Too Many Officers Trading Fatigues For Business Suits

USA Today, October 8, 1998

Too Many Officers Trading Fatigues For Business Suits
By C.J. Chivers

The story of the military’s creep from formidable fighting force to an institution struggling to maintain readiness can be seen in the journey of Enoch Blazis, a former Marine Corps infantry major.

Blazis is exactly the type of officer the Pentagon should be keeping around for the nation’s next fight. He graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He is a former platoon leader in a special-operations battalion and a veteran of such quirky post-Cold War missions as the evacuation of the Subic Bay Naval Base after a volcanic eruption. When he was promoted earlier this year, the ceremony was led by Marine commandant Charles C. Krulak, who urged him to stick around.

Instead, Blazis became a civilian, setting aside his dress blues and forsaking retirement benefits for a life in the private sector.

“We couldn’t get enough ammunition to stay sharp, we were riding helicopters so old they had been to Vietnam, and I got a good job offer,” Blazis said. “It’s hard to sum up why you make the big leap, but I knew intuitively that it was time to go.”

Blazis is one name on a swelling list of talented officers who have departed today’s military. An exodus is under way, and no one has been able to stop it.

The Air Force is short about 700 pilots; the Navy is worrying over the departure of not just pilots, but also SEAL lieutenants and future submarine skippers. In the ground outfits, more seasoned officers like Blazis are trading battle fatigues for business suits.

The trend has long been noticed by junior officers, including a few who penned letters to generals warning that their best peers are checking out, leaving some key jobs filled with a B-team of less experienced or mediocre performers.

Last week, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said as much to the Senate Armed Services Committee. So did Defense Secretary William Cohen to the same committee on Tuesday. Too many officers, it seems, are sending out resumes. Further, those who remain are overworked: The rate of serious aviation mishaps in the Navy has nearly doubled this year, and the admirals say pilot fatigue is a factor.

What’s going on?

At a glance, one might say the recently robust economy simply has lured officers into the private sector. True, to an extent. But the exodus is more complicated than that.

On the global level, the nation faces no menacing conventional foe, and the Pentagon has had an understandably hard time articulating a new doctrine. The military is confused. Restless young officers sense the confusion and look elsewhere for work.

Other factors are subtler. On the domestic front, for instance, the success of the women’s rights movement has brought new pressures into military families.

Once upon a time, most military wives were willing to act content as their husbands were transferred around the globe. Today, two-career households are the norm. Latter-day officers are balancing military assignments with their spouses’ careers, and many resign after contemplating transfers that would wreck their partners’ job prospects.

Viewed from afar, these problems are the downside of otherwise good news. After all, who wants the Cold War back? And the fact that women have achieved something close to equal status in the national workforce is long past due.

But other problems in the military stem from Beltway folly, which has sapped readiness and morale and has sent more officers for the exits.

Take pensions, for example. When Blazis signed on with the Marines in the early 1980s, he was told that upon completing 20 years of active duty, he would be eligible for a pension worth 50% of his pay. Then Congress slashed pensions to 40%. That stung, especially since military personnel have no 401(k) plans, are not eligible to purchase tax-deductible IRAs and receive pay that lags behind the private sector.

And it does not escape notice that while Congress trimmed military benefits, it kept its fork in the pork, pulling off such self-serving masterstrokes as ordering the Air Force to buy 20 transport planes the brass didn’t want. The planes were built in the Georgia congressional district of Newt Gingrich and posted in Mississippi, home of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. They cost $1 billion.

Of course, the Joint Chiefs of Staff can hardly complain about the legislators’ spending priorities. They’re the ones who left soldiers like Blazis in creaking helicopters and many small units with tiny ammunition allowances, all the while lobbying for programs such as the Seawolf submarine, a mega-weapon in search of any enemy.

The brass have also allowed officers’ careers to become swift games of musical chairs, rushing lieutenants and captains away from the guns and into the desks. This means loyal officers who remain on active duty are rewarded by spending less time mastering combat skills and more time supervising recruiters, keeping the books at reserve centers or working in staff jobs far from the action.

This hurts on two levels. Frequent rotations to office jobs make officers feel as if the military is more interested in oiling its bureaucracy than preparing for future battles. And depriving officers of tactical training means the next generation of commanders, flight leaders and ship captains will have less experience when those battles do come.

Savvy officers know the score. As Blazis said, they know it intuitively.

What a shame. The military spent the 1980s seeding its ranks with intelligent, committed leaders. Along the way, it licked its lingering post-Vietnam problems and restored America’s trust. It stopped rampant drug use, rejected most low-IQ recruits and calmed racial anger. It also updated its weapons systems and put troops through training that made it the best fighting force on the globe. Some of that progress is now at risk.

“I remember the malaise of the Carter-era defense establishment, and today’s climate is not much different,” the Marine general in charge of personnel, Brig. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, wrote last year in an e-mail, circulated among officers, urging an angry captain to keep a positive attitude.

Given the social factors at work, the military will not be able to retain as many officers as in the past. But if the Pentagon wants to keep a larger portion of its best leaders for the next war, it must increase pay, restore Cold War-era benefits and show its young officers it cares by making small-unit training a priority.

Defense mandarins can find the money to cover these costs by closing unnecessary bases and forgoing fantastic weapon systems. Or they can
keep to their current course and risk leaving the nation with armed forces that are long on slogan, but short on talent.

C.J. Chivers, a former Marine infantry captain and a veteran of the Gulf War, is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

Too Many Officers Trading Fatigues For Business Suits

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