Long workdays drive down troop morale

For U.S. troops, it’s the pace, not the peril of duty during war, that sours them on re-enlisting.

That’s the conclusion of a study a RAND Corp. study unveiled Tuesday. It found that the biggest gripes of active-duty troops are long days and increased work load, not the personal danger they face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, deployment to those combat zones actually is considered a plus by many of these troops, according to the study, which examined focus-group interviews and surveys of scores of troops.

“Service members value deployments as an opportunity to use their training in real-world missions and to participate in meaningful operations,” the study by researchers James Hosek, Jennifer Kavanagh and Laura Miller said.

Sweetened paychecks _ which can grow by nearly $600 a month for those at war _ and re-enlistment bonuses that average between $6,000 and $10,000 also help convince troops to sign up for another tour in uniform, the study found.

These conclusions jibe with the Army’s own statistics, which show that the service has surpassed its targeted rate for retaining troops since 2001 _ by a growing margin each year. In fiscal year 2005, nearly 70,000 soldiers re-upped, which was 108 percent of the Army’s goal.

But while retention is a bright spot, recruitment is decidedly not. Although all services surpassed their active-duty recruiting targets in November, the Army is struggling to sign up the thousands of new recruits it needs each month. Adding pressure is Congress’ order for the Army to expand its total ranks by as many as 20,000 soldiers.

The combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a generally growing economy, are cited by the service as discouraging young people from joining. The National Guard and reserves also are struggling to sign up and keep troops.

To compensate, the Army has been offering enlistment bonuses of about $12,000 to recruits, and upping that largesse to $20,000 for those who agree to serve three years in the infantry and other high-demand jobs.

The service also has begun to accept recruits who score lower on aptitude and other tests than did their predecessors. And Congress is expected this week to raise the age limit for enlistment from 35 to 42.

To those already in the ranks, the RAND study showed, long hours and an unrelentingly heavy work load are exhausting those not only in the war zone _ where 20-hour days and seven-day weeks are common _ but also those at the home bases.

“Focus-group members said that personnel shortages caused by the loss of personnel to deployment meant that those left behind had to accept more responsibilities and take on extra work,” the study said.

The seemingly unrelenting “operations tempo” is a major contribution to job burnout, the study said. Even those who find combat deployments a positive experience say the prospect of continued combat tours is disheartening, both to them and their families.

“The increased operating tempo (has) led to longer work hours and a more intense work pace, which increased work stress and caused some members to consider leaving the military,” the RAND report said.

Some experts are cautioning that relying on retention to make up for recruiting shortfalls is unwise.

Doing so would lead to a substantially older force, which brings its own significant drawbacks, according to Cindy Williams, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program.

Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has warned that repeated war-zone tours could lead even the most gung-ho GIs to leave the service. Studies of British troops serving in Northern Ireland demonstrated the risk.

“Most U.S. soldiers have experienced only one or two deployments to Iraq, but retention in the British army did not begin to suffer until soldiers went back for their third and fourth deployments,” Kagan wrote.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)