Army cuts hit officers hard, especially for career staff

More than 80 officer candidates take the oath of office during a commissioning ceremony at Navy Officer Candidate School. The school graduates approximately 2,500 Navy officers each year. Phot Credit: U.S. Army

For the first time in over twenty years, the Army is shrinking. Mandated by Congress to cut its forces this year from 530,000 soldiers to 508,000, with another cut of 20,000 troops next year, the Army left will be the smallest it’s been since World War II.

The New York Times reported that one officer, especially hit hard by the mandated cuts, said after giving 20 years of his life to the Army, he thought the one thing he could count on was job security.

Capt. Elder Sainjuste, who enlisted as a teenager, has deployed three times to Iraq and missed so many birthdays and Christmases that he sometimes felt he barely knew his four children. Fighting his symptoms of post-traumatic stress so he could stay in the Army, he believed that he could retire with a captain’s pension from a job he truly loved.

When his 20 years came, the Army told him that because of postwar downsizing he would have to retire as a sergeant because he had not been a captain long enough to receive the rank’s pension.  This meant he would earn $1,200 less per month.

“I worked, I sacrificed, I risked my life, and they took it away like it didn’t matter,” Saintjuste said. “It wasn’t just losing a job. It was like having your wife leave you suddenly and not tell you why. It’s your whole life.”

While the reduction in force has come mainly from attrition and reductions in recruiting, until recently only low-ranking enlisted soldiers with only a couple of years served were affected.  However, this summer the cuts started hitting officers as well.

Nearly 2,000 captains and majors were told they were losing their jobs with more expected to be forced to retire next year.  All of these officers were clearly on the path of making the Army their lifelong career.

According to The New York Times, many of the officers are facing a disruption as shocking and painful as being laid off. They are losing jobs, and in many cases, receiving smaller pensions than they had expected.  In some cases, no pensions at all.

“It’s our culture, it’s our family, it’s our language,” said Capt. Bill Moore. “A lot of us have been in since high school. We feel like we’ve given everything, our families have given everything, and they just give us a handshake and say ‘Thank you for your service.’”

When the Army made the announcement last year that officers were going to be cut, it said it would target ones with evidence of poor performance or misconduct.  However, many of those being pushed out have good records.

An internal Army briefing disclosed by a military website this fall showed the majority of captains being forced to retire had no blemishes on their records. The briefing, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also showed that officers who had joined the Army as enlisted soldiers, then endured the demanding process required to rise into the officer corps, were three times as likely as captains who graduated from West Point to be forced to retire.

“Selections for separation are based on a soldier’s manner of performance relative to their peers while serving as a commissioned officer,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “The boards retained those with the highest demonstrated levels of performance and the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”

The Army, in an attempt to ease the separation, is offering separation pay and several months of notice to give the officers a chance to find another job.  Some payouts have amounted to upwards of $100,000. As for the captains who served more than 20 years, they will still get a full pension.  However, they are required to have served eight years at that rank to receive retirement pay at that level.  At 15 years but less than 20, they will receive prorated pensions.

Capt. Tawanna Jamison, who served 22 years in the Army but only seven as a captain, will get a sergeant’s retirement pay of $2,200 per month, less than half of what a retired captain receives, which is about $4,500.

“I could be facing bankruptcy,” she said. “I was helping my daughter pay for college. Now she’s on her own. I couldn’t have planned for this. It’s hard not to feel like the Army isn’t trying to save money on our backs.”

“Iraq, Afghanistan, jumping out of airplanes, doing all the training, leaving for work so early and coming home so late that I wouldn’t even see my family during the week, and I get nothing,” said Capt. Nathan Allen, who served more than 14 years as an officer and was awarded a Bronze Star.

“I’m a mess right now,” he said. “They took away who I am. I’m a soldier.”

Captain Allen, as well as several other captains, is urging Congress to pass legislation that could save their jobs, or at least their pensions.

“They needed us to fight the Taliban,” Captain Allen said. “Now they don’t, so they pull the rug out from under us. Loyalty here seems like a one-way street.”

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