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Facing Big Cuts, Army Reshapes Reserves To Keep Key Troops

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

With the regular Army shedding personnel to fit in ever-tighter budgets, the U.S. Army Reserve is positioning itself as a low-cost way to keep skilled, experienced veterans associated with the military. The plan, in a nutshell: If you can’t keep ’em in the regular Army, keep ’em in the Reserves.

Today, only 9 percent of enlisted personnel and 13 percent of officers who leave active duty sign up with the Army Reserve. To make reserve service more appealing will require changes to military regulation and even federal law, changes among the Army Reserve’s top priorities for 2012.

Why do so few soldiers join the Reserves? After a decade of war, many troops are burned out by multiple back-to-back deployments. Active-duty soldiers are leery of moving to the Reserves, or the National Guard for that matter, because so many of what used to be called “weekend warriors” have been mobilized for year-long deployments since 9/11. To entice these skeptics to keep some kind of connection to the Army, service leaders want to offer a more flexible range of options for different levels of commitment along a “continuum of service” – including creation of a new non-drilling, unpaid “inactive reserve” status with no obligation to deploy –- and more freedom to move back and forth between the reserves and active duty.

The goal is to “preserve this human capital that we have after years of [wartime] experience and not let it walk out the door,” the Army Reserve’s top officer, Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, told reporters. In many cases he has seen troops quit the force, Stultz said. “They would still be viable assets for us if we allowed them flexibility, but we don’t allow that right now, so their only alternative is to resign.”

It’s a revolution for a three-star general to be talking about offering flexible terms of service to suit the servicemember instead of the Army’s traditional take-it-or-leave-it rigidity. Today, the options boil down to:

  • serve full-time in the regular Army, with all the deployments that implies;
  • serve part-time in the Reserve or National Guard – nominally obliged to train one weekend a month plus two weeks in the summer, but liable to be mobilized for nine-month deployments overseas;
  • or get out of the Army altogether.

The current system also makes it relatively easy to move from the regular active-duty force to the Reserve or Guard but it is extremely difficult to come back. Reformers, most prominently the Commission on the National Guard and Reserve led by Arnold Punaro, have argued for a more flexible “continuum of service” that would provide more levels of commitment and more ability to move back and forth between them. The Army itself is embracing the idea. “At the senior levels,” said Stultz, “everybody says, ‘yes, we’ve got to have a continuum of service, we’ve got to allow soldiers to move back and forth.'”

The idea is definitely appealing to Army planners trying to look past the current downsizing and hedge against the possibility of having to rebuild the force in a hurry. After 10 years of war, “[the Army] is filled with combat-experienced leaders, and many of them may choose to leave the active component,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Donahue, concept development chief at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, speaking to reporters at a conference on building the Army of 2020. “General Stultz is trying to create opportunities that allow them to continue to serve and to be there if the Army has to expand, a ready pool of combat-experienced leaders that are still wearing the uniform.”

Actions for 2012

So the concept of “continuum of service” has won wide acceptance. Now the hard part — implementing it.

“[For] some things, we can change our policy to make moving back and forth easier. There may be some things that are law,” Stultz said. “This is not a six-month, 12-month overnight success; this is probably going to take one, two, maybe even three years to work through – but we’ve got a window of opportunity now” as the active force draws down and soldiers make the critical decisions to stay, move to the reserves, or get out all together.

For the near term, Stultz wants to make room in the Reserve for an influx of experienced troops coming off active duty. “One of the challenges we’ve got in the Army Reserve is we’re overstaffed on our junior soldiers,” he said, but short about 15,000 non-commissioned officers, captains, and majors. With the Reserve close to its authorized endstrength of 206,000 personnel, the only way to get more senior soldiers is to recruit fewer new ones. Said Stultz: “We may go below our authorized end strength deliberately in the future, just to create space to absorb soldiers that are coming off the active duty.”

To entice those troops to come, Stultz outlined a range of initiatives aimed at more energetically recruiting soldiers getting ready to leave the active-duty force. That includes helping to hook them up with civilian employers, who, of course, will be conveniently close to Reserve units that also need their skills. Historically, the Reserve tended to wait until active-duty soldiers had left the military and settled down somewhere in civilian life before trying to recruit them, a task largely left up to local recruiters.

Now, Reserve representatives will be stationed on regular Army bases to pitch reserve service to soldiers in their last six months of active duty. These reps will serve as forward observers for Reserve recruitment, trying to match interested soldiers with Reserve units that need their particular skills, are located near where they want to live, and – perhaps most attractive in these troubled economic times – have partnerships with local employers (often law enforcement agencies) who can offer them a civilian job.

But what if soldiers still won’t sign up with a Reserve unit, for fear they might be mobilized? Then, as of March 2012, a new initiative will automatically affiliate many departing troops with a Reserve unit in the area where they settle.

Reforming the Individual Ready Reserve

This plan requires overhauling what’s called the Individual Ready Reserve. Historically, the IRR was little more than a glorified list of phone numbers and addresses – frequently incorrect – for former servicemembers who had returned the civilian life but who had a few years left on the legal obligation to be mobilized for service in a national emergency. Unlike other reservists, members of the IRR aren’t paid, don’t train, and don’t belong to any unit (hence the name “individual”). Since 9/11, however, the over-burdened Army has increasingly cherry-picked individuals out of the IRR and either asked or required them to come back on active duty.

The results have been uneven. Many IRR soldiers either never got their call-up letters – the address lists are notoriously inaccurate – or they threw them away. Even those who did answer the call found the bureaucracy was poorly set up to handle them. “Very few of the ones who were called up actually showed up, and of those who did show up there was a very high attrition rate,” said one Army officer who was recalled from the IRR with orders to deploy to Iraq, only to end up being sent to Afghanistan instead. “I’m proud to serve, but to me it’s just a reflection of how strained the Army is.”

Stultz agreed the current system is unsatisfactory. “Instead of just releasing a soldier from active duty to this black hole we call the IRR….we want to affiliate him with a unit,” he explained. If the IRR member is called up, that unit provides “a base of support” for everything from paperwork to health care to family programs. And for the majority of IRR members who never get called, the hope is having a unit to call their own will help many ex-soldiers keep an emotional and logistical connection to the military – a connection that might one day lead to their coming back on their own.

What do you think?