As the war in Iraq wore into its most corrosive years, a problem began to emerge -- the military, and especially the U.S. Army, was losing its young officers. Editorials were published and examples cited, and by early 2011, the crisis had been recognized at the military's highest levels. But the young captains and lieutenants whose departures at the height of the Iraq war caused this soul-searching at the Pentagon are only half of the story, the superficial half; these are young warriors in harm's way with young spouses and toddlers back home. The military's retention crisis cuts deeper into the heart of the Army. The more complicated and more important half of the story is about the colonels.
Getting a great first assignment after commissioning is essential in climbing the professional military ladder, especially given the nature of Army promotions. Soldiers need to check exactly the right boxes -- get the right jobs, go to the right professional schools on time, earn "distinguished graduate" from those schools -- to prove themselves. And getting into the infantry, armor, or other combat-arms branches is considered important. If one is "going infantry," the ideal path is to get light but not too light. Specialized units such as the Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force might be too light, whereas mechanized infantry might be a shade too heavy.
Dick Hewitt graduated near the top of the class from West Point. His first assignment was with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Hewitt, like many of the young officers that received so much attention at the height of the Iraq war, also decided to leave the Army a few years after the 9/11 attacks. But here's the difference: Hewitt had served a full 20-year career. He had checked all the right boxes, even getting tapped to command a battalion when he was just a major. So when Hewitt decided to leave, it was not because the Army had a minor morale problem causing retention heartburn, but rather it was because of a deeper and more nuanced institutional dysfunction.
"I can still remember how he first impressed all of us during a platoon attack exercise that he commanded one night," remembers Brigadier General Wayne Grigsby about the time they met at the infantry officer basic school. "His charisma, his intellect, the way he carried himself, the way he commanded his soldiers, his physical prowess, the way he worked with his peers -- I have never seen a finer leader in my 28 years of service and 50 months in combat. I thought I'd be working for Dick by now and was sure he was going to be wearing two or three stars, easy." Although the path to general is a narrow one, Hewitt did everything the Army asked and more to stay out front, getting all the right jobs and impressing peers and subordinates along the way. So what happened that got him put onto the Personnel Command (PERSCOM) black list?
In the summer of 1980, Hewitt was a freshman at West Point. He graduated with the class of 1984 during the height of the Cold War, and was promoted to captain exactly four years later, just like everyone else in his year group. Hewitt's second assignment was a one-year tour of duty as the battalion maintenance officer for the 1-5 Infantry Mechanized, Second Infantry Division. A year later, Hewitt was given a company command at Fort Ord, California. Next, he was sent to the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, followed by a two-year assignment as a professor of economics back at West Point's famous Sosh department. At some point, he was selected a year before his peers for promotion to major. After a year of advanced military training at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Hewitt was sent "home" to Fort Bragg where he checked all the boxes: one year on division staff, one year as battalion ops officer, and so on. This is where his story gets interesting.
At that moment, Major Hewitt was a prime candidate to serve as a general officer someday, maybe even lead the Army if he played his cards right. He had been tapped for promotion to lieutenant colonel (known as "major P" for "promotable"), and now awaited the outcome of the Army's boards -- formal committees of senior officers who rank-order officers in the zone for battalion command openings in the coming year. Once the list was announced in early 2000, congratulations rolled in.
The next step for the selected officers -- there were 16 that year for light/airborne/air-assault infantry commands -- was to submit a list of their preferences to PERSCOM, then located in the Hoffman building in Washington, D.C. The staff there would sort through the preferences in order to produce an optimized match, a process known as "slating." Hewitt submitted his preferences, ranking the 16 options from first to last with a remote tour of duty in South Korea ranked last. He told the officers at Hoffman over the phone that the Korea job in particular would be hard on his family. With two preschool sons and another little one on the way, the separation required by the Korea assignment might be more than the family could bear. "It will not be well received in my house," he bluntly told the assignments officer. Now it was in the hands of the planners at PERSCOM to slate the officers and issue orders through the acquiring commanders.
As you might guess, a few weeks passed, and then Hewitt received a phone call. It was Major General Dees, calling from South Korea. "Congratulations, Dick. Welcome to the team."
Hewitt said all the right things on the phone that day and even accepted the first month of command training at Fort Benning in Georgia before realizing the outcome just wasn't acceptable. He had two conversations with senior officers to see if there was any flexibility in the process to change the assignment -- maybe he could trade with someone? -- and was told it was a done decision.