As the Army makes cuts, even good soldiers are asked to leave
During the wartime periods of American history, including the last decade, life in the military could be a career. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan officially over, and with troop cuts looming, the Army is sending soldiers a message - start thinking about your civilian life.
1st Lt. Jubail Akut is from Queens, New York. He signed up for the Army when he was a freshman in college. The Army agreed to pay for his education in exchange for four years of service. Akut graduated in 2009 when President Barack Obama was sending even more troops to Afghanistan. He entered the Army as an infantryman at Fort Drum.
“Back in those days it was, 'You are going to go to war. Do you still want to do it?'"
Akut said yes. A few months later, he was sent to Afghanistan. He deployed there twice, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. The second time, in 2014, he was in the midst of reopening a school when a superior approached him. Akut was told to leave the Army immediately.
“I was literally handpicked and told “you need to leave now.” And yeah..that was a little heartbreaking,” Akut says.
While Akut was leading soldiers through a war zone, a promotions board was reviewing his files. It was time for him to move up a rank, to captain.
“Unfortunately for me, the Army decided that I couldn’t make the captain’s list. From the moment it was decided that I didn’t make the captain’s list, I was given seven months to get out of the Army.”
During the Iraq and Afghanistan war, an officer was able to move up the ranks quickly. The Army needed leaders for the thousands of soldiers enlisting.
Now, sequestration, part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, is forcing the Army to shrink.
So, Army officials are deciding who can stay and who must go. The records of officers and the enlisted will be scrutinized by selection boards every year until the size of the force is reduced by 70,000 soldiers.
The transition office at Fort Drum is streaming with soldiers. This is where they come for help when planning to leave the Army. Soldiers are at computers updating resumes, scrolling through job listings or waiting to talk to counselors.
“They are in the decision-making process right now. They are trying to decide if they want to stay in or leave the military …there are a lot of options out there for them,” says Lorrie Guler, head of Fort Drum's transition office.
More than 6,000 soldiers at Fort Drum are eligible to start the long process of transitioning out. Some who’ve left find it hard to get back on their feet.
Just a few miles away from base, Justin Gregory Blodgett is volunteering at the Watertown Vets Outreach Center. He was discharged from the Army in 2013 after 14 years of service, mostly at Fort Drum. He’s now unemployed.
“I was pissed. I was so angry. I wanted to stay in and make a career out of it,” says Blodgett.
Blodgett knew about the Army’s transition program but was so busy trying to fight his dismissal, he didn’t take full advantage. Blodgett deployed to Afghanistan four times. On this last mission, he injured his hip in a helicopter crash. After surgery, Blodget was told he wouldn’t be able to fight again.
“As an infrantryman our job is to go out there and fight the bad guys. I couldn’t do that anymore because of my injuries.”
Lisa Mundey, who teaches military history at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, says cuts are common after big combat missions. Even healthy soldiers in good standing are asked to leave.
“This is fairly common process every time we’ve had to draw down a force," says Mundey.
“When you are drawing down, you have to make the cuts somewhere. It's simply a matter of this is what Congress has decided the end strength is going to be and this is what we have to do to reach those goals,” Mundrey says.
Soldiers know that, but off the record, many soldiers express frustration with the process. Especially those who have deployed four or five times. They’ve left their families repeatedly for months. Many moved up the ranks and now enjoyed the responsibilities and the pay of an officer. They say the uncertainty is nerve wracking. And it stings to be told you aren’t good enough.
Jubail Akut is sitting in his living room with his laptop. Akut faces new challenges in the civilian world. He’s going back to school and he’ll be living on a budget. And he’ll have to figure out how to replace the thrill he found in combat with a new passion.
“When there’s that snap, that crackle of the bullets and the explosion happens, its addicting. It’s a high that you can’t get anywhere else," he says.
Akut isn’t bitter about the end of his Army career. But he says he’ll miss being part of a larger global mission. Now, his new assignment is to simply focus on himself.
“Just kind of wrap my head around this concept of being in charge with everything that has to do with me starting now which is really hard to swallow because my life up to now has been so structured,” said Akut.
More cuts of Fort Drum soldiers are expected in this round of 70,000 by 2017. Another review of officers (and enlisted) records is tentatively scheduled for September.
President Barack Obama said yesterday he will slow the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The announcement came after a meeting at the White House with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
It isn’t clear what that will mean for troop levels at Ft. Drum.
Major General Stephen Townsend, who is about to leave his command of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum said Monday when asked about a potential slowdown, according to WWNY-TV:
"If our government decides to slow the withdrawal, keep a larger troop formation in Afghanistan longer, I think certainly, the 10th Mountain Division will be part of that."