In a move that sent tremors through the Army, Hewitt called the planners at the Hoffman Building and declined command. The staffer on the other end of the phone was surprised and calmly warned: "Do you understand that this means your record will be marked ‘declination with prejudice'?" He offered Hewitt 24 hours to think it over. Not necessary, Hewitt answered. In his mind, it was a choice between career suicide and tearing apart his young family.
Even though he seemed destined for high rank, that one clash with the inflexible Army personnel system essentially ended his career after 15 flawless years. Hewitt committed no crime, disappointed no commander, and lost the faith of none of his troops. In fact, his career was flying high when he made the mistake of asking for a one-year reprieve from the fast track.
The story of Hewitt's departure from the Army has two footnotes.
First, in early 2000 he received a phone call from the Pentagon. The chief of staff of the Army, General Eric Shinseki, was having a bad year because, among other things, dozens of officers had declined battalion command. Hewitt wasn't alone. In armor, engineers, infantry, and aviation, all the branches were suffering from high rates of dissatisfaction with the command slating. So Hewitt and others like him were invited to the Pentagon to give feedback to the vice chief, General Jack Keane. Questions were asked, data collected, and the day ended. As Hewitt changed into civilian clothes for his flight home, another officer asked what assignment he had turned down.
"Funny," said the other officer. "My wife is from Korea. I would have loved that job."
The irony here is painful.
Second, consider what the Army did with Hewitt afterward. In mid-2000, Hewitt had only one year left at Bragg, then three years before he could retire with the standard 20-year military pension. He had an MBA from one of the top schools in the nation, so it was a no-brainer for the dean of West Point, Dan Kauffman, to bring him to campus as the director of the economics program. While at West Point, Hewitt impressed the superintendent, General William Lennox, who asked him to stay for another four or more years as permanent faculty. Hewitt agreed. Lennox sent a letter to Hoffman asking for them to "rebranch" Hewitt in strategic plans, making official what was already the unofficial end of his infantry career. The commandant of cadets, Leo Brooks, sent a letter of support, as did the dean.
At that time in 2004, the folks at PERSCOM understood fully that Hewitt had no further obligation to stay in uniform, and that if he was not allowed to rebranch, he could simply retire. But in their records, his file was stamped with a bright red "declination with prejudice." So the story ends this way: Hewitt's wife received a letter from PERSCOM while he was teaching classes at the Academy, so she called him during his free hour and read him the jargon-filled letter over the phone. It explained that the needs of Army prevented his rebranching.
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"It means we're retiring," he said.
The Retention Crisis
All cadets who graduate from the U.S. Military Academy commit to serve a minimum of 5 years as a military officer, after which they can resign their commissions or continue on, presumably toward the full 20-year career. Retirement is available to everyone who serves 20 years or more, which means half of one's monthly pay for the rest of one's life, plus full benefits. A few cadets agree to longer commitments (two to five additional years) in exchange for graduate school or flight training.
When the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) class of 1999 reached its five-year mark in 2004, 72 percent of the graduates chose to stay in uniform, and 28 percent resigned. This net retention rate sends a signal about the overall health of the junior officer corps, and 2004 was an early warning sign compared to the normal range of 75-80 percent. A year later, the retention rate dropped again to slightly less than 66 percent, the highest departure rate in 16 years. Not since the end of the Cold War had so many young officers left the service after their initial commitment. In the late 1990s, junior officers were being asked to leave, but by 2005 the military was begging them to stay.