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Army officers anxious as they await word of cuts

Joanna Richards
A soldier trains at Fort Drum

In any company town, when the major employer is planning layoffs, people get worried. How will they earn a living if they lose their job? How will they remake their identity?

This is the picture for many Army officers stationed at Fort Drum. By early summer, some will find out they have to go.

It’s part of an overall downsizing of the military as the war in Afghanistan winds down. Evaluations this spring will determine whether some officers can stay in the service.

“There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty about what’s next for them. The economy is slowly recovering, but there’s going to be, you know, a lot of challenges out there,” said retired Army Colonel Mike Barron, with the advocacy group, the Military Officers Association of America.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11-era veterans is high – 7.9 percent in January, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s higher than for civilians, and the veteran population overall.

One Fort Drum officer, who is eligible for the cutbacks and currently deployed in Afghanistan, says his performance record is strong, but he’s still feeling a bit anxious. He says it’s tough to think about being fired while at war.

“I have some ill feelings about being notified of a possible separation while serving ‘downrange’ in a combat zone,” he wrote in an email. “I just don't feel as though the Army will get the best effort out of officers it just notified that they have to go.”

Barron, of the officers’ advocacy group, agreed it’s a difficult situation. Bad morale can even be dangerous.

“You know, as a combat veteran, I would prefer not to have my soldiers and my subordinate officers having to worry about this kind of stuff going on when I’m in a combat zone with them,” he said. “But it’s going to happen. It’s just going to happen.”

Barron said his organization has urged Army and Defense leadership to lean toward voluntary incentives to reduce force strength, rather than forced separations. It’s planning to use both.

“We want them to go and use the incentives that are most beneficial to the service members – the folks that have served multiple tours in combat, moved their families around, done all the things that they’ve had to do, that we’ve asked them to do for the last 10 years,” he said.

The boards convening in March and April will evaluate mid-grade officers – captains and majors, from certain commissioning years. Between 5 and 18 percent could leave as a result. Job performance will be a big factor. The Army is using other programs to make cuts among the rest of its personnel.

Everyone who leaves will have nine months’ advance notice, said Bill Costello, a spokesman for the Army’s Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, in Kentucky.

“What we don’t want to do is just thank somebody for their service and show them the door,” he said. “So there are a number of transition programs that will be in place for everybody who is leaving the service, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary. That is our Army Career and Alumni Program.”

That program is available to all soldiers leaving the service. It helps them prepare for civilian jobs.

Costello says the Army is offering some severance pay for those it will ask to leave, and some long-time soldiers can apply for early retirement.

The Army currently has about 520,000 members. The goal is to reduce that to 490,000 by the end of fiscal 2015.