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Rocky Mountain News June 14, 2004

GIs marching away from re-enlistment

War may have some Fort Carson troops leaving the ranks

By Dick Foster, Rocky Mountain News

COLORADO SPRINGS - Army re-enlistments have dropped suddenly and dramatically at Fort Carson and several other posts where combat units have recently returned from Iraq.

The surprising decline within the past 21/2 months has jolted recruiters and military analysts and provoked questions about the war's effect on the Army's recruiting ability.

Since Fort Carson units began coming home in April, post recruiters have met only 57 percent of their quota for re-enlisting first-term soldiers for a second hitch, according to an Army report.

More disturbing, recruiters say, is they're re-enlisting only 46 percent of the quota for "mid-career" noncommissioned officers. These are the young sergeants with four to 10 years of experience who are the backbone of the Army - its skilled soldiers, mentors and future senior NCOs.

"That's a lot lower than where we want to be, especially on mid-careers," said Master Sgt. Scott Leeling, a Fort Carson recruiter.

"But I don't see this as being a trend," he said. "Last quarter, we were unbelievably successful. I look to see a dramatic increase in the next 30 to 45 days."

Fort Carson is just about meeting quotas for re-enlistments of smaller numbers of older career soldiers - those serving 10 or more years.

Quotas are set quarterly by the Army for each installation. The numbers reflect the current quarter, which ends June 30. The Army as a whole is close to its year-to-date goal, the Pentagon said.

Fort Carson's re-enlistments could be lagging because some soldiers are still on 30-day leave after Iraq deployment and might sign up when they return to duty, Leeling suggested.

But others familiar with the Army think the numbers could signal growing discontent. Iraq may be exposing some vulnerabilities of an undersized, overstretched Army.

"It sounds to me like the Army is voting with its feet," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., think tank.

Married soldiers, who now make up half of the Army, are growing weary of repeated, yearlong deployments away from their families, Pike and others believe.

"We've gone from an unmarried Army to a married Army. These guys have come back from Iraq now, but you tell them they're going back within a year, and the wives are raising hell," said Dennis McCormack, a retired helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam and Desert Storm.

Fort Carson isn't alone with sharp re-enlistment drops during the past 90 days. According to Army figures:

At Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division, recruiters have met 65 percent of their goal of first-termers and 80 percent of the goal for mid-career soldiers.

At Fort Riley, Kan., whose 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division remains deployed in Iraq, re-enlistments are off sharply. Recruiters have signed only 50 percent of its quota for first-term re-enlistees, and 57 percent for mid-career soldiers.

Across the Army's massive III Corps, which includes Fort Hood's 4th Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions as well as Fort Carson's combat units, only 51 percent of first-termers and 54 percent of the mid-career soldiers are signing up.

At Fort Stewart, Ga., where the 3rd Infantry Division returned from Iraq, the Army used cash bonus incentives to re-enlist 95 percent of its first-term quota and reach 100 percent of its mid-career goal.

No cash incentives have been authorized at Fort Carson or other posts, Leeling said. And there's no guarantee the money would lure everyone.

"I've been away more than I've been home. I want to live my life with my kids and my family," said Jimmy Ray Sandoval, who has been to Korea, Bosnia and Iraq.

After missing his son's birth and his daughter's birthday in Iraq, Sandoval came home last Christmas and left the Army with the rank of corporal.

McCormack has heard it from other soldiers. "These guys have come home and had some time to be with their families. Then the rumors start flying that they're going back within a year," he said.

"They've asked themselves, 'Do I really want to do that again?' You're making $20,000 or $25,000 a year and liable to get killed. They lost a lot of guys," he said.

As of Friday, 827 U.S. troops had died in Iraq, 45 from Fort Carson. More than 5,000 have been wounded.

The improved economy also may play a role in a soldier's decision to leave the military.

The Army said that despite the recent downturn, enough soldiers re-enlisted through May to make 98 percent of its year-to-date retention goal, 56,100 re-enlistments.

And new enlistments nationwide aren't a problem, the Army said. It was on track to meet its goal of 77,000 new recruits this year, with 48,939 on May 26.

"We're guardedly optimistic. A lot of things could happen, but right now we're in good shape," said Lt. Col. Frank Childress, a Pentagon spokesman.

Sgt. David Cramer, a 10-year Army veteran, was among four mid-career sergeants who re-enlisted Thursday at Fort Carson. "The biggest thing is the feeling you get that you're doing something historic, that you're helping to make those things come about," he said.

But the recent declines at Fort Carson and elsewhere are the first weakness in enlistments since the war began. Pike believes the Army "is in a race" against time to reduce Iraq troop commitments before larger numbers of soldiers begin leaving.


Copyright 2004, Rocky Mountain News