The U.S. Army is ending a program that has allowed military retirees to volunteer for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, disappointing many former service members who have embraced a second chance to serve their country.
Lt. Col. George Wright, 55, an Army spokesman — himself a program participant who signed up to return to service in 2007 after nine years of retirement — said the program is being terminated because the Army had to reduce personnel to reach a congressionally mandated limit on the total number of soldiers.
“The end of the program is driven by end-strength concerns,” he said, adding that the Army was engaged in a constant process of managing its size by “fine-tuning” its enlistment and retention figures.
“There’s a balance between the methods we use. We try to use the tools that will impact Army capabilities the least,” he said, noting that most of those who had signed up for the program were not serving on the front lines.
The decision has caused consternation among many of those who have returned to the military.
“I’m disappointed,” said Master Sgt. Donna Thomas, 51. “I would really like to stay on. … I still feel I have a lot of good years” to offer the Army.
“Serving my country, no matter where, is my passion,” she said.
Sgt. Thomas, who is currently serving with the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq, told The Washington Times that 11 months after retiring in 2006 following 22 years of active service, she decided to re-enlist while working as a civilian at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Her inspiration came from wounded soldiers she met.
“They had such great attitudes. They all wanted to come back,” she said. “It made me feel that I needed to renew my own commitment.”
“I thought I would have the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan for my next tour. That is why I am so saddened that the program has been [ended],” she said.
“I understand that this is a new Army,” she added, referring to efforts by the service to improve its counterinsurgency and other asymmetric capabilities. “But I feel they could still profit from the experience we have.”
Since the program began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 2,851 veterans with 20 years or more experience - mostly between the ages of 45 and 55 - have passed through the program, according to Army figures. Nearly 750 have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Army figures show three participants have been wounded and one — Maj. Steven Hutchison, 60, of Scottsdale, Ariz. — has been killed.
Many in the program share Sgt. Thomas’ disappointment that their service is no longer being sought.
“My age worked for me,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Herwehe, 62, adding it gave him credibility among the Iraqis with whom he was working as a counterterrorism adviser.
Col. Herwehe, who first joined the service in 1966 and fought in Vietnam, said he planned to go back to Iraq as a contractor, rather than return to his work as a marketing manager.
“I know that I have options,” he said. “I enjoy the work, and it is a very positive experience.
“It seems like this is an excellent resource,” Col. Herwehe said of the men and women who had volunteered under the program. “The military is missing an opportunity to use a lot of talent out there.”
Col. Wright said the Army has recalled retired soldiers, usually officers, in every conflict in which the United States has been involved since the War of 1812.
Soldiers who had retired after 20 years’ active service, or the equivalent service in the reserves, and who met Army fitness and weight requirements, were eligible for the program.
It was set up in 2002 under special wartime powers that enable the defense secretary to recall retirees — although in this case, the process was voluntary.
Col. Wright said the Army began phasing out the program in March and would end it by October, sending home the 1,163 retirees now enrolled.
A few exceptions with special skills — 41 to date — could be approved to remain in service.
The House Armed Services Committee recently amended the draft-authorizing legislation that sets the Army’s end-strength, raising the limit on the total size of the force by 30,000 soldiers.
If the measure is approved by Congress, it would effectively eliminate the Army’s rationale for ending the retiree-recall program.
It is too soon to tell what effect any changes will have on the plan, Col. Wright said.