About 270 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, stand in formation as they prepare to be released to their loved ones during a welcome-home ceremony Feb. 3 at Fort Riley, Kan. About 350 soldiers from the "Dragon" Brigade returned to Fort Riley in two groups this weekend, and more are expected this month as the brigade wraps up its nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. (Sgt. Scott Lamberson / Army)
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The Army is on a pace to lose several thousand more soldiers than its drawdown goal by the end of this fiscal year.
A look at the thinning of the ranks:
Beginning fiscal 2013: 551,000
Beginning fiscal 2014: 542,000
Fiscal 2015: 520,000
Fiscal 2017: 490,000
Beginning fiscal 2014: 530,000
It's getting harder and harder to stay in the Army.
The Army is cutting its ranks more quickly than expected as it works toward its eventual goal of 490,000 active-duty soldiers.
In addition to natural attrition, most of the reductions the Army will make this year will come from two places: Officials project as many as 15,000 soldiers could be booted for misconduct or not meeting the required standards, such as physical fitness and weight control.
The Army also estimates it will separate as many as 11,000 active-duty soldiers who have been backlogged in the military's disability evaluation system.
By Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2013, the Army expects end strength to be about 12,000 lower than originally projected in the drawdown plan.
Army officials project the service will reach an end strength of 530,000, down from 551,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year. The original estimate was 542,000.
“We expect to be lower than the 542,000, which was the projected end strength number for the end of FY13,” Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel (G-1) told Army Times. “This is due in part to the faster-than-expected attrition resulting from the improvements and streamlining of the disability evaluation process and continued higher rate of adverse losses.”
The goal is to shrink the active Army to 520,000 by the end of 2014 and reach 490,000 by the end of fiscal 2017.
Exactly how far the Army will shrink remains an open question. For today, the brass has settled on 490,000, but they admit it might go lower.
“We're in discussion of what the right end strength is,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said at the Army War College on April 15. “We'll look at that based on budget. I'm not going to stand here and tell you that I believe that five years from now the Army end strength is going to be 490,000 active. And I'm also here to tell you it's not going to be 350,000 because that is not enough.”
The Army's master drawdown plan projects 24,000 involuntary separations and early retirements for enlisted soldiers, and 7,000 officers, by Sept. 30, 2017.
This includes the Selective Early Retirement Board scheduled for August to consider senior colonels and lieutenant colonels in the basic branches for possible involuntary early retirement.
This year, the Army notes the “significant” number of soldiers who will be separated for misconduct or failing to meet the Army's standards.
“We have seen an increase in administrative separations, such as [physical fitness test] failures and overweight [soldiers],” Bromberg said.
The Army also has seen a large jump in the number of soldiers moving through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System.
The 11,000 soldiers “are in the final stages of the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, and once they get that, they will be out of the Army within 120 days,” Bromberg said. “That's huge. My prediction is that those soldiers will be out of the Army by September.”
Toughening of standards
During the first three months of fiscal 2013, about 3,900 soldiers were separated for physical training test or weight control failures, misconduct, unsatisfactory performance, court-martial and other reasons, said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler.
“That's pretty significant,” he said. “I'm proud of the fact that our soldiers, our leaders, are being engaged in this and taking action.”
These numbers are the result of an almost two-year emphasis on standards and discipline, following the Army Profession Campaign, which looked at what it meant to be a profession and for soldiers to be professionals, Chandler said.
And if the separations continue at the current rate, Chandler estimates as many as 15,000 soldiers who don't meet standards could be out of the Army by the end of this fiscal year.
“I've put a lot of emphasis on standards and discipline and to see ourselves and focus on what the [Army] profession truly means,” he said. “I'm repeatedly trying to deliver that message across the force. If we're supposed to be the best, why do we tolerate mediocrity in the force?”
In fiscal 2012, about 78,000 soldiers left the active Army. This included soldiers who retired or completed their terms of service.
It also included about 6,700 soldiers who were separated for misconduct, about 1,200 for PT test failures and about 1,800 for failing to control their weight, according to numbers provided by the Army G-1.
On average, about 70,000 enlisted active-duty soldiers leave the Army every year for various reasons, including natural attrition.
The Profession Campaign caused the Army to “take a look at ourselves,” Chandler said.
“We have had soldiers who have not been meeting the standards or have habitual PT test failures and weight control issues,” he said. “If the soldier was unable or unwilling to meet the standard, we had a duty to separate them.”
Chandler emphasized that every soldier who faces separation is given ample opportunity to be rehabilitated or work toward meeting the Army's standards. For example, a soldier who's flagged as being overweight is given the opportunity to see a nutritionist and time to implement a workout plan to lose weight.
“We're not in the business of kicking people out just to kick them out,” he said. “It's about enforcing the standards we have, holding soldiers accountable and providing the opportunity to get better.”
In addition, soldiers understand what's required of them, and they are responsible for meeting the Army's standards, Chandler said.
“There are certain things everyone must be able to do,” he said. “If you're not able to do that, we have a way to rehabilitate you, but if you are unable or unwilling to do that, we're obligated to separate you from the service.”
The Army is a standards-based organization, Chandler said, and its soldiers must always be ready to answer the nation's call.
“Every single person contributes to the Army's readiness,” he said.
Chandler said he's seeing results — not just separations — from the renewed emphasis on standards.
“I think it's having an impact on soldiers' understanding and complying on the individual level,” he said. “And those who want to stay who aren't quite meeting the standards are doing all they can do to meet the requirements.”
Chandler said he's proud of the Army's soldiers, and he is confident the Army will remain strong after the drawdown.
“We're going to reduce the size of the Army because the American people, through Congress, have directed it,” he said. “Our people and their dedication to standards and discipline, and their commitment, that's going to see us through this.”
Subtraction via IDES
The Army has about 28,000 wounded, ill or injured soldiers in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System.
Almost 14,500 of them — 11,000 active, 2,100 National Guard, and 1,300 Army Reserve — are in the final three stages of the IDES process, said Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone, director of the Army Physical Disability Agency.
These soldiers could be done and separated from the Army by the end of the fiscal year “if all goes well and nothing gets slowed down,” he said. “That is a significant number.”
About 36 percent of the soldiers in IDES have a combat-related condition, officials said.
First launched in 2007, IDES combined the separate Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department systems into one and was intended to make the evaluation process simpler and quicker for troops who have medical conditions that call into question their ability to serve, particularly in their military occupational specialty, Boone said.
Working with VA, “we've made strides in reducing barriers in communication, faster decisions [and] timelier benefits delivery,” Boone said.
“Soldiers now receive benefits a lot sooner than any other time before,” he said. “It used to take about 240 days or so; it's now in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 days” from the time a soldier is separated or retired.
However, there remains a massive backlog and an evaluation system that is still taking longer than the Defense Department intended, Boone said.
“We've got a population in the Army of about 28,000 soldiers in the system, and that number has grown over time,” he said. “It's a consequence of a couple different factors, not the least of which we've been engaged in two long wars. When IDES was implemented, the process was so basic that we did not have the people or capacity to actually support it. As a consequence, the number of people grew and grew over time.”
Across the Defense Department, there are about 35,000 troops in the IDES process — about 28,000 from the Army, 3,000 from the Air Force, 1,800 from the Navy and 2,600 from the Marine Corps.
Boone estimates it'll take about two years to reduce the backlog, which includes soldiers who have been in the system for more than 600 days.
The goal is to have IDES completed in 295 days. However, the Army — and VA, along with the other services — is averaging a little more than 400 days, said Boone and Danny Pummill, director of the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration/Department of Defense Program Office.
VA has come under fire for a general backlog for all benefits claims and long processing times, including by Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine veteran and California Republican.
In an April 10 piece in The Washington Post, Hunter and Pete Hegseth, chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America and an Army veteran, blasted VA's “dysfunction.”
“Veterans are not getting the service they deserve,” they wrote, adding VA is projected to soon hit 1 million unprocessed benefits claims, about 600,000 of which are more than 125 days old.
Pummill, speaking specifically about IDES, acknowledged “we have some issues here,” but asserted VA is working to clear the backlog and improve its services.
“The only goal is to make sure the service members in the IDES process get through [it] in the best manner possible that takes care of them and their families as quickly as we can,” Pummill said. “Before we had the IDES process, we literally had to wait for a service member to leave [the service] and once they were out they would apply for their veterans benefits.”
IDES allows troops to stay in uniform and receive their pay and benefits while they undergo their required medical processing, Pummill said.
“We do have some glitches because it's a new system,” he said. “I think that's all of our growing pains, and we're working through them well. We've come a long way since we've started, but we've got a long way to go.”
VA has increased the number of employees who process Army IDES ratings from 29 to 137, Pummill said.
“That's still not enough,” he said. “Also, when we see surges from the Army, we're sending teams to help them out.”
The employees who do the ratings are “our brain surgeons inside our VA system,” Pummill said.
“They are our smartest, our most detailed, our most technically talented people,” he said. “It takes them a lot of time, a lot of research. We're talking about a soldier and his family, and we're talking about the rest of their lives.”
It also takes about two years to properly train someone to fill a rating job, Pummill said.
VA isn't authorized to hire more people for those jobs, Pummill said, but he hopes VA's new Veterans Benefits Management System, a fully automated system for processing claims, will help speed up claims processing across the board for all veterans.
“We're rolling it out across the country, and when that comes fully online, sometime this summer, we believe we'll be able to do more with less raters,” Pummill said.
As the Army and VA work down the backlog of soldiers in the IDES process, Boone said he believes the Army can reach the 295-day goal.
Even now, in five different phases of IDES, the Army is meeting the DoD standard, he said. That means at least 70 percent of the cases are being run through a phase within the recommended amount of time.
“We have some optimism,” Boone said. “But we also have some cases that are very, very far over 400 days, and we've made them a priority.”
The Army also expects to reduce the amount of time a soldier has to wait to receive VA benefits, said Col. Daniel Cassidy, who is one of Boone's deputies.
“One of the things we set out to do in IDES is to eliminate or reduce the time soldiers, after they're separated, had to wait for VA benefits,” he said. “One of the things we've been able to do was reduce that time from 240 days down to about 79 days.
“I think, by the end of this year, if not sooner, we'll have that down to about 30 days, the fastest allowable by law. That's really what we set out to do with the IDES.”