Getting the Boot From the Army Family

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 

It’s an all-too-familiar story. A young man or woman takes a job, works hard and dedicates him- or herself to the employer’s success. He works long hours. She spends time away from family and loved ones. He persists. She’s promoted. He takes on more responsibility. Years go by and she gives up other opportunities elsewhere. Motivations are many: financial security, a sense of self that gets tied up in the organization, the promise of better and better things to come.

And then, right on the eve of when things should really start to pay off, it all comes to an end. Circumstances change. Bureaucrats make decisions. Divisions are reorganized. “Headcount” is “right-sized.” Talented, devoted people are given profuse thanks for their years of service—and then quickly shown the door. The security, the sense of self, the sacrifice—all of it disappears.

There’s an especially odious version of this story playing out right now in the United States Army. Faced with a Congressional mandate to reduce its size by about a fifth now that the Iraq war is over and Afghanistan is winding down, the Army is handling the task with all the apparent efficiency, bureaucracy, back-scratching and obtuseness that most soldiers and veterans have almost come to expect. The story played out on the front pages of the New York Times recently, focusing first on the plight of Capt. Elder Saintjuste, a veteran of three tours in Iraq. Saintjuste, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti, enlisted as a teenager and rose through the ranks. On the twentieth anniversary of the day he joined, the Army told him he was getting the boot.

About 1,200 captains were identified for involuntary separation last spring and must be out of the Army by 2015. Next up, another 550 officers—majors this time—will be selected.

Those who follow the military closely have seen this coming for some time. At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when soldiers were being stop-lossed and middle-grade officers were leaving the military in droves, the Army needed more captains and majors. Now, those who stayed face these kinds of administrative boards. About 1,200 captains were identified for involuntary separation last spring and must be out of the Army by 2015. Next up, another 550 officers—majors this time—will be selected.

I wrote a book about West Point’s class of 2002, and many of the officers I got to know who stayed in the military faced the prospect of being separated from the service earlier this year. I have yet to hear from a West Pointer who was actually separated, but the Times article suggests that graduates of the military academy have largely been spared. Instead, it’s the officers like Saintjuste, who served as enlisted soldiers first, who are being shown the door.

On paper, or wherever it is in the Pentagon that military men and women are accounted for like this on spreadsheets, this process makes some antiseptic sense. As an Army spokesman explained to the Times, the members of the boards that made the decision whether to retain or separate officers based their choices on the soldiers’ “manner of performance related to their peers,” and importantly, kept those with “the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”

These criteria suggest the deck was stacked against soldiers like Saintjuste, who had been enlisted soldiers before they were commissioned as officers. Almost by definition, they are older than their peers, which means they would have fewer years remaining before reaching mandatory retirement—and thus less “potential for future contributions on active duty.” Moreover, they haven’t had the chance to build the networks that their better pedigreed peers may have—something any veteran would know can have a significant effect on how their evaluations stack up against their peers’.

According to a separate article in Army Times, the process was ham-handed enough in practice that several officers picked for involuntary separation from the military were in the middle of deployments to “Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Horn of Africa and other locations.”

Downsizing in peacetime is inevitable—and in many ways, could be a positive thing. However, the way this is playing out is made more difficult by the fact that members of the military generally only qualify for any kind of pension benefits after serving for 20 years—serve 19 years and six months, and in most cases you’ll get nothing. (Saintjuste is fortunate in that regard, although he’s being forced to retire at the lower rank of sergeant, which means his pension is about $1,200 less per month than it would be if he retired as a captain.) Certainly there are a lot of people in the United States who would be thrilled to receive a pension of $20,000 or $30,000 a year, but we’re a country that supposedly thinks veterans should be special cases. And because of the way the process is playing out, many of these 1,700 or so officers will wind up with much less financial security than they thought they’d have.

Of course, it’s not just the officers themselves who are affected—it’s their families, who in many cases have sacrificed greatly.

“The whole time I told myself to just keep running and worry about the family later.”

Since the end of the draft and the Vietnam War, the military has focused on creating a more family-friendly atmosphere that encourages marriage, children, and careerism. In his recent book, Knife Fights, retired Lt. Col. John Nagl describes his experience in the 1990s Army that Saintjuste joined:

“Army men married early, usually to high school or college girlfriends, and the maternity ward was busy celebrating postdeployment arrivals. Those officers who had somehow missed the memo and had not married a girl from back home or the general’s daughter from their first duty station were strongly encouraged to do so. In fact, the major who instructed my small group pulled me aside and chided me for living in sin with Susi, who spent much of the summer at Fort Knox with me.”

In one of those ironies with which military life can be rife, the Army is currently celebrating “Military Family Appreciation Month” just as this news reaches the civilian press. (An official Army website on the designation starts out by declaring: “The strength of our nation is our Army; the strength of our Army is our Soldiers; the strength of our Soldiers is our families.”)

Now, however, at the abrupt end of their careers, the soldiers’ families will pay the price. The Times quotes a captain named Tawanna Jamison, 43, who is being forced out after 22 years, and whose retirement will be less than half of what it would have been if she’d been able to stay for another year on active duty—$2,200 per month rather than $4,500. The result, she said, is that she “could be facing bankruptcy” and won’t be able to help her daughter pay for college.

“The whole time I told myself to just keep running and worry about the family later,” another captain who will be separated from the Army, Nathan Allen, told the Times. After being awarded a Bronze Star in Iraq and working 15-hour days, he said, the military had become his identity.

“I’m a mess right now,” Captain Allen told the Times. “They took away who I am. I’m a soldier.”

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