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Is US Army bent to the breaking point?

If retention rates of US military personnel begin to weaken, it could take years to reverse the trend.

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When some 4,500 soldiers heard over the weekend that they'd be deploying to Iraq earlier than expected, many saw it as yet another inconvenience that military personnel must endure. But to some in Washington, the announcement is a glaring sign that the Army really is straining and that its well of rested, trained, and equipped soldiers is running dry.

The Pentagon's announcement Monday that it is sending two units back to Iraq early means it will renege on its objective to give soldiers at least 12 months at home between deployments. While the Defense Department has extended the deployment of troops in combat, this is only the second time it has had to deprive soldiers from a major unit of a year-long rest.

The fact that the Pentagon felt compelled to make the call-up seems to validate what many retired generals and former Pentagon officials have warned: that repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are wearing out military personnel and equipment to a worrisome point.

"We're running out of Army units for the mission," says Robert Scales, a retired Army two-star general.

The Army is about to be "broken," he says. What would be the "canary in the mine" is if junior officers and mid-grade enlisted soldiers become so frustrated with the repeated deployments that they simply get out. Pentagon officials maintain that the retention rates of military personnel remain strong, but if they begin to weaken, it could take years to reverse the trend.

If a seasoned Army sergeant decides to get out because he is tired of all the deployments, it can be very difficult to replace him, says one former Pentagon official.

"It's very hard. A 15-year sergeant takes 15 years to grow," says Bernard Rostker, a former Pentagon personnel chief under President Clinton and an author of a book about the all-volunteer military force. "Personnel systems can be very unforgiving."


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