A young trooper strode confidently into his company commander’s office. As the commander’s radio operator, he was used to being summoned on short notice, but the expression on the captain’s face told him immediately that something was wrong. Saluting smartly, the trooper stood at attention as the commanding officer rose to his feet.
“The first sergeant told me this morning that you’re not reenlisting. We need you for the upcoming combat training center rotation. Report to the reenlistment NCO ASAP. He’s already got the paperwork ready. I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense. That’s all.”
The young soldier stood dumbfounded for a moment. Then, summoning his courage, he said, “Sir, it’s not my intention to let anyone down. But my separation date is in two months, and I’ve already been accepted for college. I’m going to the University of North Georgia to join their corps of cadets. Hopefully, I’ll commission and come back as an officer, like my dad and my brother.”
The next morning, the captain called the trooper out at morning formation. Standing him in front of the unit, he announced, “We have a quitter in our midst. This man is jumping ship to get out of going to the field with us.” Turning to the astonished trooper, in a loud voice he announced, “You’re fired. I’m sending you back to 1st Platoon as a rifleman. Get out of my sight and my formation.”
I remember this incident clearly, because the young trooper was my son. In a bitter phone call soon after, he told me, “I’m going to college. But I’m not going ROTC. I’ve had it with the Army.”
A week later, his mood had softened. “The platoon leader and platoon sergeant brought me in, told me how sorry they were and how glad they were to be getting me, and made me a team leader on the spot. I’ll only have the job for two months, but they’ve also put me in for a nice end-of-tour award. Maybe I’ll be doing ROTC after all.”
Today, that young soldier is an infantry captain with three combat deployments under his belt.
The decision to stay in or leave the military is one of the most important and consequential in a young soldier’s life. Leaders at all levels should understand that and respect the soldier’s decision process accordingly. Many things go into a successful reenlistment program, but it starts with respect and a thorough understanding of each soldier’s hopes, aspirations, potential, family situation, wants and needs.
Years ago, I met with my boss to talk reenlistment. “You’ve led us in reenlistment for the last seven quarters,” he said. “What’s your secret? What are you doing that the other commanders aren’t?”
“I don’t have a secret,” I told him. “Here’s how we do it in my outfit.
“First, we consider reenlisting quality soldiers as important as anything else we do. They’re our future, and we know that. Each month, I meet with my leaders, and we talk about who’s coming into the reenlistment window and whether we think that soldier wants to reenlist or should. We never try to reenlist a substandard trooper just to make our numbers, and we never strong-arm our folks.
“Most commanders bring in their subordinate leaders, go over their quotas, and tell them they better meet them ‘or else.’ That pressure runs all the way down the chain to the squad and team leaders, and the soldier feels it. No one wants to feel like a number or a quota.
“I try to personally meet and chat with each trooper in the reenlistment window, not in my office—which is one place no young soldier wants to be!—but at [physical training] or in the mess hall or motor pool or at the range. My leaders do the same.
“I try to do my homework, and my folks are usually surprised that I’m familiar with their situation. I tell them that they’re valuable, that we invested a lot in them and that we’ll do everything we can to get them what they want. If that means reenlisting to stay with us, that’s awesome. If they want to put in for another duty station or MOS, we’ll work that too.
“I do my best to be personally involved with every soldier. Sometimes their desire is to go into the [reserve component] or work toward a commission or service as a warrant officer. We don’t discourage that. If soldiers want to leave and they have a good plan that makes sense for them and their family, we support that as well. We don’t make them feel like they’re unwanted or failures. That kind of thing gets around.”
I continued. “Boss, there’s one other thing. A good unit environment is important. I’m not talking about being easy on our troopers. We’re not. But they know they’re valued, that they’re important and that they’re needed. We pay attention to awards and timely promotions, but we also shake a lot of hands and pat a lot of backs. They know we love ’em. That’s all it is. There’s no secret.”
My boss laughed. “Thanks. That’s great stuff. By the way, we’re transferring some of your newly reenlisted guys to your next-door neighbor. He’ll get credit for them. We can’t let you win another quarter. You’re making everyone look bad!”
Currently, the Army faces a recruiting crisis as serious as any it’s ever had. One way to help offset a shortage of incoming soldiers is to retain those we have. Each and every one represents a huge investment in time, effort and money. Many will go on to make important and valuable contributions in higher grades if they see the unit and the Army as a place where they are valued and rewarded.
The call to service remains a strong inducement for these great young Americans. It’s on us to do all we can to help them be all they can be.
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Col. R.D. Hooker Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. A career infantry officer, he commanded a parachute infantry battalion in Kosovo and the Sinai, and a parachute brigade in Baghdad. His latest book is The High Ground: Leading in Peace and War.