keeping the enemy in front of our superior weapons systems and negating their knowledge of and use of the terrain to flank or encircle us (as they had done previously). I was greeted with blank stares, and my suggestion was dismissed without consideration because it was unorthodox.

An officer that is promoted early would probably be even less apt to offer such a suggestion, and his superiors would be less apt to listen due to his lack of experience.

I believe that the retention problem and the resulting measures being implemented to correct it will make this situation worse. I also believe that this in turn will make the retention problem worse.

In a unit that reserves extra platoon leader time for the "bad" officers and "rewards" the ones that perform well with a staff job, degradation of combat leadership ability is the result.

At this point, I think that our leadership lacks the imagination to fight a campaign as von Manstein did in the winter of 1943 or Guderian in the spring of 1940 and the current trends in retention and officer management are leading us in the opposite direction.


------[end email #2 from Lt YYY]-------

A retired Lt Col believes that basic reason young officers are disenchanted with the Army is rooted in a leadership that is more focused on money and technology than on building leaders out of young officers: In his words, "We need dramatic changes in leadership, the Army personnel system, mentoring, and focus. In many ways the high tech focus of the Army has hurt the warrior, e.g., the Land Warrior program, the Objective Infantry Combat Weapon (OICW), and perhaps the Future Ground Combat System (FGCS). (Note that I don't include the CSA intent to have a medium size force structure in this list, just the objective combat system [FGCS] proposed.) Army leaders and the Association of the Army are focused on money as the key factor to support perceived Army needs. I think the focus is all wrong. The focus should be on leadership and training and what follows to get the mission accomplished. If the equivalent resources and energy were placed into those areas, we might do somewhat better. But just as the Air Force has become "big business"; so too has the Army, following the trend set by business management. Is the Army too close to industry? Is the Army too much in love with high technology? Where are the heroic leaders and warriors who stand for basic principles? Why are we losing the battle to retain young officers?"

In the coming year, you will hear a lot of talk about increasing the defense budget from presidential and congressional candidates for elective office, but don't count on hearing answers to the Lt Col's questions.

On the other hand, maybe the fact that politicians are more interested in money and hi-tech pork is THE answer.

Chuck Spinney

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