Army Reserve struggles to fill midgrade ranks

Wednesday - 8/28/2013, 5:38am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Army Reserve has what it calls a classic out-of-balance problem. It has far more entry-level enlisted personnel and officers than it needs and too few midgrade soldiers. Leaders say they're trying to manage the imbalance atop the "shifting sands" of an uncertain future when it comes to budgets and force structure.

Officials know all too well that there's a bulge in the junior enlisted ranks, but they're also trying to push the reserve toward an overall size that meets congressionally-authorized end strength targets. And meeting those targets determines the size of the Army Reserve's budget. On paper, the Reserve is authorized 205,000 soldiers; it currently sits at just shy of 199,000.

Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the director of the Army Reserve Human Capital Enterprise, said the imbalance forced the Reserve to create new positions for those excess junior soldiers.

Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, director, Army Reserve Human Capital Enterprise

"What we had to do is to open up additional vacancies, and we had to put in place a procedure in which we purposely over-manned many units. I know this had negative impacts on you in the units," she told other reserve leaders at the Army Reserve's senior leader conference in Colorado last week. "We had to do that because we are so out of balance and because the mission of our accessioning agency doesn't reflect what our real requirements are, but we had to do that to maintain our end strength."

Nonetheless, in 2013, the Army Reserve made a deliberate decision to slow the process of onboarding new reservists at "skill level 1," which is part of the reason the service is now several thousand people short of its authorized size.

The next challenge, Smith said, is getting recent enlistees to stay in the service long enough to reach the E-4, E-5, E-6 and E-7 pay grades, where the Reserves are currently short of personnel. She said the reserve is "bleeding" E-4s in particular. To study that reenlistment problem, her staff looked at soldiers who entered service in 2008, when Congress authorized relatively generous incentive payments to join and stay.

Out of that group, by this year, 58 percent had left uniform — voluntarily or not — before their first chance to reenlist.

"There were a lot of reasons. Some people had unsatisfactory participation, some people relocated in their civilian jobs and couldn't continue, some people went onto active duty," she said. "But still, when you look at the losses, these people never entered the reenlistment window. Our non-commissioned officers never had the opportunity to engage them about reenlisting."

About 15,000 soldiers did stay long enough to hit their first reenlistment window. But Army statistics show 45 percent of those were not even eligible to stay in the service because of red flags on their service records.

"The majority were flagged for height and weight, so we lose them for those and other reasons. Some of those are disciplinary, and it's good that they're on their way out. But when we start to look at that cohort and we see how we squeezed it down, it explains a little bit about why we have some of our out of balance problems," she said.

Overall, the Army Reserve currently has about 24,000 people with flags on their record for failure to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test. And Smith says most of the factors that make young reservists ineligible for reenlistment are out of the control of her Pentagon office. She says it's up to local commanders to make sure their soldiers can continue to serve.

She said the fact that they can't is having an impact not just on the Army Reserve's ability to meet its end strength targets, it's also costing a lot of unnecessary money.

"As we think about the budget moving forward, we had to replace every single one of the people we lost, because we're not at our end strength, and it costs $57,000 on average to replace them when you think about training," she said. "That's almost like throwing money out the window there."

Of the soldiers who are eligible to reenlist, Smith says there's another big reason many are choosing not to. The incentive bonuses Congress used to offer in order to boost retention and recruiting have shrunk dramatically — 65 percent since 2010. And Smith says the Reserve had to stop reenlistment payments for 2013 altogether midway through this year in order to stay below legislative caps.

"I realize the jerking-around that is for soldiers, they worry about whether there's going to be an incentive for their particular [military occupational specialty], but we had to do that from a fiscal perspective in July," she said.

The Army Reserve is trying to tackle a similar problem in its officer ranks, where it's also seeing a gap in mid-grade personnel — it's currently short by 3,200 captains and 4,000 majors. Smith said the reserve is working those issues through its career management offices and studying approaches like making sure officers can continue to serve in one geographic area as they move up through the ranks.

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