16 April 2007

When ‘Embrace the Suck’ Isn’t Enough

Here's a new post from Robert Connolly, a regular contributor to the SAG blog.

This past week, one of my married daughters called me in the middle of the day and asked whether I had heard the news on CNN. I had not, in large part because I no longer will watch CNN, the network of jihadist videos. “What’s going on?,” I asked. The voice on the other end changed a bit as she told me that standard U.S. Army deployments were being extended to 15 months. There are times that fathers simply do not have an adequate response for a distressed daughter.

On the heels of that difficult conversation the reactions to the news came rolling in from many quarters. I saw two main themes. First, this deal really stinks for the families involved. For a small sample of opinion from some military families, see this post at Spousebuzz or read what the wife of a National Guard officer who is looking at a second Iraq tour had to say .

Second, what sort of person would leak this news to CNN? I cannot add anything substantial (or more articulate) to Andi’s wonderful post (plus the accumulation of comments left there) on this topic. My only minor addition is to say heaven help the person who did this if Army spouses get their hands on his or her hide. I would pay admission to watch the tongue-lashing that would be meted out, and whatever they might say, it couldn’t be punishment enough for the callous act of throwing Army families under the bus. [BTW: My daughter’s situation is pretty uncomplicated, but we all know that isn’t everyone’s situation.]

I heard from a senior Army NCO this weekend who has been on the receiving end of some care packages lately for his soldiers. I have never met this man, but someone else I know served with him, said he was top-notch, and that was good enough for me. I got a real education from him over email about the situation, and it confirmed my sense that while my daughter’s situation is quite manageable, it is an entirely different matter for many others. He made two major points that were quite sobering for me.

First, many families are so fragile from repeated deployments that extending everyone will break many of them apart. (It may be difficult for most civilians to imagine this, but it is simply true.) The Army is not unaware of these issues, but it also isn’t organized to address them as a part of its basic mission. Even if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs issued a decree tomorrow, the skill sets in the armed services in this area of family assistance probably aren’t as deep as the need is great. Individual Army posts have many programs available, but the quality and quantity vary.

Second, many senior NCO’s that are at or near 20 years of service will leave at the 20-year mark, even if their aim had been to stay for 25 or 30 years. This potential loss of experienced leadership could pose a profound challenge to the Army’s effectiveness. Some of the younger NCO’s, those with about 10 years of service, will begin choosing to save their family and find another way to earn a living. (I can tell you from personal experience that many younger officers are finding it more and more difficult to extend their commitments, when graduate school and/or a new career beckon them; I see them in my MBA classes in substantial numbers.)

So, let’s sweep aside the political games for a minute, accept that we have a problem, and ask what we are going to do. Even if Gen. Petraeus has set the Iraq campaign on the road to victory, it is going to be a tough year or two ahead for everyone with some family skin in this conflict. Since I don’t have enough experience or direct understanding of these issues, let me pose a few questions to help get the ball rolling.

1) The value of the training and experience lost with a senior NCO who leaves after 20 years (or younger NCO’s with 10 years of service) is really quite substantial. How much does it cost to move to a 9 – 10 month deployment schedule vs. the cost of lost NCO leadership?

2) If a soldier is posted in Korea now, I understand that they get 30 days leave in the States during that year. What would it take to move halfway between the current 15 days leave vs. the 30 days that soldiers in Korea get?

3) The Army apparently did some remarkable things when the Stryker Brigade out of Alaska was extended last year, and it also responded at Ft. Drum when the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain had its tour extended by 120 days (at the last minute!). Those were unusual circumstances, but the Army clearly can respond when it needs to do so. What would make a difference for the families at Ft. Campbell, Ft. Stewart, Ft. Hood, and all the other Army posts as the deployments are extended?

The way I see this, the nation is asking a hell of lot more of Army families than we probably have a right to ask. It seems to me that we have to start pressing the executive and legislative branches of government to address these issues without the political nonsense (this is very difficult for many of them, but the issue has to be confronted). I feel confident that Army families can make their case within the Army (read the posts at Spousebuzz for a while if you need convincing). Now, the time has come to grapple with these issues.

If we fail, it will make the Building 18 business at Walter Reed look like a minor problem. This had best not be our generation’s failure to support our troops. Indeed, this issue could turn out to be the place where we bury some of the ghosts of Vietnam, those who wonder why the rest of the country didn’t do its part. It is time to step up folks. It will not be easy, but it is time for the rest of us to learn what they mean in the Army by ‘Embrace the suck.‘

Bob can be reached via email or you may leave him a comment below.

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