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Key US Army ranks begin to thin

The reenlistment rate for mid-grade enlisted soldiers dropped from 96 percent in 2005 to 84 percent in the first quarter of this year.

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Thousands more mid-level enlisted soldiers are leaving the Army than in each of the past two years, forcing the service to increase its use of pay-to-stay programs and find other ways to keep GIs in the fold.

Four years into the fight in Iraq, the Army continues to be successful in retaining enough soldiers overall – "a miracle" to some observers, because the war has lasted so long. But that success masks a growing problem within the ranks: Fewer mid-grade sergeants are opting to stay in the Army as many face yet another deployment to Iraq – and, more important, Army officials say, less time at home.

While a reenlistment shortfall in any Army group is cause for concern, many consider the declining rate among mid-grade sergeants to be a sign of potential bigger reenlistment problems for the Army down the line. In addition, the fact that more mid-level soldiers are leaving could have a long-term impact on the Army's ability to grow future leaders.

The Army has seen the reenlistment rate of mid-grade enlisted soldiers drop 12 percentage points, from 96 percent during the first quarter of 2005 to a low of 84 percent for the first quarter of 2007, according to Pentagon data. As of March, the Army is as much as 10 percentage points behind where it was in retaining mid-grade soldiers at that time in 2005 and 2006. (The overall retention goal for mid-grade soldiers in fiscal year 2006 was about 25,000.)

Although Army officials say they will make their overall retention goals by the end of the fiscal year – in September – the decline means this will be the hardest year so far when it comes to keeping soldiers in uniform since the war in Iraq began.

How bad the problem is depends on whom you ask. To some, the trend is further proof that the war in Iraq has broken the back of the Army. Others believe it remains only an ominous warning light on the Army's collective dashboard but does not mean there is a crisis.

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