FORT BRAGG, N.C. — After the 9/11 attacks, tens of thousands of young men and women joined the military, heading for the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and dusty deserts of Iraq.
Many of them now are officers in the Army with multiple combat deployments under their belts. But as the wars wind down and Pentagon budgets shrink, a lot of them are being told they have to leave.
It’s painful and frustrating. In quiet conversations at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Eustis in Virginia, captains talk about their new worries after 15-month deployments in which they battled insurgents and saw roadside bombs kill and maim their comrades. They nervously wait as their fates rest in the hands of evaluation boards that may spend only a few minutes reading through service records before making decisions that could end careers.
During the peak war years, the Army grew to about 570,000, as commanders worked to fill combat brigades and support units to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of newly minted officers came in during 2006-2008.
Already down to about 522,000, the Army must shrink to 490,000 by October 2015, and then to 450,000 two years later. If automatic budget cuts resume, the Army will have to get down to 420,000 — a size service leaders say may not allow them to wage even one major, prolonged military campaign.
While a lot of the reduction can come from voluntary retirements, resignations and decreased enlistments, Army commanders will have to force as many as 3,000 officers — nearly 10 percent of the planned decrease — to leave by the end of October 2015. Of those, nearly 1,500 are captains, 550 are majors.
Behind some of those big numbers are soldiers in their late 20s who will be forced out of their military careers long before retirement age and into the still struggling American job market. They would leave with honorable discharges, but without 20 years in the service they would not be eligible for retirement benefits.
“The captains are a problem,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Because when we increased the size of the Army we recruited heavily in certain year groups. So as we draw the Army down, those are over strength.”
The military has been through this before. In the years after Vietnam and during the 1990s as the Cold War thawed, the Pentagon pushed thousands of service members out the door, creating what some felt was a hollow military that lacked the soldiers, training and equipment needed to fight and win.
This time, Army leaders argue they’re trying to do it right. They’re not asking for volunteers, because too many good people leave. So they are combing through files, looking for soldiers with disciplinary or other problems in their annual evaluations — known as efficiency reports — to weed out lower-performing officers.