Since September 11, 2001, more than 1.9 million U.S. service members have deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, or support operations overseas -- most of them once, many twice, a few three times or more. Of that total, half come from a single service: the Army.
Small wonder, then, that the Army is undergoing its first substantial and sustained growth spurt, apart from temporary fluctuations, since1973. From a historical perspective, the remarkable point is how modest that growth is. With about 550,000 soldiers on active duty today, the regular Army is just 14.6 percent larger than it was in September 2001. That is well below Cold War levels and barely more than one-third the 1968 Vietnam-era peak of 1.5 million.
So, despite eight years of war, the nation is sticking with a strategic choice it made four decades ago. Instead of mobilizing a mass of short-term, hastily trained conscripts, an approach used to fight every major conflict from the Civil War through Vietnam, the post-draft Army has honed a much smaller force of long-serving volunteers. Rather than drafting new troops, sending them to Southeast Asia for a year, and then cycling them back into civilian life, as the Army did in the last long war, today's Army has held on to the vast majority of its veterans.
That does not mean that every soldier has been to Afghanistan or Iraq. There are recruits still in training, reservists whose units have not yet been called up, and a host of highly specialized soldiers -- from weapons testers to congressional liaisons -- whose jobs keep them in the States. But all told, counting the National Guard, Army Reserve, and active-duty regulars, more than half of America's soldiers have deployed to war at least once. Among the regulars, the proportion rises to two-thirds, and half of those have done multiple tours.
This preponderance of veterans is a double-edged sword. Never before has the Army had so many soldiers with so much experience; never before have so many soldiers been so exhausted. Although the Army has ended the extended, 15-month-long tours for soldiers serving during the "surge" in Iraq, 12 months remains the standard. "Dwell time" -- the period back home to rest, recharge, and reconnect with family between deployments -- is often less than a year. "By the time you get reacquainted, it's time to turn and burn again," said Sgt. Maj. Anthony Agee, the son of a Vietnam veteran, who has served three yearlong tours in Iraq with as little as nine months between them. "It's not a lot of time."
This article assesses the Army's race between experience and exhaustion, between adding soldiers and losing them, between increasing the force and wearing it out. And the pace of deployments to the two theaters of war means that past trends do not translate into easy predictions.
"If you were to tell me on September 12, 2001, that the United States Army would still be at war eight years later and still be a viable institution, I would have called you a liar," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a Vietnam veteran. "I've been proven wrong." But now, Scales said, with so many soldiers having done so many tours, "this is absolutely uncharted ground."
Growing The Army, Or Patching It?
In 2004, Congress authorized as many as 30,000 additional soldiers to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a major reorganization of Army units away from large, cumbersome divisions to smaller, more-deployable brigades. But planners envisioned the increase as temporary. In the eyes of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with his high-tech, low-numbers approach to warfare, additional troops were an expense to be resisted.
It was not until January 2007 that a new Defense secretary, Robert Gates, won approval from Congress not only to make the 30,000-troop addition permanent but also to more than double it, to 65,000 active-duty soldiers -- increasing the force to 547,000 -- plus add 9,000 troops to the Army Reserve and National Guard. (The Marine Corps is growing as well, by 27,000.)
The Army has used the new manpower and real locations of existing forces to reposition itself for protracted guerrilla wars. Fewer tank crews and artillery troops are in uniform today, while more soldiers are serving as military police, civil-affairs specialists, scouts, reconnaissance drone operators, and intelligence analysts. But the centerpiece of the 2007 "grow the Army" plan was six new infantry brigades to share the burden of repeated deployments.
In April, however, Gates ordered the Army to stop at three new brigades and to use the manpower originally allocated to the other three -- more than 10,000 soldiers -- to fill holes in existing units. Then, in July, he received authorization for an ostensibly temporary addition of 22,000 soldiers, again to bolster formations already scheduled to deploy.
"We try to get our units out the door at a minimum of 90 percent [of authorized strength] to deploy into combat," said Col. Robin Mealer, a planner at Army headquarters in the Pentagon. "The Army was stressed to achieve that, which we perceive as a very minimum goal."
The problem is that not every soldier in a unit tapped for overseas duty is able to go, and the percentage of such "non-deployables" is rising. Before 9/11, anywhere from 5 to 9 percent of soldiers were considered non-deployable; today, the figure is 13 percent.
Some troops cannot be sent abroad with their unit because their contracted term of service will expire before or during the scheduled deployment. If these soldiers refuse to re-enlist, the Army can hit them with one of its infamous "stop-loss" orders, requiring them to remain in service after their enlistment is up. But Gates has ordered an end to the unpopular practice, and the number of soldiers covered by stop-loss is indeed declining. Letting those veteran soldiers go means that the Army needs to bring in even more new troops.
The other major reason soldiers become non-deployable is medical. Army life can be arduous enough in peacetime: Tank crews are prone to knee problems, paratroopers to bad backs. In war, soldiers wear out their bodies faster than normal, even if they are untouched by the enemy. Injuries too mundane to show up in official tallies of the wounded can still leave a soldier unfit to deploy again. And the military expects such medical problems--physical and mental--to increase as the wars drag on.
Of all the measures of stress on the Army, the grimmest is the number of soldiers who kill themselves. That figure has risen alarmingly since 2004, and it continues to increase even as the combined casualties from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have declined. "For the first time since I've been looking at it, for 30 years or more, the suicide rate in the Army is higher than the rate for similar males in the civilian population," said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.
The totals -- 139 suicides last year, 71 confirmed so far in 2009 -- remain small compared with the number of war casualties. But these cases are important not only as tragedies in their own right but also as a warning of a larger, invisible problem. No one can say with certainty how many troops suffer from some kind of psychological illness as a result of wartime service. The Rand think tank's landmark 2007 study, "Invisible Wounds of War," estimated that 300,000 servicemen and -women were afflicted with either post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, but this figure is only an educated guess.
Among the 110 current and former soldiers interviewed for National Journal's ongoing oral history of Iraq and Afghanistan -- admittedly an unscientific sample -- three revealed intense suicidal thoughts or actual attempts. "I was so close to leaving this world," said Samuel Rhodes, a command sergeant major whose marriage of 26 years broke up after his third tour in Iraq. Now retired from the Army, Rhodes rides horses to calm the symptoms of his PTSD and runs a program offering therapeutic rides to other troubled veterans. "I know of some that took their own lives," he said, "and I know of some, I probably saved their lives."
The Army conducted a service-wide "stand-down" earlier this year to put every unit through mandatory suicide-prevention training. General officers personally brief the vice chief of staff of the Army on the details of every confirmed case of suicide.
The suicides divide about evenly among soldiers who are currently deployed, those back from tours, and those who have never deployed, said Walter Morales, manager of the Army's Suicide Prevention Program. Soldiers on their first deployment seem more vulnerable than those who have made it through two tours or more. Most of the dead are not recruits but 20-something specialists and sergeants, who have greater military responsibilities and who are more likely to be married or in a committed relationship. The most common single cause of suicide among soldiers, Morales said, is "failed relationships" -- and few things test a couple like a year apart.
The Divorce Paradox
Deployment stresses not only soldiers but also their families. About 56 percent of active-duty troops are married.
Maj. Clifton Sawyer's elder daughter "was 6 months old when I left the first time," he told National Journal. "My second daughter was born when I was over there the second time." Sawyer had just 10 months between tours in Iraq, and much of that time was spent training far from home. "You never get that time back, but you try to do the best you can."
Family counseling has become one of the principal duties of the senior noncommissioned officers charged with soldiers' welfare. "My last deployment, it would be at least twice a week I'd have soldiers come in and tell me that their significant other or their spouse and them are having problems," said Sgt. Maj. Agee, who has missed half of his youngest child's life. "That's the unseen or unrecognized casualty of war -- the divorce rate in the military."
In 2004, a spike in divorces involving Army officers set alarm bells ringing among commanders, policy makers, and the media. But the rate then dropped just as quickly. The 2004 data may simply be wrong, Rand scholar Benjamin Karney said.
In his own analysis of military personnel files from 1996 to 2005, Karney reached a counterintuitive conclusion: Among Army, Navy, and Marine Corps enlisted personnel who married after 9/11--and whose spouses presumably had an idea of what they were getting into--the more days the service member spent deployed, the less likely his or her marriage was to break up.
Indeed, in the Army overall, divorce rates were steady before the still-unexplained spike in 2004 and have remained so since. The pattern holds even when looking only at soldiers who have deployed to the war theaters. In an analysis of Army personnel files that the military's Defense Manpower Data Center did for National Journal, the number of soldiers whose marriages had failed within a year after they returned from deployment had risen only slightly since 2002, from just over 5 percent to just under 6 percent. (Interestingly, these data contained no 2004 spike.)
How are Army families able to hold the line? The deployments to the conflicts of the 1990s prompted the service to make unprecedented investments in family-support programs, putting it in a position to help soldiers' kin cope with the much greater stress of the post-9/11 wars. "There really wasn't a 'family readiness group' when I went to [Operation] Desert Storm" in 1991, said Mark Reeves, an Army major with three children and one post-9/11 tour in Iraq. During his deployments to Bosnia and Iraq, however, the support network was "phenomenal," he said. "The women do an awesome job of keeping each other informed, supporting the troops with various activities, supporting each other when soldiers die or are wounded."
Although the Army has begun assigning paid support staff to these groups, they are still largely run by soldiers' spouses who volunteer. Maj. Sawyer's wife led his unit's family readiness group during his first deployment: "There was a lot of weight on her shoulders, and she did a lot of praying," he said. How long these unpaid volunteers can keep rising to the occasion is another unknown in the equation of the Army's capacity to endure. Nor do divorce rates and other official statistics tell the whole story.
"The commanders I speak to at the company and battalion levels are saying that they are seeing more family dissolution than at any time in the past," Segal, the military sociologist, warned. "It may be that there is a lag between their seeing problem families and divorces making it into the records."
Recruiting: The GED Gamble
The broadest measure of the Army's health is also the one with the best-kept records: the quantity and quality of people who enlist every year. The number of recruits has fallen short of Army requirements in just seven of the 36 years since the end of the draft: 1977-79, the "hollow Army" years after Vietnam; 1995,'98, and '99, the years featuring a strong U.S economy and deployments to such unpopular places as Bosnia; and 2005. But in many years, the Army reaches its quantitative goals by sacrificing quality.
A high-quality prospect, in Army recruiting, is a person who has graduated from high school and scored above average on the standardized Armed Forces Qualification Test. Both of these measures peaked in 1992, when a recession, the recent victory in the Persian Gulf, and the downsizing of the force allowed the Army to be more selective than before or since. After 9/11, patriotism and recession drove both quality measures back up, but they started to decline as the economy recovered and the Iraq war imploded. The trend lines bottomed out in 2008 and have been on the rise again because of a weak economy and a less deadly Iraq. The final figures for 2009 will be better yet, said Maj. Gen. Donald Campbell, chief of the Army Recruiting Command: "I think we're going to be on an upswing for the next couple of years."
But the percentage of Army recruits who did not finish high school -- 25 percent in 2008 -- has not been so high since the 1970s. So, the Army in recent years has been making an unprecedented bet on enlistees who hold a GED, the certificate for passing the General Educational Development tests. Theoretically, the GED is equal to a high school diploma. But those who drop out of school and later complete the requirements for a GED are also more likely to drop out of the Army, with higher rates of failure to complete both initial training and their first three- or four-year term of service.
The Army's challenge is to find GED holders who can make it in the military. One experimental tool instituted in 2005 -- the worst year for Army recruiting since 9/11 -- is the Tier Two Attrition Screen, which grades GEDs on intelligence, motivation, and body-mass index. (Tier One recruits are high school graduates; Tier Two, GEDs.) The 25,000 holders of GEDs so far deemed to be good risks by this system have performed at better rates than others with GEDs, although still worse than high school graduates.
In a second, bolder initiative, the Army has decided to not only cherry-pick superior GEDs but also manufacture them. The Army Preparatory School, founded last year at Fort Jackson, S.C., takes high school dropouts with high test scores, puts them in uniform, and runs them through an intensive, three-week course in academics and military discipline. So far, all but 21 of 2,230 graduates -- 99 percent -- have gotten their GED and gone on to basic training. (Fifty-five other students left the course for "nonacademic" reasons, such as health.) The school is too new for many of its graduates to have deployed, but initial reports from basic training are positive. "They are highly motivated to succeed," said Duane Norell, a former Army officer who runs the academic side of the school. "They see this as a second chance."
"It's a lot more fun than packaging DVDs," said Pvt. Christopher Taton, a recent Army Prep School graduate who left school at age 17 and spent nine years in dead-end jobs before following two cousins into the Army. "Before, it seemed like I was just floating around," he said. "Now I'm accomplishing goals daily." Health benefits and money for college are the first things that Taton mentions when talking about his decision to enlist. As for deploying to combat, he said, "It scares me, but I accept that's a possibility."
Promotion And Retention
When it comes to newly commissioned officers, there are no comprehensive statistics on quality comparable to how the Army tracks test scores and high school graduation rates for newly enlisted privates. The service's system for turning civilians into second lieutenants is too decentralized, with West Point, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and Army Officer Candidate School all reporting to different commands. But once those officers enter the active-duty force, they go through a system of centralized promotion boards. The statistics that come out of these boards tell a disturbing story about the Army officer corps.
Promotion from second lieutenant to lieutenant and from lieutenant to captain is almost automatic, but the system is supposed to become more selective in higher grades. Today, it's not. Promotion rates to the critical midtier grades of major, lieutenant colonel, and full colonel have risen steadily since the 1990s, when the Army stopped downsizing, and since 9/11 they have reached historic highs.
"Every board is going to select every officer that they can to [the rank of] major for as far as I can see right now," said Col. Paul Aswell, who monitors the health of the officer corps for the Army. Promotion rates to colonel and lieutenant colonel are leveling off, he continued, "but majors are going to be above 90 percent for years, and we really don't think that's healthy." In other words, the Army is making majors out of every captain not rated unqualified by the promotion boards and still falling short of what it needs to have new leaders for its 65,000 additional soldiers.
Nevertheless, there is one critical, and positive, difference between today's majors and those promoted to that rank in the past: "They've successfully served in combat," Aswell said. "If you're a major or below, everyone who is able to deploy has deployed." That is a level of real-world combat experience that the Army's junior and midgrade officer corps have not seen since Vietnam.
So the promotion system for officers has become less selective -- but the population it is selecting from is, overall, more experienced than ever. "The bottom 10 percent is so good right now, compared to my generation, that I am not worried," said Maj. Gen. Scales, who earned the Silver Star in Vietnam. "I've never seen an Army this good."
Similarly, the noncommissioned officer corps, the senior sergeants known as "the backbone of the Army," is now overwhelmingly composed of soldiers who have been in combat. Reports do surface among troops that unqualified sergeants have been automatically promoted to higher grades since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. (The Army did not provide promotion data for enlisted personnel to National Journal, saying that comprehensive figures similar to those for the officer corps are not available.) But the enlisted population as a whole has likewise acquired a remarkable degree of experience under fire.
Better still, the Army is retaining that experience: At every level, from soldiers completing their first term of service to midcareer sergeants to senior NCOs, the number of service members who re-enlist each year has risen since 2003, climbing faster than what the Army says is necessary to keep the force growing.
This is the paradox of today's Army. By the measures used since 1973, from high school graduation rates among newly sworn-in privates to promotion rates among long-serving lieutenant colonels, quality is unusually low. By the measure of actual time in combat, quality is higher than ever.
The Risks Of A Professional Army
Since Vietnam, the Army has never had so much combat experience. Since Vietnam, the Army has never been this exhausted. But the inevitable comparison with that conflict goes only so far. Today's wars are not like Vietnam, and today's Army is not like the one that fought there; if it does break under the strain, it will break in a different way.
The vast majority of soldiers who served in Vietnam, draftees and volunteers alike, were in uniform for two years. They came from civilian life and swiftly returned to it. As long as the public believed in the possibility of victory, the draftees fought on stubbornly. When the public gave up, the Army soon did as well.
Today, the minimum service commitment for recruits -- all of whom are volunteers -- is two years. The norm is four. At the end of that term, nearly half of first-time soldiers re-enlist. Few soldiers expect to return to civilian life in 24 months. For the ones who plan to make the Army a career, there is no expectation of returning to civilian life for 20 years. Today's professionals are committed to the Army, and insulated from the public, in a way that their draft-era predecessors never were.
That commitment and that isolation are reinforced each time soldiers return to Afghanistan or Iraq, binding them to their comrades with experiences that civilians cannot share. When they do come home, today's soldiers are more likely with each passing year to live in a decreasing number of military-dominated communities outside major bases; BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) and similar efficiency programs continue to shut down small outposts, especially in the Northeast, and concentrate troops on a few "mega-bases," especially in the South. These communities have achieved the critical mass of military families to perpetuate the commitment to the Army across generations: A National Journal analysis of Army data found that all of the 23 ZIP codes that have produced the most recruits since 2000 are in the vicinity of major bases, where soldiers' children make up much of the youth population.
"The Army's becoming increasingly incestuous," said Maj. Gen. Scales, whose daughters both served in uniform. "In the short term, it is a wonderful bonding agent" to hold the force together. "That's good for the institution. I'm not sure it's good for the nation."
Studies of the separation between the American people and their military tend to focus on demographics. Racially, the Army looks more like the general U.S. population today than it did before the wars against terrorism began: The proportion of African-Americans, long overrepresented in the Army, has fallen, while the percentage of whites and Hispanics has increased. Economically, enlistees tend to come from families with incomes just above the national average; both the wealthiest and the poorest Americans are underrepresented -- the latter generally excluded by their lack of high school diplomas, although the Army Prep School and other initiatives may change that, for good or ill. Regionally, service members are slightly more likely to be from the South than from the Northeast, more apt to be rural than urban.
Yet all these broad measures miss a crucial point: Today's Army may be equal to the U.S. population in its demographic representation, but it is also separate.
And it is getting more so all the time. That reduces the chance that declining public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cause Army morale to collapse, as it did in Vietnam. Still, it raises a different danger. "I don't think they're going to get burned out," said retired Col. Patrick Lang, a Vietnam veteran. "But they're going to get harder and harder, and more detached from the values of civilian society."
This article appears in the Sep. 19, 2009, edition of National Journal.