Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

We’re all going to be veterans, we hope

By Maj. Jaron Wharton Best Defense department of future veterans It was not too long ago that commanders held "retention breakfasts." The successes of units that met previously agreed upon goals were rewarded with t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like. Conversely, failing to meet targets reflected poorly on units and their commanders. I always felt ...

Navy
Navy
Navy

By Maj. Jaron Wharton

Best Defense department of future veterans

It was not too long ago that commanders held "retention breakfasts." The successes of units that met previously agreed upon goals were rewarded with t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like. Conversely, failing to meet targets reflected poorly on units and their commanders. I always felt the drive to make numbers was a little odd and was mainly targeted at achieving a number versus retaining soldiers with the right stuff. Since the Army had to annually recruit a force almost half the size of the entire Marine Corps, it did make some sense.

By Maj. Jaron Wharton

Best Defense department of future veterans

It was not too long ago that commanders held "retention breakfasts." The successes of units that met previously agreed upon goals were rewarded with t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like. Conversely, failing to meet targets reflected poorly on units and their commanders. I always felt the drive to make numbers was a little odd and was mainly targeted at achieving a number versus retaining soldiers with the right stuff. Since the Army had to annually recruit a force almost half the size of the entire Marine Corps, it did make some sense.

This process was largely abandoned during two conflicts, and with the help of large retention bonuses, retention challenges were overcome with relative ease.

Enter the post-conflict peace dividend.

Almost as rapidly as the Army’s troop strength grew from pre-September 11th levels of 480,000 to 570,000, it must now trim down 80,000 troops. This will assuredly exacerbate the veterans’ unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and though it has been shrinking of late, remains hovering above the national average at 8.9 percent (it was 13.3 percent in June). The national unemployment rate remains over eight percent. This has revealed a hidden, strategic risk behind the drawdown as the Army will continue to pay unemployment insurance and sap the budget.

This dilemma has revealed a new, full spectrum along which the Army must fight — akin to the spectrum ranging from stable peace to general war. On the extreme left is where a soldier decides to get out and on the far right is where the private sector commits to hire veterans. All across this spectrum is where the Army can affect the lives of its newest veterans and tamp the burden we tend to place on the shoulders of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The passing of the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act requires each service, the VA, and the Department of Labor to take a fresh look at how they deliver transition services to service members. As a whole, our nation has taken efforts to embrace returning and transitioning service members and actively seeks to reintegrate them into society. However, the first step in ensuring that our veterans are integrated must start earlier — when they are in the service. The enduring requirement for commanders to counsel soldiers within their reenlistment window largely does not happen and is not incentivized. We must find a way to encourage commanders at all levels to assist soldiers exiting service honorably much like we used to focus on retention.

Not only should we open up bases to prospective hirers; we must collectively change our mindset. Too often units write off those whose honorable service is either ending or has ended, often manifesting itself in diluted evaluations for departing officers or emotionally writing off departing soldiers. This potentially sends soldiers away disgruntled and contributes to the untold percentage of soldiers who intend to get out and start college…in mid-April…and without any admissions or pre-testing requirements fulfilled.

Meeting these challenges will not only require a dedicated time commitment but creative solutions. Solutions might include tracking unemployment rates by unit for soldiers’ first year upon exit; contracting brigade career coaches; or forging public-private partnerships between Divisions and state chambers of commerce. Perhaps a macro-level solution is not ripe and a pilot program targeting a specific division may better capture best practices.

One thing that all soldiers have in common is that there will come a day when they will exit the service and assistance will be needed as much as it is deserved. It would be prudent to promote a shift to a mindset that "we’re all going to be veterans here" sooner than later. This is the right thing to do, but also cost effective in the long run.

Major Jaron S. Wharton, a former White House fellow at the Department of Commerce, is an active-duty infantry officer in the U.S. Army and served in Afghanistan (2002 and 2010) and Iraq (2003-06). The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the U.S. government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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