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Officers Plot Exit Strategy

Times Staff Writer

Army Capts. Dave Fulton and Geoff Heiple spent 12 months dodging roadside bombs and rounding up insurgents along Baghdad’s “highway of death” -- the six miles of pavement linking downtown Baghdad to the capital city’s airport. Two weeks after returning stateside to Ft. Hood, they ventured to a spartan conference room at the local Howard Johnson to find out about changing careers.

Lured by a headhunting firm that places young military officers in private-sector jobs, the pair, both 26, expected anonymity in the crowded room.

Instead, as Fulton and Heiple sipped Budweisers pulled from Styrofoam coolers next to the door, they spotted nearly a dozen familiar faces from their cavalry battalion, which had just ended a yearlong combat tour in Iraq.

The shocks of recognition came as they exchanged quick, awkward glances with others from their unit, each man clearly surprised to see someone else considering a life outside the military.

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“This is a real eye-opener,” said Fulton, a West Point graduate who saw a handful of cadets from his class. “It seems like everyone in the room is either from my squad or from my class.”

More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks spawned an era of unprecedented strain on the all-volunteer military, it is scenes like this that keep the Army’s senior generals awake at night. With thousands of soldiers currently on their second combat deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and some preparing for their third this fall, evidence is mounting that an exodus of young Army officers may be looming on the horizon.

It is especially troubling for Pentagon officials that the Army’s pool of young captains, which forms the backbone of infantry and armored units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be the hardest hit.

Last year, Army lieutenants and captains left the service at an annual rate of 8.7% -- the highest since 2001. Pentagon officials say they expect the attrition rate to improve slightly this year. Yet interviews with several dozen military officers revealed an undercurrent of discontent within the Army’s young officer corps that the Pentagon’s statistics do not yet capture.

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Young captains in the Army are looking ahead to repeated combat tours, years away from their families and a global war that their commanders tell them could last for decades. Like other college grads in their mid-20s, they are making decisions about what to do with their lives.

And many officers, who until recently had planned to pursue careers in the military, are deciding that it’s a future they can’t sign up for.

The officers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan just wrapped up a year of grueling counterinsurgency operations -- a type of combat the U.S. largely avoided after its struggle in Vietnam and that many in the Pentagon believe is the new face of war. They were in Iraq during last spring’s uprisings in Fallouja and Najaf, June’s transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government and block-to-block fighting during the retaking of Fallouja in November.

These officers have, in most cases, more counterinsurgency experience than any of their superiors. And they are the people the Army most fears losing.

The officers interviewed for this article are proud of what they accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are generally optimistic that the two nations can eventually emerge as functioning, if unstable, democracies.

Those just returning from Iraq ended their combat tours on a positive note with successful parliamentary elections in January, which had been the singular focus of their deployment.

Yet their pride is tempered by uncertainty about what lies ahead in an unconventional war in which victory may never be declared.

“The undefined goals of the war on terror are making it really hard for the Army to keep people right now,” Fulton said.

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By the time they make captain, young officers are usually approaching the end of their four- or five-year commitment. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said the attrition rate for junior officers was not yet alarming, and the Army had several initiatives in place to help retain those deciding whether to make a career out of the military.

The Pentagon hopes that by next year, a significant troop reduction in Iraq will allow the Army to slow the pace of troop deployments, giving soldiers two years at home for every year in battle.

Yet Pentagon officials admit it is uncertain that this can happen by 2006.

“I still don’t know if we can make it,” said a senior Army officer at the Pentagon. “You tell me what Iraq is going to look like next year.”

Meanwhile, the Army is dispatching combat units to Iraq and Afghanistan after soldiers have had just one year at home, a pace that is taking a toll around the country.

Timothy Muchmore, a civilian Army official at the Pentagon and a retired tank officer, said he was worried about an exodus of young officers. He summed up the problem this way:

“You take a junior officer, you send them overseas for a year. They win a lot of medals, and they’re a hero. But when you send them back a second time, the odds go up that they won’t make it home alive and it becomes even harder on their family. Are they any more of a hero for having served a second time? No.

“The guys returning from Iraq and Afghanistan believe they have done at least the minimum for the security of their country, and they are proud of their service,” he said. “But the world is now their oyster.”

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Private-sector pitch

Inside the overheated conference room at the Howard Johnson in Killeen, Fulton and Heiple listened to a well-rehearsed pitch about what the world might have to offer.

At the front of the room, Andrew Hollitt, a beefy, gregarious former Army officer turned headhunter spoke in marketing terms about how eager private-sector employers were for young, combat-tested officers and senior noncommissioned officers.

“You are a commodity that brings a tremendous amount to the table,” he told the packed room, sipping from a can of Budweiser. “I can sell something that I believe in. And it’s people like you.”

The Lucas Group was not trying to persuade them to leave the Army, Hollitt said, only to present them with another set of options.

“I am red, white and blue on the inside,” the recruiter assured the capacity crowd.

In a telephone interview after the recruiting session, Hollitt said he had yet to see the same volume of young soldiers contact the Lucas Group as he did during the late 1990s, when the military drawdown forced the Pentagon to slash its numbers and push young officers out of the service.

At the same time, he said, the pace of Army deployments was clearly having an effect -- and that the quality of those leaving was very high. “I am seeing the highest caliber of candidates now that I have seen in five years of doing this,” he said. “The companies we work with are absolutely, unbelievably impressed.”

Employers such as General Electric Co., Home Depot Inc. and others are always on the lookout for managerial talent, Hollitt said, and mid-level commanders tested in war are considered experienced leaders.

By the time they make captain, he said, the officers usually have command experience leading an infantry or armor company, which forces them to make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis.

After the session was over, Heiple and Fulton were wary about what they had just heard. And it was not that the average starting salaries of $50,000 to $70,000 were much more than they had earned in Iraq when combat pay and bonuses were included.

Instead, one of their biggest concerns about working in the civilian world was that it was “cheesier” and less serious than what they currently do for a living.

“I kind of worry that the corporate world is a lot like ‘Office Space,’ ” said Heiple, referring to the 1999 movie that parodied American office park culture.

Combat experience

The 1st Cavalry Division was considered for the assault on Baghdad in 2003 but ended up staying stateside as commanders in Washington and the Middle East decided to pare down the invasion force.

When the division was notified that it would be heading to Iraq in 2004, a year after the fall of Baghdad, the 1st Cav’s officers thought they had missed out on the action.

“I thought we were going to be the third string of the JV,” Heiple said.

Far from being over, the war in Iraq had entered its bloodiest stage, and Heiple and Fulton’s battalion was in charge of patrolling Baghdad’s restive Al Rashid district. Their unit had the Sisyphean task of trying to secure Baghdad’s airport highway, the road many in the battalion called the “shooting gallery” because of the constant attacks against U.S. troops.

Over time and through grim experience, they learned the brutal rules that govern counterinsurgency warfare.

They point with a certain amount of pride to a January incident that occurred soon after the battalion’s most respected and indispensable Iraqi interpreter, Ethar, was assassinated.

Ethar had been lured to an insurgent safe house by another Iraqi interpreter who had been paid off by insurgents. There, Ethar was brutally beaten and shot in the head. Soldiers found his body while on patrol.

News of the death hit the battalion hard, and they planned their revenge. Acting on information from an Iraqi source, the battalion hit multiple targets around west Baghdad in a single night, which some of the battalion’s officers only half-jokingly called “the night of justice.”

“We took down the whole cell” in a night, Fulton recalled, capturing or killing all the insurgents on their target list.

“It was personal, and it felt really good,” he added.

Heiple, a native of Jonestown, Pa., said he would not have traded for anything the experience of leading troops in combat or of earning the 1st Cavalry’s trademark Stetson hat and gold spurs -- given to cavalry soldiers when they have served in a combat zone.

Yet, with these achievements behind him, the Notre Dame graduate said he was looking for a life with more stability. Heiple decided while he was in Iraq that he would leave the Army when his commitment expires next month. He plans to move with his girlfriend to Austin, where he hopes to attend law school at the University of Texas.

Heiple’s decision to leave the Army did not come suddenly. At 26, he felt his window of opportunity to change careers was closing. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that he wanted to follow a different path.

“I can only wait so long,” Heiple said.

Fulton spent eight years of his youth in the Congo, where his father worked as a bush pilot. His family relocated to Haiti in 1990 and spent three years there before they were evacuated before U.S. troops landed on the island in 1994.

Fulton then moved to Redlands, Calif. When he was in high school there, the military piqued his interest and he visited an Army recruiting station. His test scores led one recruiter to suggest that he instead apply to West Point. During his senior year, the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs) nominated Fulton for his military commission to the armed forces academy in New York state.

Fulton returned from Iraq in March and went on a cruise to Mexico with his wife during his 30-day leave. His wife, Fulton said, wants him to leave the military more than anything.

In June, the two will move with their 3-year-old son to Ft. Knox, Ky., where Fulton will begin a six-month course on commanding armored units.

He will still have a year left of his Army commitment when the course is completed, yet Fulton admits that given the Army’s current pace of deployments, he is leaning toward leaving the service.

“If West Point didn’t have a five-year commitment,” he said, “I’d probably be pursuing something else right now. I know my wife would like me to choose something else immediately.”

Careers in the balance

A college graduate with an Army ROTC scholarship usually owes four years of active duty to the military, along with a period in the Army Reserves or National Guard. A West Point graduate owes five.

Army officials know that if they are able to persuade captains to remain in uniform a few years past their initial commitment, the odds are good they will eventually commit to a full 20-year military career.

But in the words of one Army captain, a West Point graduate who spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 and plans to leave the Army next year: “A lot of guys making their decision at the five-year mark are not making their decision for [just] the next three years. They are making their decision about whether to make a career out of the military.

“The guys in my age group are looking ahead and deciding that’s not a life they want to live.”

Mid-level officers around the country are confronting the same choice. The 1-34 armor battalion of the 1st Infantry Division returned last year to Ft. Riley, Kan., after a year in Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle, the region of heaviest conflict. The battalion is expecting to return to Iraq later this year, and many young officers are choosing to get out before then.

Capt. Eric Emerling, the battalion’s fire support officer, is one of three captains who decided to leave after returning from Iraq. Emerling said he initially looked forward to a career in the Army. When he returned, his superiors offered him command of an artillery battery, a milestone promotion for a career officer.

But he and his wife decided in January that they did not want to commit to a future of “repeated deployments for the next 13 years.”

“What tipped the scale is that I have a 2-year-old daughter. I want more stability for her,” Emerling said by telephone, his little girl in the background competing for her father’s attention. “I missed the first half of her life. I’m not willing to do that again.”

The 27-year-old captain is moving to Connecticut, where he has a job with a landscaping company. He said he was concerned about the Army’s future, with many of the military’s young leaders planning their exits.

“I see how many people are getting out here at my local unit level. It’s a bit of a worry,” he said. “We lost a lot of lieutenants and captains.”

Life outside the zone

Heiple and Fulton live in an apartment complex in Georgetown, Texas, an Austin suburb 30 miles south of Ft. Hood’s main gate. When searching for housing after they returned from Iraq, they specifically sought apartments some distance from the base.

Killeen, with its infrastructure catering to thousands of soldiers and their families, provides constant reminders of military life. But in Georgetown, a soldier walking the streets in desert camouflage is a rarity.

The young officers are coming to the end of their post-deployment “reintegration” period -- several weeks of administrative briefings and counseling sessions before they are allowed to leave post for 30 days to visit friends and family.

With their feet propped up on a coffee table piled high with newspapers, DVD cases and back issues of the Economist, Heiple and Fulton watch “Matrix Revolutions” on the recently purchased 50-inch flat screen television in the living room of their neighbor -- Capt. Vincent Tuohey, another member of their battalion just back from Iraq.

With distractions such as basketball, bars and new electronic equipment, there is plenty for the young officers to focus on besides their time in Iraq, or on the steady stream of violent news out of the country.

Said Heiple: “You don’t purposefully avoid the news. But you don’t go out of your way to find it, either.”

Tuohey, a Harvard graduate from Annapolis, Md., who earned a master’s degree from Cambridge University in Britain, served the last year as an executive officer for a cavalry unit in west Baghdad.

Like all of the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division who just returned to Ft. Hood, Tuohey is readjusting to life outside a combat zone.

He is edgy sitting in traffic, having taught himself in Iraq to maneuver his Bradley fighting vehicle to avoid city traffic and the inevitable insurgent attacks. The first time he got into a car when he returned to Ft. Hood, his heart began racing and he broke out in a sweat.

Tuohey was a lieutenant during his deployment in Iraq and is proud that most of the decision-making for counterinsurgency missions fell to the Army’s youngest officers.

“At no time before has the Army had LTs [lieutenants] who have made decisions like that on a daily basis,” he said.

As he sees it, the military now has an entire generation of young officers who are battle-hardened and knowledgeable about battling insurgencies.

Even in Iraq, he said, senior commanders were keenly aware of those officers who might be considering leaving the military and applied various degrees of pressure to persuade them to remain in uniform.

They appeal to the sense of mission, Tuohey said, and the sense of purpose of military life that doesn’t exist in the outside world. And they usually bring up an example of a friend who left the Army only to regret the decision.

Yet Tuohey, who was promoted to captain upon returning to Ft. Hood, said he was not sure whether he would stay in the Army when his commitment ended next year. He said he was tempted to work on Wall Street.

It’s not the money he’s after. It’s the fact that an Army that was gutted after the Cold War was promising him a future of perpetual deployments fighting a war that could last for decades.

That is not a future he is sure he can commit to.

“What’s the end point?” he asked. “When do you declare victory?”


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