Keeping the Best of the Best

February 25, 2014

The U.S. military services have experienced some of the best recruiting and retention numbers in the past 13 years of war. They have also gained the exceptional expertise and training that has been invested to maintain and sustain an all-volunteer force that is ready, willing and able to defend our country. This ready force requires ready families. And military families have also invested their expertise, training and commitment to serve alongside their service member when duty calls.


Make no mistake, this is not a military force that was or could be built overnight. Such a force takes decades to build—and not just the weapons and equipment capability that’s needed to execute war and peacetime missions. Rather, it’s the people, families and support systems that are the real drivers of building military capability and capacity, the glue that provides the cohesion within a unit needed to synchronize and execute mission requirements.


So here we are today: soon to end the war and our presence in Afghanistan and facing a significant fiscal crisis that is leading to a rapid drawdown in our military force. I fear that as in years gone by, the cuts to the force will be too deep and too late before we realized the significance of these decisions. Most of all, I worry about the tremendous talent and investment that will be lost as a result of the troops and their families exiting the military.


“The military is good at retaining numbers, not talent.” That statement resonated with me last week at a panel discussion on retaining the best talent—part of an Armed Forces Communications and Electronic Association and U.S. Naval Institute sea service conference in San Diego.


The junior to mid-grade service members on the panel talked about building a combat force with exceptional training in diplomacy, executing wars, and nation building—skills developed and honed from years of conflict. Sadly, this talented force will come home to be “PowerPoint warriors,” or folks will leave the service, never using the talents they’ve acquired in combat.


Other themes surfaced from the discussions that were a little more encouraging, such as the importance of the military retirement benefit. One panelist said, “The retirement benefit is a recruiting tool, and it needs to be better than our civilian counterparts.” To the majority of panelists, the 20-year retirement is a significant milestone in service, and they said any change, even to a 401K-type benefit, would be seen as breaking a contract.


Career-family planning and job flexibility were also discussion themes. Panelists talked about the people who are voluntarily leaving the military. They are leaving because they are tired—worked to death or no longer enjoying any job satisfaction. It was heartening to hear every member on the panel voice the need to sustain military family support programs, encouraging leadership to do all they can to prevent cuts to these programs.


The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is taking support to troops and their families seriously. SOCOM recognizes that the future of the force depends on how well they take care of their men and women in uniform and their families. They plan to sustain and enhance their family support programs, using special funding from Congress to supplement existing programs and expanding on their partnerships.


I can only hope, now that other military leaders get the message, they will do the same as SOCOM before it’s too late.