Army divisions that fought the past 12 months in Iraq have met virtually every re-enlistment goal, a sign that the all-volunteer force remains strong under the stress of frequent deployments and hazardous duty.
The Pentagon has been closely monitoring the re-up rate for five Army divisions that fought in Iraq for about a year. Some officials feared the time away from home and the gritty duty would prompt a large soldier exodus. After all, the war on terrorism is unchartered territory. The 30-year-old volunteer Army has never been this busy in combat.
But numbers compiled this week for the first half of fiscal 2004 show that those five combat units met, or nearly met, all retention targets for enlisted soldiers — the privates, corporals and sergeants who total 416,000 of the Army’s 490,000 active force.
“This tends to rebut armchair critics who said the sky is falling and the vultures are circling and the Army is gong to lose all its troops,” said Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “This is not true. The soldiers get it.”
The Army also met its recruiting goal of 73,800 inductees last fiscal year, and 34,000 for the first six months of this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
“Soldiers are extremely resilient,” said Col. Elton Manske, chief of the enlisted division at Army headquarters in the Pentagon. “There is absolutely no sign of a ‘hollow Army.’ Soldiers are continuing to re-enlist at least at historic rates.”
The term “hollow Army” came into vogue in the post-Vietnam War 1970s to describe a force that lacked sufficient soldiers to adequately fill combat units.
Officials attribute the soldiers’ recent votes of confidence to love of job, patriotism and cash. The Army in December created a new, $68 million pot that paid soldiers up to $10,000 to re-enlist and stay in their current unit for 12 months.
Col. Manske said word of the coming bonus caused some soldiers to delay hitching up until January, causing first-quarter targets to be missed. The Army overall now stands at 99 percent of re-enlistment goals and expects to exceed 100 percent by year’s end on Sept. 30, he said.
“Bonuses had a significant effect,” he said.
A nervous Army headquarters is expressing sighs of relief. In-country surveys showed morale was low among many soldiers, as they spent months in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq fighting a murderous insurgency of Ba’athists and foreign fighters. Nearly 600 service members have been killed since the war began March 19, 2003. Some lawmakers said the country needed to reinstate mandatory conscription — the draft — to find enough soldiers.
But as of Wednesday, when the first half of fiscal 2004 ended, all but one of the five divisions met goals to retain three critical category soldiers — first term, midterm and careerist. Army-wide last year, a goal of 51,000 re-enlistments was exceeded.
The 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., a unit of 15,000 that saw 36 members killed in Iraq, missed first quarter targets, but made up ground the past three months and is now on its way to meet year-end goals, Army officials said.
The storied 82nd has been as busy as any military unit, sending brigades to both Afghanistan and Iraq to fight the Taliban, al Qaeda terrorists and pro-Saddam insurgents in the extremely volatile town of Fallujah.
“The division has been very stressed,” its commander, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., told reporters in Baghdad last month. “The one thing, I think, that helps cope … is that we get predictability in our troops’ schedule. That’s what they need to know is when the time is they’ll be deployed.”
The goal the last three months was to re-sign 422 first-termers, and the division signed up 463, while the target of 140 midcareer paratroopers was exceeded by 26.
“We have soldiers in the 82nd who are kind of unique,” said Master Sgt. Pam Smith, a division spokeswoman. “They are two-time volunteers. They volunteer to come into the military, and they volunteer to go airborne. These are special soldiers because they enjoy what they do. You have to be special to want to jump out of airplanes.”
Sgt. Smith said the division missed first-quarter targets during October to December largely because some soldiers waited to deploy before signing up to capitalize on tax-free bonuses overseas.
The division achieved 2003 goals by retaining 120 percent of the retention targets. Its six-month rate now stands at 92 percent.
Four other Army divisions played large roles in subduing Iraq:
The 101st Airborne, which sent helicopter-borne soldiers to Baghdad’s eastern flank and then patrolled northern Iraq, has achieved 107 percent of its retention mark.
The 4th Infantry Division arrived in Iraq after Baghdad fell April 9. It was assigned the toughest-to-tame corridor, from Baghdad to Tikrit, as soldiers took down scores of cells of pro-Saddam insurgents and led the operation to capture Saddam himself Dec. 13. New numbers showed it achieved 117 percent of its retention goals.
The 3rd Infantry division led the three-week charge from Kuwait to Baghdad, then battled insurgents in the Iraqi capital before turning the job over to the 1st Armored Division from Germany.
The 1st Armored Division is now vacating Baghdad after mounting months of counterinsurgency operations to break up more than 20 pro-Saddam cells. The division reports it met 120 percent of its re-enlistment goals the past six months.
“All of our indications right now make us guardedly optimistic we will in fact achieve all of our retention objectives,” said Col. Manske. “We are in somewhat unchartered territory here as these deployments continue. We’re looking at new and different ways to try to predict soldier behavior.”