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Retention is the new key to building a strong army

The Spokesman-Review

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the Tacoma News Tribune:

The Army is finding its salvation in offering those things often elusive in a modern soldier’s life – certainty, good pay and a sense of purpose.

While recruiters continue to have a tough time convincing civilians to go Army, growing numbers of the already enlisted are choosing to stay Army.

The Army fell short of its recruitment quota for the four-month period ending in May by 8,321 recruits. But retention is running at about 107 percent of the annual goal. From Oct. 1 through May, active-duty Army re-enlisted 45,333 soldiers, ahead of its goal of 44,172. The situation is even better at Fort Lewis, where some returning units are re-enlisting at double the anticipated rate.

The military needs to continually refresh its ranks with recruits. But retention of experienced soldiers is equally important. By the time most soldiers are eligible for a discharge, the military has invested thousands of dollars in their training and education. Holding on to that expertise is vital in a world where warfare is increasingly technical.

The reason many soldiers are choosing to re-up is simple: The Army makes it attractive. Tax-free bonuses and college options are two of the incentives, but soldiers seem just as drawn to the stability re-enlistment offers. They get to stay with their unit, and their families get to stay at one base longer.

For some, it’s a strategic move. The Army’s stop-loss policy means soldiers who don’t re-enlist may end up staying longer than their current commitment requires anyway. If they re-up, they will serve longer but have a modicum of control over how they serve out their time and when they return to the war zone.

For others, the war zone itself is a selling point. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday that re-enlistment rates are higher for veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some soldiers say a sense of pride and camaraderie compels them to return to finish the job.

They also are creating a new set of expectations among service members. As Rumsfeld said this weekend, building a military force will be a matter of adjusting the incentives so that the United States can attract and retain the people it needs.

That is the cost of building a modern, professional military that does not depend on the draft. Service to country is still a reward in itself, but not the only one that soldiers will or should expect.

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