- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

The Pentagon has started its first-ever survey of exiting personnel to find out why skilled war fighters especially officers are prematurely ending their careers.

Nearly 150,000 honorably discharged troops will be asked to fill out a survey nearly twice as long as the 53-question 2000 census. The questioning, which began in April, goes beyond just asking why the subject is quitting.

In what reads like a customer satisfaction form that comes with a new home appliance, the questionnaire plumbs deeply into issues such as job performance, working hours, extra jobs, job satisfaction and the military's ability to lead. There are questions on ethnic origin, education level, marital status, personal finances and future plans.

It comes as the Army, Navy and Air Force have struggled from time to time with retaining a sufficient number of skilled enlisted members and officers. Many complain of long overseas deployments or of top-down micromanaging.

Retired Army Col. Joseph Collins, who co-authored an extensive study of the current military culture, said he believes the military is at the beginning of a serious retention problem. He said the branches are having a particularly difficult time holding on to technicians and graduates of the three service academies.

"It was a consistent item in the focus groups associated with our study," Col. Collins said. "For both officers and [noncommissioned officers] we were told, a lot of the good guys were getting out. There's disproportionately a larger amount of top-quality officers who are leaving."

He said the top four problems cited by his surveyed personnel were: pay and benefits; high operational tempo coupled with time away from family; a lack of resources to carry out missions; and undisciplined trainees coming out of boot camp.

The Clinton administration and Congress last year took steps to counter the trend by boosting pay, retirement benefits and re-enlistment bonuses. This year, lawmakers and the Pentagon are overhauling the military health care system.

The Pentagon questionnaire also asks department soldiers what they tell their children about the military. The branches rely on generations of military families to send their progeny to the armed forces. Anecdotal evidence suggests fewer families are doing so today, Col. Collins said.

"I think it's an indicator there is tremendous sense of pressure and more than a good deal of frustration in the military today," he said. "They seem to be meeting themselves coming and going."

Col. Russ Oaks, an Army spokesman, said the service is enjoying success in retaining enlisted soldiers, but is concerned over the loss of junior officers its future leaders. Two panels have been set up to evaluate the problem.

An Air Force spokesman said the service has shortages of computer operators, F-16 crew chiefs, electronics technicians, security forces and air-traffic controllers. In the officer ranks, it is short on pilots, battle managers, civil engineers and communications/computer operators.

A sampling of Pentagon survey questions:

• How satisfied were you with each of the following [pay, medical care, housing] while on active duty?

• Which is the most important factor that we could have improved that would have made you stay?

• In general, has your life been better or worse than you expected when you first entered the military?

• Now, taking all things together, how satisfied are you with the military way of life?

• If someone asked your advice about joining the military, what would you recommend?

• When you talk with your children about their future, do you encourage them to consider the military?

• During your off-duty time, did you hold a second job or work at your own business?

• In the past 12 months, how many separate times were you away from your permanent duty station for at least one night because of your military duties?

Coaxing people to tackle 87 questions required some buttering up. So, the Pentagon begins with this statement:

"There is no greater test of character or citizenship. At times this service may have seemed thankless, but rest assured a grateful nation recognizes your selfless contribution. As you prepare to separate from active duty, we ask that you take the time to complete the attached survey.

"We are interested in your responses concerning your decision to leave active duty, your experiences while on active duty, and plans for civilian life. Your answers will enable the Department of Defense and Congress to better understand the factors that influenced your decision."

A Pentagon spokesman said between 120,000 and 140,000 personnel due to leave between April and Sept. 30 are being polled. Everyone who was voluntarily separated and received an honorable discharge is being asked to participate. Inductees who flunk basic training will not be polled.

The four branches have conducted smaller exit surveys. But this is the first time the Defense Department devised a militarywide questionnaire.

Congress mandated the work in the 2000 defense authorization act as a one-time occurrence. The law said the survey must ask questions on reasons for leaving the service, command climate, attitude toward leadership and other issues deemed appropriate by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. A report is due to Congress this fall.

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